The mere suggestion that today’s devotional, yes devotional comes from Rob Bell is enough to cause some eyes to glaze over; and the sound you hear is the sound of some people clicking away at this point. Rob Bell has, in very little time, emerged as a very controversial writer, whose work probably asks more questions than it answers.
But he makes you think. And that’s consistent with my goals here at Christianity 201. He’s started a series on his blog robbell.com titled “What Is the Bible?” (Not to be confused with Phil Vischer’s excellent DVD series for kids, “What’s In The Bible?”) As I write this, Rob has 14 chapters posted, and I do admit to having no idea where he’s going and what he’s going to say next.
In the very first section, he echoes words being said by other writers that we are putting too much pressure on the Bible to respond to questions it was never intended to answer. That whatever level of inspiration we ascribe to scripture — and there are three or four — we are beginning with words that flowed from some individual’s pen (so to speak), or as Bell puts it, “Someone wrote something down.”
The following is some of the first section of What Is The Bible?, however, as we do here at Christianity 201, I’ve taken the liberty of formatting obvious scripture citations in green and indented:
Many of the stories in the Bible began as oral traditions, handed down from generation to generation until someone collected them, edited them, and actually wrote them down, sometimes hundreds of years later. That’s years and years of people sitting around fires and walking along hot dusty roads and gathering together to hear and discuss and debate and wrestle with these stories.
The people who wrote these books had lots of material to choose from. There were lots of stories floating around, lots of accounts being handed down, lots of material to include. Or not include.
(There’s a line in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 11 where the author writes
As for the other events of Solomon’s reign-all he did and the wisdom he displayed-are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?
Well, yes, I guess they are…it’s just that we have no idea what the author is referring to. Interesting the assumption on the author’s part that not only do we know this, but that we have access to these annals. Which we don’t.
We see something similar in the gospel of John where it’s written
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of disciples, which are not recorded in this book
and then the book ends with this line:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
It’s as if the writer, just to wrap things up, adds Oh yeah, I left a ton of stuff out.)
The authors of the books of the Bible, then, weren’t just writing, they were selecting and editing and making a multitude of decisions about what material and content furthered their purposes in writing and what didn’t.
These writers had agendas.
Luke: I too decided to write an orderly account for you…
The Book of Esther: This is what happened…
John: These are written that you may believe…
There were points they wanted to make, things they wanted their readers to see, insights they wanted to share. These writers, it’s important to point out, were real people living in real places at real times. And their purposes and intents and agendas were shaped by their times and places and contexts and economies and politics and religion and technology and countless other factors.
What does it tell us about the world Abraham lived in that when he’s told to offer his son as a sacrifice he sets out to do it as if it’s a natural thing for a god to ask…?
The David and Goliath story starts with technology-the Philistines had a new kind of metal, the Israelites didn’t. The story is under-girded by the primal fear that comes when your neighbor has weapons that you don’t have-like spears. Or guns. Or bombs.
Why does the Apostle Peter use the phrase there is no other name under heaven…? Where did he get this phrase and what images from military propaganda would it have brought to mind for his listeners?
writing in real places,
at real times,
choosing to include some material,
choosing to leave out other material,
all because they had stories to tell.
Of course, in the broader world of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) this might be just one of many approaches. But I offer it today as refreshing way of rethinking scripture. Later in the section Bell writes:
When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power.
All because of starting in the wrong place.
You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.
Because whatever divine you find in it, you find that divine through the human, not around it.
Each section of What Is The Bible? links to the following section, and new sections are currently being added almost daily. Here again is the link to part one.