Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.


A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.


Paul didn’t have a BACKSPACE button

I went down to Hagerstown, MD yesterday to have lunch with a blisteringly smart and gifted colleague who also used to happen to be one of my protégées. We were riffing back and forth on the subject of inspiration and how evangelicalism has a strong feel for the ‘divine’ part in Biblical inspiration, but we don’t have a very robust sense of what it means that the human writers were involved. As a result, many folks end up with an operationally Qur’anic view of Scripture (the words falling directly from God’s lips – the human hardly involved at all except as a typewriter). In contrast to this, my friend says “It’s not like Paul had a backspace button.”

In fact, it appears Paul didn’t have his laptop with him a lot of the time – he can’t even look up (nor remember) who all he baptized. And that faulty memory… is part… of Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 1: 14-16).

And so here’s Paul, pacing back and forth, ripping off a letter (with his secretary writing as fast as he can to keep up), dealing  with whatever church issue he was responding to, ranting at times, and he makes a side comment to further illustrate the point he’s making. He makes it on the fly, not sitting around wordsmithing at a computer screen. We preachers  do this all the time in sermons. Add a line or two spontaneously that we think helps further illuminate what we are saying from a different angle. But after the sermon, if pushed, we might say “Wait, no – that one comment wasn’t the point of the sermon – I was just adding that – don’t try to make that one example carry too much water – it only works if you look at it this way…”

If this is the case, we have a problem when we get a Qur’anic view of Scripture lodged in our heads, (all divine – virtually no human influence) and as a result start acting like all verses are equal. So you end up with Luther grabbing a sentence or two from Paul (made on the fly?) and concluding that the Mosaic law was a bad thing. Later you have Calvin come along, take a much broader look at what the whole New Testament  –including Paul – has to say on the subject, and conclude that the Law was a good thing.

Paul didn’t have a backspace button. And it looks very much like he was ranting in some of his letters – moving fast, making his point, falling into poor grammar and mile-long sentences. In everyday human life we give people the benefit of the doubt and say “Well, he didn’t mean that the way you are taking it. He was just making his point. Don’t take that with the same level of seriousness as when he is calmly, carefully stating his point…”

Is there a way for us to accommodate the human factor in Scripture as well? Paul’s memory in 1 Corinthians 1 isn’t the only place we come across indications there is more to the human aspect of inspiration than simply being flesh-and-blood keyboards. Luke states unapologetically that he did a bunch of research  in order to get the story straight about Jesus (Luke 1: 1-4). The Psalms express a range of very human emotions, including the desire to kill an enemy nations’  infants by smashing them on rocks (Psalm 137:9). Anyone ever heard of the phrase ‘noncombatants’ ? Whatever we are going to do, it seems we ought to be thinking carefully  how to deal with the very human aspect of what we mean by ‘Divine Inspiration.’ What sort of metric can we use to factor this in?