I will always remember what Tom Wright said in a conversation we had while promoting his book How God Became King. He said the discussions and debates that came out of the Enlightenment have so shaped how we read the Bible that both the Bible’s critics and defenders equally end up misreading it. So, for example, a miracle story either becomes a supernatural absurdity or something that affirms supernatural realities such as Jesus’s divinity, even though this debate was the furthest thing from the biblical writer’s mind.
This phenomena Tom described was developed more fully in Peter Enns’s fun and wonderful book The Bible Tells Me So, in which he argues that in our very attempts to “defend” the Bible, Christians have tied ourselves in such knots that we are no longer able to see what the Bible actually says. How else can we explain how we have turned Jesus’s command to love our neighbors into placards saying “Immigrants Go Home,” or “turn the other cheek” into “lock and load”?
Obviously, we Christians have a major problem on our hands. What are we supposed to do with this thing we call our Scriptures? How do we strip ourselves of these blinders and actually engage the book before us?
Enter Rob Bell. In his latest and most explosive book yet, What Is the Bible?, Rob poses the question: What would happen if we stopped our efforts to defend the Bible and just read it as it presents itself—an ancient collection of books written by human beings wrestling with and debating the biggest questions about life?
And what does Rob find when he reads these books, letters, and poems through this lens? He discovers a brand new Bible problem.
It turns out if you accept the Bible as a human work, then you can ask the right questions, such as: Why did these people think this was such an important story or saying that they thought they should write it down? What was going on in the background? What was new or different here from how people thought about these things before?
In one of my favorite chapters, Rob deals with Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. He explains that getting all worked up about why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son is to miss what is so amazing about this story. That is us projecting our views onto the Bible. But Abraham shows no surprise at God’s request. He simply obeys and makes preparations. It turns out that child sacrifice was common in Abraham’s day. If God is an angry deity we need to appease by making sacrifices, as was commonly believed, then how do you know if you have sacrificed enough? You don’t. So if you want to make sure God is satisfied, you sacrifice what is most precious to you: your child. And that is why child sacrifice haunts the ancient cultures.
But that is not what happens in Genesis 22. God halts the sacrifice. And then God says something strange for an angry deity to say. God says he will provide the sacrifice. Now think about that for a moment. That makes absolutely no sense according to how people thought about God back then. How is an angry deity appeased if God provides the sacrifice? That sounds like two minus two equaling four. It is as if God is shouting to us, “That’s not the kind of relationship I want to have with you. You are thinking about this all wrong.”
To me, that’s revelation. And that’s the new Bible problem Rob Bell has discovered.
For now we have to explain something that keeps happening throughout the Bible, something a little strange. In an ancient library of human works, why do we keep encountering ideas so progressive, so radical, and so far sighted that we are still struggling to live up to them thousands of years later?
According to Rob, that is what the Bible reveals to us, that the divine word is in there but that it only comes to us through the human. We don’t have to spend all our time and energy defending the Bible. The Bible does just fine on its own. No, we are simply invited to read it and be prepared to meet the divine through it.
And with that, Rob Bell helps restore the Bible to Christians and to everyone else. Now we can see and read it. And perhaps, as just one example, when we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we can see it for the radical teaching it is and start considering how we might live that out today. And that underscores why we need the Bible to begin with. Read Rob Bell and watch your Bible come alive.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor