What is the Bible?: How  an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, by Rob Bell

This book is close in spirit to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, but with an even broader perspective. It’s also one of the few books I’ve run into that reflects a feeling I’ve had about the Bible for some time: That it’s not so much an instruction book as an ongoing history of our understanding of God.

Part of the heart of the book is in a word used in the title. The Bible is an ancient library, a collection of writings over several thousand year, written as the Jewish people collected their traditional stories about their history during the Babylonian exile through the daring redefinition of those writings by Jesus and the continuation of that message by Paul and other writers and apostles.

Bell is willing to say out loud that yes the Bible contradicts itself and in many places, because in some ways it is one generation arguing with another and because writing was rare and precious and some stories passed on orally were modified over time. In addition, the writers had a point of view and selected parts of the story they were telling that most reflected their message to the reader.

What Bell asks a modern reader to do is to confront the Bible with questions while reading. Why was this written? Why was this moment included? What would this have meant to a person in the same time and place as the writer that may be lost on someone living, say, in 21st century Vancouver, BC, far away from deserts, tribes, and near constant war?

More importantly, he urges the reader to read in context, avoiding the tendency to latch onto a verse that may satisfy an inner conviction despite the fact that it may be contradicted or explained in a different light a few verses later. In other words, approaching the writing free of agenda and letting the writing do what it is intended to do.

Bell takes on several examples from the Bible with a fresh point of view including the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Jonah, the good Samaritan, and the woman charged with adultery. In each he gives a greater context for the stories being told.

Bell also describes his own frustrations with those who are afraid that if the Bible isn’t completely true that it risks being completely false. These people, he asserts, are asking the wrong questions about the text as well as arguing for something that doesn’t exist in the Bible itself.

It was an interesting and refreshing book written in a very conversational style with compassion and humor. An excellent book for anyone interested in Bible history, exegesis, or thought starters for sermons and homilies.