Book Review of Rob Bell's, "What is The Bible?"

by - Dana Robert Hicks

“[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.” (p. 282)

--------------------

The first Rob Bell book I read was “Velvet Elvis.”  It was before any “Nooma” videos or the firestorm that was “Love Wins.”   What I loved then, and still love to this day, is Rob’s ability to take a step back from the way that Christendom has insisted we see the world and ask different, better, and more interesting questions.  In his new book, “What is the Bible?”, Rob does this with the Bible.  Rob writes, “…a lot of the discussions people have about the Bible are insanely boring.  And irrelevant.  And distracting.  And small.” (p. 178)

Rob is older and is no longer the young up and comer of “Velvet Elvis” days.  He has grown in to the role of sage – having been beaten and bruised and somehow not allowed all of that to make him cynical or jaded.  Listening to his podcast it clear that he is centered and comfortable with who he is; not needing to prove anything to the religious establishment. 

Rob’s insights are good and I got a lot of preaching ideas from it.  But the value of this book is more in the disposition that Rob takes with the scriptures.  He loves it too much to take it literally or as inerrant. (“What this stilted literalism does, in its efforts to take the story seriously, is often miss the point of the story” p. 94).  Rather, he muses, he turns the gem, he plays with the text, and what comes to life is what has made the Bible endure through the centuries.  As Rob says, “There are lots of right ways to read it.  In fact, right isn’t even the best way to think about the Bible” (p. 81). Rob refuses to get caught up with the bad questions we keep asking about the Bible:

 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 this question?’ When I have been asked whether some people are chosen or not, I always ask, ‘How would you ever know such a thing? And more importantly, How would that ever make your life better?...How often do you ask, ‘what would it feel like to swallow a hair dryer while it was turned on?’  No, you don’t, because it’s not interesting. And if you could answer the question, what would you gain? (p. 253)

Rob’s gift is his ability to hold serious scholarship in one hand and a whimsical yet deep understanding of the culture we live in the other hand.  You tread through some deep waters but Rob is such a good tour guide that you never knew how difficult it was.  His hermeneutical work and contextualization is challenging but he makes it look easy.  He reminds us that we are not in the first century and there is no going back to “the way they did it in the early church”:

…reading the Bible, you learn that it’s not about trying to be something you’re not – it’s about learning to see the movement and motion and possibilities right in the midst of whatever world you find yourself in.  We’re not living in the first century or the ancient Near East – we’re here, now.  At this time.  In this world. (p. 131)

And as one reads the book, one realizes that the possibilities are endless. 

-------------------------

Here are some gems of wisdom from the book:

“Worry is lethal to thriving because it’s a failure to be fully present” (p. 72)

“Sometimes we try to control others through negative things, like judging them and condemning them and disapproving of whatever they do.” (p. 73)

Regarding Jonah – “Religious people have been very good over the years at seeing themselves as us and seeing people aren’t a part of their group as them.  But this story, the dude who sees himself as us is furious because of how chummy God and them have become.  He’s so furious, he’d rather die than live with the tension.” (p. 105)

“In the Bible, we are not primarily identified as sinners, but as saints.  This is important: your primary identity, your true self, is found in who you are in Christ, not in the ways you have disrupted shalom.  In the Bible, people are taught first who they are, because the more you know about who you are, the more you’ll know what to do.” (p. 260)

“Whenever I meet angry or bruised former religious folks who talk about being burned by the church or disillusioned with Christianity or done with the Bible, I always ask questions about their past, about who they trusted and what happened, because these issues of authority are relational realities.” (p. 272)

“When you find something inspiring, the last thing on your mind is proving that it is inspired – you’re too caught up in actually being inspired.” (P. 296)

Leftovers from July 30 - Jonah: Lost and Found

The LORD gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” (1:1-2)

Jewish people believed their god was the one true God – of everything and everywhere; Assyrians believed in territorial deities – every region has a god that rules over it.  The Jewish people believed that since we have the true God – he is like our secret weapon against our enemies. Going to Nineveh with the word of the lord is like giving your secret weapon to your enemy. 

God is not behaving the way that God should, according to Jonah.  God is supposed to take care of “us” not “them”  And sometimes we do this too: When we sing, “my Jesus” or “our God” Maybe sometimes we think of God as our genie or our mascot.  Like “my cat” it is something that we own and control. This is the heart of what is creating the frustration for Jonah – Jonah thinks of God as “our God” and not the God of the entire world.

Jonah’s view of God is coming in to conflict with what he has been told to do. This book is really about Jonah’s view of God – that Jonah’s view of God and the real God are not the same thing.

“Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time:…” (3:1)

God has not moved on. God is not going to just forget it. God calls Jonah a second time, “Jonah, I want you to go to the great city of Nineveh.” If all God was concerned about was getting Jonah to Nineveh, we wouldn’t have this line. Jonah matters in this story – God is concerned about straightening up Jonah as well as straightening up Nineveh. God is a great coach and teacher – if we run away from our issues, eventually he will bring them back to us. 

“This time Jonah obeyed the LORD's command and went to Nineveh…(3:3a)

This is the only time in the story that Jonah gets things right. Everything else gets mixed up in his disobedience, running, and hiding. But here, after all the ups and downs, Jonah finally obeys.

I know you and me -- we all get stuff wrong a lot of the time. Like the Bible says, we do the things we don’t want to do and we don’t do the things God wants us to do. It can be pretty maddening. But amidst the constant struggles, there are moments when you get things right:

  • Moments when you might gossip about a friend or colleague and you don’t.
  • Moments when you might act angrily to your spouse and you hold back.
  • Moments when you might act lustfully or impulsively and you resist.

And in those moments, when we obey, even if it seems small, it matters.  Our obedience matters. If Jonah doesn’t go, we wouldn’t see what we are about to see happen in Nineveh. So Jonah obeyed God and went to Nineveh.

“The people of Nineveh believed God's message, and from the greatest to the least, they decided to go without food and wear sackcloth to show their sorrow.

Sackcloth was an abrasive covering made of goat hair that was worn in public as a sign of repentance. It is not the kind of thing a respectable person would do. But even the people of privilege and power are doing this. Think of Bill Gates publicly fasting. Think Paris Hilton putting on sackcloth. (It would be far more than she normally wears). These are public acts of conversion made by all the people of Nineveh.

Leftovers from July 9 - Jonah: Desperate for God

I had so much material for this Sunday that a good chunk ended up on the editing room floor.  Here is what didn't make the cut:

INTRODUCTION TO JONAH AND THE WHALE: 

Because of the nature of this story, often thoughtful people would say, “I don’t know if it’s okay to say this in a church or not, but if I was going to be truthful, the idea of a fish swallowing a guy and having the guy live inside it for a while is kind of hard to believe.” 
I want to talk directly to everybody having those kinds of thoughts for a moment. The first thing I want to say is I’m so glad you’re here because we want to be the kind of church where nobody ever has to pretend to believe anything, where we can just be honest about what it is we really, really think. Not what we think we are supposed to say in church.  Because it is what we really think that matters to God. We want to be the kind of community that studies the Bible in a thoughtful way.  

I remember as a kid in church hearing rumors or urban legends of scientists finding a fish that you could actually live in for several days, as a kind of defense of this book. But most Bible Scholars and scientists agree that as best they know there is no such fish in the world. The point of Jonah is not that there really are fish that in ordinary everyday life, a human being, could survive in for three days. The point is it if this happened it would be a miracle.  

For some of you, you have no problem believing in miracles.  You believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and so this fish deal is nothing for God.  

Here is the point -- I would encourage everybody not to get hung up over things such as what genre you put this story in or what kind of fish it was or those kinds of details, because you will miss the whole point of what the writing is trying to communicate to us.  

The point of this story is really is a spiritual message that God is up to something great. 
 

HITTING ROCK BOTTOM AND PRAYER: 

Jonah comes to realize that what looked so bad -- hitting bottom: the wind, the storm, getting thrown overboard -- was actually the best thing that ever happened to him because it brought him back to God, and God is doing great things. Jonah hits bottom and is swallowed up, and there, God is greater than ever before. 

Has anybody here ever been in over your head in life? Pray. Is it your own fault? Pray anyway. Have you not been living the kind of life you think God wants you to live, not been towing the line, not been crossing all the t’s, dotting all the i’s. Pray anyway. Are you concerned, because the honest truth is, right now even if you were to pray, your motives are kind of mixed and you’re really more selfishly concerned about your own well-being than you are about God’s will? Pray anyway. 

This is part of what this story of Jonah is telling us about God:  Even when we come to God because we have nowhere else to go, He is gracious and accepting.  

JONAH IS A COMEDY; NOT A TRAGEDY

This story is a comedy: when we human beings are going down, God is up to something great.  Jonah hits bottom and is swallowed up, and there, God is greater than ever before. From God’s perspective, death and the grave are not a problem at all. Human stiff-necked, rebellion, stubbornness, is not a problem. God laughs at it all. 

God laughs at death, laughs at the grave. Jonah ends up getting vomited onto the shore. One day, we will understand joy wins. Jonah is a joy book. It is comic in the most sublime, transcendent, wonderful sense of that word because there is another character between every line in this book. 

Jesus who comes to meet us at the lowest place and says death loses, sin loses, lost loses, sorrow loses, sadness loses – and joy wins. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Corinthians 15:55; NLT) 

Because, like Jonah, when we hit bottom and are swallowed up.  God is greater than ever before. What will happen one day, what if when disease and aging, when cancer and heart disease, when AIDS and dementia have done their worst, and we go all the way down into the grave and then come back out on the other side. What if in that day, life then is so good, what if our healing and redemption are so complete, what if our new bodies are so wonderful, what if the community of the saints is so rich, what if our fellowship with our God in that day is so sweet going into Eternity that we look at each other and we say, “This is what I was afraid of? I thought death was so awful? It’s nothing at all. It’s a joke. It has no power before God. It’s just a door to life.”
 

SOME JONAHS I’VE KNOWN

There is a Jonah I know who is a lawyer. He was on the ship of Tarshish, had a lot of cash, and he was living for a lot more. His sea was a sea of alcohol. And he could not stay away from it. He was being swallowed by it. He just kept going down and down and down and down. The managing partner of his law firm told him at one point, “Your next bender will be the last one you ever take when you work for this firm.” 

For a couple of months, he stayed sober. Then he blew off a bunch of meetings. They found him in a hotel. He had been on a binge, drinking out of control for three days. He lost his job. He got put into a rehab clinic for a month, got assigned a sponsor who told him that he would have to get up every morning at six o’clock for an AA meeting. 

His response was, “No way am I getting up at six o’clock in the morning to meet with a bunch of drunks.”  His sponsor said, “You’re not just going to meet with them; you’re going to get up earlier and fix coffee for those drunks.”  (BTW – in 12 step programs they say that the one difference between a therapist, who is generally gentler, and a sponsor, is the only time a sponsor says the word ‘closure’ is before the word ‘mouth.’) 

This guy, finds Jesus in that group, and he is delivered. His life is saved, and his marriage is saved. -- Because, like Jonah, when we hit bottom and are swallowed up.  God is greater than ever before.

Another Jonah I know I met in Africa.  His name is Evariste.  When Evariste was a teenager, the Genocide in Rwanda broke out.  Everiste is part of the Hutu tribe which began to massacre the Tutsis tribe.  The Hutu’s used fear to enlist their neighbors to help them – “if we don’t kill them, they will rise up and kill us all.” Everest’s father was a Free Methodist pastor and, despite pressure from his neighbors, refused to participate in the genocide. This infuriated the people in his village because they thought he was being a coward. 

Eventually, the Tutsis did rise up and fight back.  And when they came back through their village, they asked, “who was the instigator of the mass murders in your village?” They pointed their fingers at Evariste’s father.  And, as Evariste and his family watched, the Tutsis gorillas took his father and oldest brother to the edge of town and stoned them to death. 

Today, Evariste has given his life to working with some of the million orphans that live in Rwanda.  And if you were to ask Evariste today, he would tell you that  -- when you are sinking down to the bottom, when you are swallowed up by life, God is there.  And there is peace down there. And God is greater than ever.   
 

Leftovers from Sunday, July 2 - Jonah: Running from God

ASSYRIA:

Assyria was hated so much…this is what a prophet named Nahum said about Nineveh:

“What sorrow awaits Nineveh, the city of murder and lies! She is crammed with wealth and is never without victims. Hear the crack of whips, the rumble of wheels! Horses’ hooves pound, and chariots clatter wildly. See the flashing swords and glittering spears as the charioteers charge past! There are countless casualties, heaps of bodies—so many bodies that people stumble over them… [then he prophecies about its fall] -- There is no healing for your wound; your injury is fatal. All who hear of your destruction will clap their hands for joy. Where can anyone be found who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?” (Nahum 3:1-3, 19; NLT)

Nineveh is so hated. Not just for their cruelty, but for their continual cruelty. When it is destroyed Nahum says, people are going clap; they are going to stand up and clap. Nahum said very, very strong condemning words about Nineveh – but he was in Israel. He was a long ways away from Nineveh. It’s easy to taunt from a distance.   

Then the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh.” Learn to speak Assyrian and tell them face to face that they’re facing judgment.  

 

GOD SPEAKING:

“The Word of the Lord came to Jonah, ‘Go to Nineveh.’“

How did the Word come? Was it a burning bush? Was it a still small voice? Was it an angel? Was it a vision? Was it a dream? Was there room for doubt? The Bible doesn’t say.  Did people around Jonah know? Was there a Mrs. Jonah? Did Jonah go home and have her ask, “How was work today?” And tell her, “Well I’m supposed to go to Assyria and condemn them face to face,” and have her say, “You’ve got to be crazy.” The Bible doesn’t say. It just says the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh.”

 

HIDING AND GETTING CAUGHT:

One of the things about disobedience, one of the things about sin is, it requires the illusion that I won’t get caught. A football player kind of struggling in his class work, and he’s sitting across from the smartest kid in class. The professor says that he must have cheated on a test, sitting across from this real smart kid. The professor says to them, “You both got the exact same score on the test, you just got one question wrong.” Football player says, “Well, that could have been a coincidence.” Prof said, “Yeah, but you both got the same question wrong.” Football player said, “Ah, well, that could have been a coincidence.” Prof said, “But the best student’s paper said, ‘I don’t know the answer to this question, ‘ and your paper said, ‘I don’t know the answer either.’”

 

FINANCIAL RESOURCES MAKE IT EASIER TO HIDE FROM GOD

Jonah goes down to Joppa, which is the port city, where he found a ship bound for Tarshish. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to run from the Lord.  A little detail that we would skip over nowadays -- the text says Jonah paid the fare. This is actually a big deal. In the ancient world, money was still relatively new. It had been a barter economy, and money was tremendously scarce among the people of Israel. Hardly anybody would be able to do what Jonah did. Jonah had money enough to buy passage for a long voyage, out of his pocket. He had mobility, he had options. The dangerous thing about having money is that it makes it easier to think you can run away from God because you have options.

 

“A SHIP OF TARSHISH”

That that phrase “a ship of Tarshish” became a symbol of wealth in the ancient world:

“The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled)… for every ship of Tarshish and every stately vessel. The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled…” (Isaiah 2:12-17; NIV)

“The ships of Tarshish serve as carriers for your wares. You are filled with heavy cargo in the heart of the sea. Your oarsmen take you out to the high seas. But the east wind will break you to pieces in the heart of the sea.” (Ezekiel 27:25-26; NIV)

The ship of Tarshish: these were real, they were literal, but they also became symbols of wealth and self-sufficiency and power and greed.

 

“GOD” VS. “LORD”

“…What have you done? (he had already told them he was running away from the Lord.)”

The parenthesis is real significant, something very deep, very scary, very wonderful is happening here, and to understand this, you have to understand something about the words that are used for God in the Old Testament.  There are three Hebrew words for “God”:

ELOHIM -- The generic Hebrew term for god. The most common word for “God”.  It is used for the God of Israel, or for gods, for travel gods.

ADONAI – Literally “Lord” or master. It could be used in human relationships also -- master or slave.  It was often used even in marriage relationships way back in those days. We’re told in the Bible that Sarah called Abraham “my lord.”

Y-H-W-H. -- These four letters. Nobody knows how this is pronounced. In Hebrew, you don’t get vowels. You have to try to supply the vowels in the text.  This word was regarded as sacred by Israel because this is not some kind of a general title. This is a name. This is what God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, in that most sacred place. When God said, “This is my name, I am who I am.” Or “I will be who I will be.”

In those days it is such an intimate thing to give someone your name.  People can misuse your name if they want to. It was regarded as so precious to Israel that to this day, in synagogues, they will not pronounce this word because they don’t want to treat it with irreverence.  They love this name so much that when the text is being read in Synagogues, to this day, when the reader comes to this word, this is the word that will be pronounced: Adonai.

Jehovah comes from taking the vowels from Adonai and inserting them into here, Ya-Ho-Vah, To this day, nobody knows how this word is pronounced. It was regarded as such a sacred thing to Israel.  In your English Bibles, it will often be translated by the word, “Lord”, only you will see it in all capital letters. L-O-R-D.  When the word Adonai is in the text it will get translated with lower case letters, “Lord”  When you come across this in the English text LORD, it means this was the name of God, YHWH, that sacred name that is still not pronounced.

Back to the story. The sailors had been praying to a bunch of tribal gods. Each to their own Elohim. Then they asked Jonah, “What’s going on?” Jonah says, “There is a God, there is one God, He is the God of Abraham and Sarah. He is the God of Moses and Miriam. He is the God who wants to be known by people. He is the God who created the seas and the lands.” That’s language that all Gentiles would know.

 Now this is the reason for the parenthesis in the text. -- The sailors already knew that Jonah was running away from his god, they figured that’s just the tribal god of Israel. Assyrians have their god, Tarshish has their god, Israel has their god or their gods. They figured, he’s just running away from his own god. Then they see this storm, and then Jonah says, “There is the God. He’s the one that sent this storm, far away from Israel. He is real, and He reigns over Heaven and Earth, and He has a name, and He wants to be known.”

 

JONAH THE ACCIDENTAL EVANGELIST

They “fear with a great fear.” They come to know Jonah’s god, on this ship of Tarshish in the middle of a storm, something remarkable is happening.  Here is something else amazing about the irony of this story. If Jonah had come to them in pride, as a successful prophet, and said, “Men of Tarshish, I want you to know, my God is bigger than your god, my God is better than your god. He’s the supreme being,” they would have dismissed him because it would have felt like it was just about ethnic tribal superiority.

Instead, Jonah comes to them not saying anything about God. He doesn’t even want them to know that he knows God. He waited until he had to, to talk about God, and one of the reasons that they are going to believe Jonah is that he comes to them as a screw up, as a bone-head, as a mistake. He had been a prophet all these years. This will be the greatest mass gentile conversion he has ever seen, and it is Jonah’s failure that God uses to bring these people to faith.

Whatever else this book is, it is not a story about a strategic planning. The Bible is not a story about human planning.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between The World and Me"

Over Christmas I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between The World and Me.”  It was by far the most powerful book I read in 2016.  The book is an 152 page letter to Coates’ son about American history, race, Coates’ own history, and what it means to grow up black in American.  The first-person narrative makes it powerful and impossible to escape. “Between The World and Me” should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves educated in regards to our current cultural landscape. 

Coates is such a great writer that it really does a disservice to him to quote small passages. So, I give you a couple of paragraphs that caused me to reflect:

“…my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.  And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic – an orc, troll, or gorgon…Considering segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon concluded, ‘Strom is no racists.’  There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.  In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened ‘at the hands of persons unknown.’  In 1957, the white residents of Levitown, Pennsylvania, argued for their right to keep their town segregated.  ‘As a moral, religious and law-abiding citizens,’ the group wrote, ‘we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.’  This was the attempt to commit a shameful act while escaping all sanction, and I raise it to show you that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.

               “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn.  ‘To do evil a human being must first believe that what he’s doing is good or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’  This is the foundation of the [American] Dream – its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.” (p. 97-98, emphasis mine)