(RNS) Rob Bell’s new book comes out on Tuesday (May 16), and I love it: It’s wise, well-researched, and written with a characteristic accessibility. “What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything” may be his best book yet.
Even if you think you already know a lot about the Bible, you’ll learn something new. Here’s an edited version of a conversation I had with Rob Bell earlier this week.
When Love Wins came out you faced a lot of pushback from evangelicals; John Piper basically condemned you to hell on Twitter. Do you expect this book to be as controversial? How do you respond to those critics?
I don’t respond. It’s not really part of my work. It’s important for all of us to find work that we love even if somebody doesn’t care for it. I actually find it kind of fascinating that people would get so worked up about something that is not for them.
The Bible got hijacked by certain religious people, and we need to take it back. I’m interested in people who would never give the Bible the time of day taking it back. It’s subversive and it’s beautiful. And if somebody doesn’t get that, honestly, I just don’t care. There are too many people who are hungry, who are thirsty, who want to have this discussion. It’s just incredible. It’s so much fun.
Sometimes one tiny detail in the text can change the meaning of a story we think we know. In your chapter on Abraham you point out a couple of things in the text that challenge the idea that Abraham really believed God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.
Some people see that story like, “Yeah, see? Sometimes God might make you offer your child.” What? What?
Why does he say to the servant, “Stay here. The boy and I will go and the boy and I will come back”? It’s almost like the storyteller wants you to be in on the joke, and is handing you these obvious clues. In the rabbinic tradition, all of these little details are the fodder for endless discussion. Like Jacob has this dream in Genesis and there are angels ascending and descending on the ladder. The rabbis go off on the idea that they are both ascending and descending.
You’re tracing a huge and complex story here. Relationships that come apart in the Book of Genesis don’t come back together until the Book of Ruth, for example. But there’s so much material. How did you decide what to include?
The first draft was 102,000 words. I actually took all these different parts and ideas and made thumbnails, then took this big computer screen and laid them out, doing basic information architecture for the book. What goes where?
There is a trajectory and an arc to the Bible, but you’re constantly being taken in unexpected turns. I wanted this book to feel unconsciously like the Bible does. Philemon? Song of Songs? Really? Who somewhere thought, “Yeah, that makes sense, put it there?”
You spend time going through the more violent and disturbing parts of the Bible, and I have to say you totally nailed me at one point. You make this wry observation that sometimes the exact same people who accuse the Bible of being so violent have a boxed set of “The Lord of the Rings” and watch it over and over again. Guilty!
Yes. People will say, “What can I ever learn from a book that has that in it?” To which I would respond, “So our world is completely perfect? How would you ever learn from anything? Is there any setting that is completely free from violence or what has not yet evolved?”
Carbon emissions, industrial farming, human trafficking. Let’s go down the list that in 50 years, people will say, “What could that have been about? What were they thinking to have a whole chain restaurant named Hooters?”
We can say at the same time “thank God we’ve moved on from that,”and “we have a long way to go.” Those two things often go together when we read the Bible. The very fact that something seems barbaric is an affirmation of how far things have moved forward.
You have to at some point see things on an unfolding spectrum, an arc. There’s a humility and a gratitude built into it all. To me, that’s one of the powers of the Bible. You see this arc, and the better you can see it and name it there, the better you can see it here and now.
You invite people to see the Bible as a story that starts out with one tribe and becomes more universal, which explains a good deal about the early violence in Israel.
Right, because as soon as you see the story as the creation of a particular kind of tribe, then all of these developmental truths kick in. How does a tribe develop? Well, how does a person develop? And all these things that seem completely random and out of nowhere in the Bible all make more sense.
An actual tribe in space and time are asking about politics and the poor, and sex and wine and the economy, and all of a sudden you realize that this book is about what it means to be human. The central struggles of the Bible are the things we’re still talking about. The central message is not about where you go when you die. It’s about empires and nations and forgiveness. It becomes a very different thing to read it.
You ask people not to ask questions that start with, “Why did God (fill in the blank with violent smiting) ” What do you mean?
Anytime someone says, “Why did God do X?” you won’t get a very good answer, because the Bible is not a book written by God; it’s a book written by people about God.
The person telling the story doesn’t even believe in that God! People think they are critiquing the Bible, but the Bible critiques itself. Like in the book of Judges, there’s a pattern of violence. But that’s the whole point of the stories: the futility of violence.
Most people read the Bible as fundamentalists, including the self-proclaimed fact-based, reasonable, logical people. They’re reading as if the most important question is whether this factually happened. One says yes and the other says no, and they are both missing the real question. The real provocation is sitting right there.
What other projects do you have on the burner now?
We actually just announced that I’m doing a bookstore tour in May. And then in July I’m doing a tour of the Bible Belt. It’s a seven-city club tour that includes Alabama and Georgia, on consciousness, violence, and empire. Tours are just ridiculously fun.
There’s always 20 things cooking. I have a residency at a legendary comedy club here called Largo. There’s a two-man show that we do. I just wrote a kids’ book that my daughter keeps insisting I publish. I love it. I love making stuff.
And I am doing a weekly sermon podcast, the Robcast. It’s a sermon disguised as a podcast. 25 years in (to ministry), there’s generally some idea or difficult text knocking around in me, and I’ll do a sermon on that and record it. What I love to do is make sermons.