It’s not often a book makes me laugh out loud, but Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? managed it at,
“When you come across something that religious people have been debating and discussing for years, always ask yourself, What would happen if I actually had concrete answers to the questions? and more importantly, How would that ever make your life better? Some things that religious people make a big deal of are rather pointless. Avoid the insanity. How often do you ask, What would it feel like to swallow a hairdryer while it was turned on? No you don’t because it’s not interesting. And what would you gain?”
In the book, Rob explores some of the big questions about the Bible, a book that is thought to have been written by about forty different people, over 1500 years on three continents. Questions like:
- Why are there all those genealogies?
- Why so many laws and sacrifices?
- What about all that wrath and violence?
- Did God have to kill someone to be “happy” about humanity?
- Is the Bible really the word of God? Is it inerrant? What about the contradictions?
He deals with these questions head on; unapologetically. (Another sentence that had me laughing out loud was, “Some atheists say lots of things that are true, and some Christians are full of shit.”) Rob has an ear and a voice to our current times that is so refreshing; his writing makes a lot of sense and it’s full of life and hope.
Take the question of violence for example, I’ve never known what to do with those Bible passages that appear to say God killed someone for not doing the right thing – where’s the grace and mercy in that? What about those bits where it seems God is on the side of the Israelite army as they slaughter thousands of innocent people. This is not a God I want to know!
But Rob Bell asks, What if the cycles of violence were included in the Old Testament to demonstrate how futile that way of living is? After all, Jesus refused to perpetuate endless cycles of violence and he never mentions the most violent passages of the Old Testament in his teachings. Instead, He goes to a violent death without retaliating.
Throughout the book, Rob Bell continually encourages us to rise above the sentence or paragraph of a Bible story; instead, he encourages altitude. We don’t have to edit out the earlier, more difficult bits or pretend they’re not there. Instead, we can read the stories in the light of where the whole narrative of the Bible is heading.
As you look more deeply into the whole story of the Bible, you can see how people’s perception of God is challenged and changes. Take Abraham; God spends a lot of time insisting that he’s going to do something amazing for Abraham – that was radical thinking in its day! Other gods of the time were angry and needed appeasing; you did whatever you could to keep in their good books. But this God promises to do something for Abraham. As Rob says, “We don’t really have categories for how unheard of this sort of thinking would have been for its day.”
Then take Noah; what if the point isn’t whether the flood actually happened or not? What if what really matters is the story’s focus on people’s relationship with God? The Noah story ends with a covenant relationship between God and the people. This was not how other flood stories of the time finished; there were lots of those and they all ended in pointless destruction with people dying to appease their god’s anger. That makes this story, with its new view of God, radical for its day.
So, in the midst of what can seem to us strange stories and potentially flawed, frustrating ‘historical’ accounts, what we’re actually seeing is growth and expanding perspectives. Turns out the Bible is progressive!
But what’s all that got to do with me and you, here and now today? Well for a start, the stories in the Bible are still the kinds of stories we find ourselves in today. We’re still wrestling with injustice, with people in power with no moral compass, with worry, with forgiving someone who has wronged us; the list goes on. The Bible has endured because it speaks to our human experience; we can relate to these stories. “They fearlessly speak truth to power. They call out the injustice and oppression of the system gone wrong.” They invite us to come home from all our wanderings, “looking for our worth and value in all sorts of things and people when we’ve been a child of a loving father the whole time.”
Spotting the movement and progression in the Bible can help us spot possibility and progression in our own lives and the world we live in. Rob Bell says this movement “beneath, within and above everything” is Christ himself and that the Bible stories of development and change show that “we don’t have to settle, that tomorrow doesn’t have to be a repeat of today, that we don’t have to be enslaved to fear or despair – that we can change, move, heal and we can leave behind whatever needs to be left behind so that we can step into a better future.”
Sounds good to me!
I cannot adequately explain the effect that reading this book has had on me; it has changed me. It’s taken some of my quiet, niggling, background doubts and worries that this God I follow might turn out to be a monster and turned them on their head. As Rob points out, one of the reasons the Bible authors wrote these things down was that they wanted to communicate their positive, radical, life changing, hope bringing, peace giving experience of God and share that with us. They had found that being in relationship with God was GOOD.
So, coming back to swallowing the hairdryer, my questions about the Bible have been pointless, way too small and suspicious of a God who is actually generous, radical, progressive, forward thinking, kind and GOOD.
“What we have (in the Bible) is a fascinating, messy, unpredictable, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, other times viscerally repulsive collection of stories and poems and letters and accounts and Gospels that reflect the growing conviction that we matter, that everything is connected, and that human history is headed somewhere.”
WHAT IS THE BIBLE? HOW AN ANCIENT LIBRARY OF POEMS, LETTERS, AND STORIES CAN TRANSFORM THE WAY YOU THINK AND FEEL ABOUT EVERYTHING by ROB BELL. Published by William Collins.