Between Irrelevance and Inspiration: Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?”

In the final analysis this book is nothing but an unsophisticated demonstration of unbelief echoing, with all the craft and subtly, the serpent’s question: “Did God actually say?”

Rob Bell finds himself in a peculiar situation. He rejects the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God; but he also rejects the idea that the Bible is of absolutely no use. It’s as if he wants to have one foot on inspiration and the other on irrelevance and the book reads like he’s trying to persuade himself that doing the splits—splits that would make an Olympic gymnast blush—isn’t that uncomfortable for a full grown man. But it is. It is uncomfortable because you cannot have it both ways.


Imagine it was a paradisiacal day—whatever happy, joyful, and blissful picture that gives your imagination—when the serpent slithered to the woman in the Garden of Eden. He did not come armed with bow or sword but only with his tongue and a simple but provocative question: “Did God actually say?” There was the starting point of humanity’s tragic descent into sin and misery. Its origin was doubt, disbelief, and misinterpretation of God’s word. I cannot help but hear an echo of that fateful question in Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible?

For many evangelicals and Reformed folk Rob Bell is, perhaps, a relic of the past. His departure from some of the main tenets of Christianity have made him all but irrelevant. So why should we care that he has written a new book? Well, if there is any value in this book it is simply that it offers a popular representation—without big vocabulary or complex hermeneutical rules—on where many people place the Bible in their understanding of Christianity. Rob Bell doesn’t write without knowing exactly to what audience he is writing, and he has learned well to connect with that audience in a captivating way. This book is compelling because so many people are compelled by it.

Middle of the Road

In What is the Bible? Rob Bell wants to “help you read the Bible in a better way because lots of people don’t know how to read it.” On the one hand, Bell says, are the people who view the Bible as “an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that we have moved beyond.” His problem with this approach is: “It doesn’t matter how smart or educated or studied someone is, to make broad dismissals of scripture as having nothing to say to the modern world about what it means to be human is absurd and naive.”

On the other hand, are the people who insist that the Bible needs to be read but “butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretation.” His problem with them is that they want to read the Bible literally when, rather, we must read it literately: “I’ve heard people say that they read it literally. As if that’s the best way to understand the Bible. It’s not. We read it literately.”

Whatever end of the spectrum you’re on, Bell wants to help rescue you out of the “insanely boring,” “irrelevant,” “distracting,” and “small” discussions most everybody has about the Bible. He does so from a position that he believes is advantageous—the middle road, somewhere between irrelevant and inspired.

Profoundly Human

So, if the Bible is neither irrelevant or inspired, what is it? Well, for Bell it is a “profoundly human book.” What exactly does that mean? First, it means that the Bible is humanity’s product. He says: “The Bible did not drop out of the sky; it was written by people.” Or elsewhere he writes: “That’s what the Bible is. It wasn’t written by a third party somewhere in the sky who passively and objectively tells you what the plan is.” And, just to be crystal clear, he says: “[The Bible] it’s not God’s perspective, it’s their’s.”

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