A Feature Review of
What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything
Reviewed by Josh Morgan
Books on the Bible are a dime a dozen, with some worth even less than that. Much ink has been spilled on the nature of the Bible and interpretations of various passages. Often, these books are either overly academic, unrelatable to many readers, or intellectually unsupported.
Rob Bell’s latest text, What is the Bible?, is none of these things. In his book, Bell tackles a variety of Scripture passages in order to better help us understand the fundamental nature of the modern Christian Bible. In short, Bell actually answers his book’s titular question with its subtitle: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. The Bible is intended to transform our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions through a variety of narrative methods in order to better respond to the world we live in.
In typical Bell style, What is the Bible? is broken up into highly readable and digestable chapters clustered into multiple parts that form an overarching narrative. Initially, the first few chapters were interesting and thought provoking regarding the specific passages being interpreted. However, they seemed disconnected from a larger coherent thesis. It takes most of Part 1 for Bell to really start making his core argument.
At first this approach was annoying and off-putting. The book seemed more helpful as an encyclopedia-type resource that could be helpful in interpreting particular Scriptures. This is not a bad thing in itself, but not exactly how the book seems to be advertised. However, as the pieces came more clearly together, the final effect was far more powerful than a traditional exposition on the nature of the Bible. Interestingly, this approach somewhat mirrors the way Scripture powerfully shares the transformative power of Yahweh and the Gospel–individual stories that don’t always seem to connect, but still tell a deeper, developing tale.
Growth and development is really core to Bell’s understanding of the Bible. Central to his interpretations of passages are the iterative steps needed to help humans move to new levels of understanding themselves, their neighbors, and the world. This hermeneutic provides compassion for people and situations that are otherwise easy to judge. Building compassion is one of the core traits that God is trying to build in people, so having compassion for our spiritual ancestors is a good place to start. However, a developmental approach to the Bible seems to consistently not be easy for humanity. We tend to take more of a stagnant approach to understanding all things spiritual, trying to make the case for a single perspective and set of laws that are good for all people of all ages in all places in all times. We don’t do this with any other part of human development, recognizing the many variables that impact our development (or lack thereof). And when we recognize development has been limited, we can often acknowledge the contextual factors, giving us a chance to better understand where someone is coming from and have compassion on them.
Development, growth, and change, both as individuals and a species, are normal for all parts of humanity. Remembering that this applies to our spiritual lives can be transformative in how we see ourselves, others, and the Bible. Bell actually ends the entire book (even after the traditional Endnotes) with a section entitled “A Note on Growing and Changing.” He emphasizes this central role of growth and change, providing encouragement to those who may have experienced development, but whose communities may be uncomfortable with the change. Part of this encouragement also builds compassion for ourselves and what was helpful before, recognizing that what was useful at one point in our lives may not be now. This approach might help us better integrate our many lifetime spiritual influences.
This developmental view is similar to Peter Enns’ perspective presented in The Bible Tells Me So. Both men use helpful subtitles to clarify their purposes. Enns’ is Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Enns is really more focused on helping us be more open to reading the Bible as it is. He includes a bit more scholarship related to biblical interpretation, as this is the core of his text (plus it’s more of his background). Bell, on the other hand, is a storyteller at his core, and his theme is more helping us better understand ourselves and our world. Both authors use some similar language to talk about the Bible, and they have similar, accessible, digestable writing styles. These two books could be good as complementary texts, and do not necessarily duplicate efforts.
As noted, Bell is a storyteller. He is famous for his engaging, thoughtful, and moving oration and writing, and this book is no different. His style and approach is consistent with his past work, so readers who like his style will not be disappointed. He effectively brings biblical passages to life in a way few others can. It also works very well in this book, as his writing approach creates an accessibility and relationality that reduces defensiveness, creates intrigue, and invites questions. This is exactly what Bell wants in this book: He wants readers of the Bible to ask questions. Lots of questions. And some of his final chapters are focused on helping people ask good questions.
Bell’s book is titled with a question, but he doesn’t directly answer the question. In fact, it’s a question that is likely unanswerable in a concise, direct approach. A book entitled What is the Bible? seems to be one that would have a lot of direct exposition to provide great clarity on such important topics as the nature of the Bible. However, true to Bell’s style (and frankly the way the Bible and Jesus taught), the answers are provided through story, specifically helping us better understand individual stories in the Bible and how they connect as part of a larger story. There is a section where Bell more directly answers questions. In fact, it’s about a quarter of the book. But this section is the end. Even the more direct analysis and argument is explained through story. In many traditional contexts, the exposition comes first, with stories used as illustrations and clarifications. However, a traditional approach would not have been as effective, as it likely would have put readers more in their heads, preparing intellectual arguments for or against. Bell’s story first style creates a situation that is far more powerful than traditional argumentation. He is not merely making a scholarly, academic, intellectual claim. By putting answers to questions at the end, Bell is bringing readers along into a spiritual life that must be experienced to be understood.
What is the Bible? is a strong entry in both Bell’s library as well as the general discussion of biblical understanding. He has a well-educated, but accessible style that makes challenging concepts more easily digestable. However, this text is no pop spirituality or pop theology text. It provides appropriately informed reflections that lead to solid new insights that can contribute to our on-going spiritual development through the value of biblical and modern story.