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)