Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, is both insightful and maddening. Bell has always intrigued me; he’s an incredible communicator with an often times unique perspective on the Bible. His goal with this latest book is to convey all of the excitement, passion, and thrills that come with reading the Bible – something he observes (correctly) that so many miss.
Bell does a great job of paying attention to the Jewish culture, both during Christ’s time and during the times the Old Testament books were written, as well as the Roman culture and other ancient middle eastern cultures and religions. He eloquently paints a picture of the connecting threads throughout all of scripture pointing to an exciting message from God. I loved his observations about Abraham’s covenant with God, the struggle Jonah went through, as well as the writing styles and priorities of ancient writers. I also thought his notes on how modern day Americans process and interpret scripture through our cultural lens conflicts so often without us even realizing it with the culture and writing styles of those who wrote these books so long ago.
But Bell is also maddening.
I feel so pretentious for even writing this, but his books have grown increasingly intellectually lazy. He makes bold claims about meanings of words, culture, theories, and explanations – and footnotes none of it. He doesn’t cite anything! Even half of the scriptures he quotes he does without even giving a reference; and the other half of the time he only mentions the book and maybe the chapter. I found myself doing keyword searches to try and find what verse he was quoting and what translation it was to find the context because of his tendency to prooftext and play fast and loose with his scripture quotes. Some of his theories I was able to find in commentaries, however, they tended to be alternate understandings of a passage’s interpretation rejected by most scholars.
His theology on salvation, revealed in his book Love Wins, returns in the third section of this book. Because of his conviction that ultimately all are saved regardless of their faith in this life, the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the very least minimized in this book if not removed all together. He contends that the sacrificial system at large, and therefore the perspective of interpreting Christ’s death through that lens, is purely a human creation made in response to pagan sacrificial systems. His chapter on whether or not scripture is authoritative was also troubling to me; while he believes scripture does have authority, he seems to view it as equal to a number of other sources, which is a dangerous approach at best. From his perspective, he is genuinely advocating for scripture’s authority; and his love of the Bible comes through on every page of the book, however, in his assertion of a variety of other authoritative sources he ultimately both reduces scripture’s power and opens the door recklessly putting faith anywhere and everywhere.
Ultimately, I was fascinated by the book, but because of his pattern of making claims without citing evidence or sources, his loose use of scripture, and his reckless theology when it comes to salvation and authority, it’s not one I would recommend to others. He’s given me a lot to think about, and he does bring the scriptures to life in a way that few can do – but unless the reader is well versed in scripture and theology, it becomes too easy to accept the dangerous theology sprinkled throughout the book.