Rob Bell’s profile has risen considerably in recent years. Once an evangelical pastor, he is now the author of several bestselling books, the host of a popular podcast, and an in-demand speaker. He has dabbled in television, appeared on Oprah, and several years ago was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time. His fans praise his culturally engaged presentation of the Christian faith while his detractors accuse him of sliding into a fuzzy liberalism, if not departing from orthodoxy altogether. His new book, What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, will continue that pattern.
The thesis is suggested in the subtitle. Its purpose is not simply to introduce the Bible but also to convince skeptical readers that the Bible is relevant for their personal growth. This is popular liberal theology in an apologetic mode, seeking to commend the Christian faith to its cultured despisers. In that sense, Bell reminds me of Marcus Borg, who similarly sought to shape the Christian message around the mental map of modern secular people. The result is theologically thin, heavy on style, and light on substance.
The book is loosely structured and written in a breezy, self-referential way full of run-on sentences, parentheses, and numerous asides to the reader. This gives it a casual and conversational tone, but also makes the author seem overly preoccupied with his own voice. Despite this meandering path, Bell returns to certain key ideas. One of his main points is that the Bible is a purely human work. As such, it is not uniquely inspired by God but is, in Bell’s words, “inspired in much the same way that you are inspired.” For Bell, the Bible is not best understood as a book about God, but rather as a book about human conceptions of God, and especially the way these conceptions evolve. The Bible is valuable because it contains progressive religious ideas and gives us access to a certain intensity of spiritual experience. In his words, the Bible is “a reflection of a growing and expanding human consciousness” and “a book about what it means to be human.”
Despite some engaging forays into overlooked scriptural passages, Bell seems most interested in extracting general exhortatory lessons from the biblical story. His insights, while arising from his interpretations of biblical texts, are nonetheless not explicitly biblical or theological. For him, the object of theological language seems to be the human psyche. Biblical teaching is repeatedly transposed into exhortations about human potential. About the Bible as a whole he says:
These stories insist in a thousand different ways that we don’t have to settle, that tomorrow doesn’t have to be a repeat of today, that we don’t have to be enslaved to fear or to despair — that we can change, move, heal, and we can leave behind whatever needs to be left behind so that we can step into a better future.
No doubt those statements are true, but they are true in the context of the Christian gospel, which involves repentance, growing into Christlikeness, and developing the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Those statements are not true in some general way, abstracted from the difficult and liberating truths of that gospel. For Bell, the only requirement for personal transformation seems to be the willingness to adjust thought patterns into more positive configurations.
He similarly reinterprets basic articles of Christian doctrine. For him, the gospel is not a proclamation about Christ but rather “the announcement of who God insists you are. You’re a child of God, not because of how great you are but because God has all kinds of kids and you’re one of them” (who precisely you refers to remains unclear). Likewise, Christ is not spoken of as God incarnate, but more generally as “this movement happening all throughout the pages of the Bible … beneath, within, and above everything, like an electricity that the whole thing is plugged in to.” The resurrection of Jesus may or may not involve his physical body, but that’s okay because the main point is that “you find the divine through and in the human.” The incarnation of Christ actually reveals the divine spark in each one of us. (Bell asks, “is there something divine, something infinite, something eternal residing in every one of us?” His implied answer is yes.) Theological statements are continually reinterpreted as affirmations of human potential and self-worth.
I have two fundamental problems with this book. These problems are not unique to Bell but are endemic in certain contemporary forms of Christianity. The first is the pride of place given to human experience, making theological language a mere poetic expression of otherwise inaccessible feelings and thoughts. The rich analogical grammar of Christian faith and practice becomes an exhortation to human self-actualization. While reading the book, I thought of Alasdair MacIntyre’s review of Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, which began: “What is striking about Dr. Robinson’s book is first and foremost that he is an atheist.” While MacIntyre may have overstated his point, he nonetheless identified the fatal weakness of this kind of liberal theology, namely that God becomes unnecessary. Invoking the divine gives rhetorical weight to one’s spiritual ruminations, but these insights can be arrived at equally well without God. In my judgment, Bell falls prey to precisely these problems. Whatever his personal religious opinions, he is crafting a religious system that is only tangentially related to orthodox Christianity, and which increasingly appears to make Christian habits of thought and language purely optional.
The other fundamental problem with this book is how individualistic it is. Bell gives no weight to the Church’s rich tradition of scriptural interpretation, nor does he acknowledge the wisdom of the great mothers and fathers of the Church. Creeds and confessions are ignored, and theological debate is regarded as mostly without merit. What Bell presents is his own opinions, which are so aligned with the cultural zeitgeist that they will no doubt be widely affirmed and celebrated. Nonetheless, popular opinion is not the same thing as truth, and truth for Christians is rooted in God’s action in Christ and discerned within a spiritual community that bridges time and space. Unfortunately, Bell seldom mentions the Church, and when he does it is usually in order to criticize it. He typically picks easy targets, like the “fancy pants pastor” (his words) who insists on quoting texts about God’s judgment and anger despite Bell’s objections. The only purpose this vignette seems to serve is to demonstrate Bell’s moral superiority, and to distinguish “us” (progressive, enlightened, loving Christians) from “them” (retrograde, narrow-minded, and ignorant Christians). The book ends with a rather condescending appendix giving advice on how to deal with family and friends who are unable to understand the truths and experience the spiritual depth described in the book.
This book is shallow and disappointing, for the same reason that liberal, culturally accommodated Christianity is shallow and disappointing. Despite nods to liberal social arrangements and denunciating violence, Bell always circles back to secular platitudes: “Be your best self,” and “Become whoever you’re here to be.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that is what the Bible is about, then we do not need the Bible. If we are the final arbiters of what the Scriptures can and can’t say, then it is we who are the authority and not the Scriptures.
The book claims to be “calling humanity forward into a better future,” but the future of this theology, despite its cultural appeal, will undoubtedly be post-Christian.