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Rob Bell once questioned hell: Here’s why he is now taking aim at the Bible

In his 2011 book “Love Wins,” former pastor Rob Bell famously questioned the existence of hell. The bold move made him a pariah among some conservative Christians, but the furor catapulted the book onto the New York Times bestsellers list. Bell’s name did not grace that list again for the next six years despite publishing several books during that time.

But his newest book, “What is the Bible: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” was an instant New York Times bestseller and is being widely read and reviewed.

If you have not yet read it, this book is Rob Bell at his Rob Bell-iest: punchy, conversational, and riddled with provocative questions. What I admire most about this book is that it seems genuinely driven by Bell’s love for the Bible and his optimism about its transformative power and contemporary relevance. But there is a question about whether or not he is saying anything new here. The book basically attempts to popularize historical-critical approaches that have been utilized by Bible scholars for a century or so. (Bell admits as much below.) Still, many readers have never encountered such ideas and Bell’s style gives them a unique flare.

Here we discuss why he decided to write an entire book about Christians’ sacred scriptures.

RNS: What is the Bible in a sentence or in a short paragraph?

RB: It’s this library of books that sit in the middle of culture with this presumed familiarity. I love how Dallas Willard said, “Familiarity breeds unfamiliarity, and unfamiliarity breeds contempt.” You have so many people with such strong opinions about the bible, but when they talk about those opinions you find yourself thinking, “Have they read it?” At one level there is this library sitting right under the culture’s nose, but also it is such a better collection of books than anybody realizes.

Image courtesy of Harper Collins

RNS: I think a lot of Christians would agree with that. What are you saying that is new or provocative? What’s interesting about what you mean when you say that?

RB: I begin with the Bible as a collection of human books, so I begin with its humanity. Who was writing this? What was the world like at that time? What were the economics and politics? Were there any new technologies? In my observation a lot of religious people begin with, “This is God’s holy book. Why did God write it down this way?”, instead of, “This is a human book.” If you start there, it has all this room for doubt, and fear, and anger. It opens its arms wide to the full spectrum of the human experience, and I think that’s interesting.

RNS: Many who begin with the Bible as a work of divinity say that the Bible contains no contradictions because God can’t contradict God’s self. Do you agree with those beliefs?

RB: I actually think those are all the wrong discussions, because it’s not that kind of book. In the book I talk about these two passages where the one says, “God told David to take a census,” and the other passage says, “Satan incited David to take a census,” and this would be a classic example where somebody would say, “See? It completely contradicts itself.” And it does, unless you read it as an unfolding story and you realize that these two different passages were written at two different times, and they reflect a growing sophistication in thinking. Now we have something very interesting. We see that people were growing and evolving in their thinking about the divine. That’s a story that we are much more likely to find ourselves in.

RNS: But what about when the Bible says something miraculous happened. Are there instances where you think those events didn’t happen?

RB: I think sometimes you have history with some poetry, and sometimes you have poetry with some history. I think the better thing that’s happening underneath your question is that we moderns are obsessed with factual accuracy. We can be so obsessed with the facts that we miss what’s actually happening in the event. We have no idea what the story means. We just know that we got the right facts about it.

I would argue that the ancients were much more interested in what does the story mean. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t care about truth or details. They’re just telling the story like people told stories then. If you let it be what it was to those people, it has all sorts of power. It’s funny that people on Sunday nights gather to watch Game of Thrones, and no one ever says, “Hey, wait. Did this happen?” You know what I mean? Yet people are moved inspired by all kinds of stories.

RNS: But even your approach has some assumptions. If you’re trying to get at what the writers mean, then you have to assume that these writers have good motivations and aren’t trying to trick us or prop up a religious system or something. Is this right?

RB: I love that the world “Israel” means “struggle.” These stories come out of a tribe whose name is struggle. They’re struggling to understand fear, loss, betrayal, hope, money, power, empire, forgiveness. These writers were wrestling with whether the divine is on the side of the oppressed and whether history is headed somewhere good. I begin with the assumption that these people are wrestling through the things that we are wrestling with.

I know that that’s a very popular belief that the Bible’s writers are trying to deceive us or help keep the patriarchy or whatever. I totally get that. I’m sure there’s some of that, but at its core, I think these were people wrestling with the deepest questions of what it means to be human and whether we are alone and if this is all headed anywhere. I start with the good and go from there.

RNS: Here’s a big question: Is the Bible “inspired,” as many Christians believe?

RB: Well, obviously we have a thousand different definitions of what “inspired” means. I think these books are unique and inspired, and I think they attest to something at work in human history drawing the whole thing forward into greater unity and depth. I think that’s why these books have endured is because they speak to the deepest questions of human existence.

It’s interesting how people will nod their heads when somebody quotes Martin Luther King, who was quoting somebody else, about how the arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice. People will smile, and nod, and be moved by that. The Bible’s like 30,000 verses speaking to that idea. So often people will nod and affirm what they read there, too.

RNS: What about “inerrancy?” What do you say to people who believe the Bible is without error?

RB: I just always say I have a higher view of the Bible than that. To me, that’s what you argue about when you’ve already missed the point. Part of the problem is you have people spending all this energy trying to convince other people. That’s time you could spend actually reading it and getting caught up in it. I say, get out of the way and just let the Bible be the thing that has endured for all these years.

RNS: What do you say to people who have been harmed by the words in the Bible?

RB: Absolutely the Bible can be misused. It can be misquoted. It has been and is being used to justify all kinds of horrific behavior. What are the percentages on people who say that they’re Christians who voted for Trump? It’s crazy. There is something at the heart of my work that is rooted in trying to right a wrong and to call out an injustice, even when it comes to the Bible. These poems and letters and stories that have brought healing and hope and help. But they have become weapons of mass destruction for so many people.

RNS: It seems to me that what you’re saying is similar to the textual criticism that scholars have been doing for a long time. What is different about what you’re saying?

RB: I think millions of people who read the Bible aren’t aware of what you’re talking about. When I’ve shared this with people, they walk up and say, “How come nobody ever told me this? This is so much more interesting.” I’m passing this on in hopes that they see the Bible as more inspiring, personal, convicting, relevant, dangerous, subversive and a whole string of other adjectives.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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