His book exhibits the hazards of abandoning historic orthodoxy. Orthodoxy isn’t our enemy. Rather, it helps us understand both what to believe and why to believe it. Believers around the world have given their lives to preserve the truths Bell subverts, among them being the truth that the Bible is more than an enlightening book, but a divine timeless revelation from the living God.
Despite the fact that most Americans own multiple copies of the Bible, biblical illiteracy is on the rise. People fail to see the Bible’s relevance, they don’t take time to read it, and when they do, they struggle with the unfamiliar language. Many recognize the theoretical importance of Scripture but lack the confidence to engage it in a meaningful way.
With his latest book, What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, author and speaker Rob Bell attempts to provide relief for those confused by Scripture. He believes the confusion is best resolved by stressing the human aspect of the Bible in the hopes of opening Scripture to everyone, not just the “religious.”
Bell contends that “religion” has hijacked the Bible, isolating it from many potential readers. For him, Scripture is primarily horizontal—a collection of books aimed at rescuing humans from destructive modes of being in order to create peace in the world. From the start, it’s clear that he has no interest in preserving or interacting with Christian orthodoxy. In fact, he treats orthodoxy as the problem. He doesn’t recognize that believers throughout history haven’t died for a progressive teaching on human peace, but for the orthododox truth that God himself has purchased our peace through the crucifixion of his Son.
Bell begins his book by explaining that a larger story flows beneath the individual tales in the Bible. In a second section, he describes the nature of that larger story. Then, he discusses the effect that story has on us as readers of the Bible. The final portion of the book addresses some major questions about the Bible.
The book’s greatest strength is its plea to read the Bible “literately” instead of “literally” (80). By this, Bell means appreciating individual texts for their distinctive genre and their place in the overarching narrative of Scripture. Doing so means studying the poetry of the Psalms in a different way than the Gospel narratives or prophetic and apocalyptic books. Readers of Scripture need to appreciate qualities like genre and plot if they hope to arrive at a sensible understanding of the text.
Bell urges readers to let the Bible be what it claims to be, but his interpretation of the Bible falls short of his own standards. It’s one thing to accurately consider the content of Scripture and come away in disagreement. Instead, Bell recasts the Bible as a human product aimed at creating an elevated consciousness, a conclusion that finds no grounding in Scripture itself.
Bell’s Version of the Bible
From the start, Bell explains that the Bible is “a book about what it means to be human” (4). He describes it as a library of evolutionary thought written to deepen our understanding of what it means to live an enlightened life (281). Starting with Abraham, Bell treats the biblical narrative as focused on a “new tribe” committed to blessing the world and displaying love as opposed to perpetuating the cycle of violence prevalent in the ancient Near East (12). Over time, he claims, Abraham’s offspring compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures to create a progressive and enlightened ethic aimed at “raising [the] consciousness” of its readers.
According to Bell, the creation story of Genesis was arranged during exile in Babylon as a peaceful alternative to the violent pagan creation myths (289–90). Satan also took literary form during this time as a way of thinking about evil, which resolves some of the apparent contradictions between Old Testament books (275). Discussing Leviticus, Bell explains that the sacrificial system was a human invention put in place to deal with feelings of fear and guilt (244).
Bell treats the New Testament similarly when he contends that Jesus didn’t have to die. Rather, he claims Jesus was murdered, and the writers of the New Testament simply interpreted his death in light of the sacrificial system. According to Bell, Christ didn’t come to die for the atonement of sin. Instead, his life was spent putting “flesh and blood” on the words of Scripture. He was a physical interpretation of the Torah and left his followers a similar responsibility to “make decisions about what’s written in the Bible” (161).