Rob Bell doesn’t have much new to say in his 2017 book, What is the Bible: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, but he says it in an entertaining fashion.
The book is basically his explanation for a nonscholarly audience of the historical-critical method of understanding the Bible. To call it a nonscholarly approach is a bit of an understatement: I don’t recall a single footnote in the 300+ easy-to-read pages, and there isn’t even an index.
Those wanting a slightly more scholarly approach (but still written for a popular audience) would do much better to read Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Enns uses more examples (and his similar brand of humor) and assumes that the reader has at least some familiarity with the Bible. Bell, although he obviously know the Bible quite well (he was a former megachurch pastor), doesn’t make that assumption. The book reads more like the text of an extended and entertaining sermon or TED talk than it does a rigorous analysis.
Bell’s starting point, and his ending point as well, is that the Bible was written by humans who wrote about God and the many enduring issues of life as they best understood them. The way to understand the Bible, he posits, is not to ask: Why did God do this? The first question to ask about any Biblical account, he says, is: Why did the author include these details? Answering that question, Bell believes, will lead the reader to see the Bible as a remarkably progressive and radical set of books.
Bell certainly will be viewed (or to be precise, will be viewed more strongly) as a heretic in some Christian circles as the result of this book. Although he clearly is excited about what the Bible has to say, he appears to believe that it is inspired no more than, say, the works of Shakespeare or the sermons of Martin Luther King. And he certainly doesn’t believe in anything approaching Biblical inerrancy; Christians arguing that the Bible has no mistakes, he suggests, are missing the point of why and how the Bible was written.
Those who think Bell has completely gone off the deep end in abandoning his evangelical roots will find ammunition here, as he seems fuzzy on the issue of whether the Resurrection was a physical event. In his view, the Ascension apparently was not (of if it was, it doesn’t matter).
All that said, those wanting a basic understanding of the historical-critical approach would get that from reading What Is the Bible. Those who know what that approach is and who already have an opinion on it probably won’t find a lot here to change or reinforce their minds.
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