Riess: Rob Bell takes back the Bible, a ‘book written by people about God’

First Published      Last Updated May 15 2017 01:12 pm

Rob Bell's new book comes out Tuesday, and I love it: It's wise, well-researched and written with a characteristic accessibility. "What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything" may be his best book yet.

Even if you think you already know a lot about the Bible, you'll learn something new. Here's an edited version of a conversation I had with Rob Bell earlier this week.

Q • When "Love Wins" came out, you faced a lot of pushback from evangelicals; John Piper basically condemned you to hell on Twitter. Do you expect this book to be as controversial? How do you respond to those critics?

A • I don't respond. It's not really part of my work. It's important for all of us to find work that we love even if somebody doesn't care for it. I actually find it kind of fascinating that people would get so worked up about something that is not for them.

The Bible got hijacked by certain religious people, and we need to take it back. I'm interested in people who would never give the Bible the time of day taking it back. It's subversive and it's beautiful. And if somebody doesn't get that, honestly, I just don't care. There are too many people who are hungry, who are thirsty, who want to have this discussion. It's just incredible. It's so much fun.

Q • Sometimes one tiny detail in the text can change the meaning of a story we think we know. In your chapter on Abraham, you point out a couple of things in the text that challenge the idea that Abraham really believed God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.

A • Some people see that story like, "Yeah, see? Sometimes God might make you offer your child." What? What?

Why does he say to the servant, "Stay here. The boy and I will go and the boy and I will come back"? It's almost like the storyteller wants you to be in on the joke, and is handing you these obvious clues. In the rabbinic tradition, all of these little details are the fodder for endless discussion. Like Jacob has this dream in Genesis and there are angels ascending and descending on the ladder. The rabbis go off on the idea that they are both ascending and descending.

Q • You're tracing a huge and complex story here. Relationships that come apart in the Book of Genesis don't come back together until the Book of Ruth, for example. But there's so much material. How did you decide what to include?

A • The first draft was 102,000 words. I actually took all these different parts and ideas and made thumbnails, then took this big computer screen and laid them out, doing basic information architecture for the book. What goes where?

There is a trajectory and an arc to the Bible, but you're constantly being taken in unexpected turns. I wanted this book to feel unconsciously like the Bible does. Philemon? Song of Songs? Really? Who somewhere thought, "Yeah, that makes sense, put it there?"

Q • You spend time going through the more violent and disturbing parts of the Bible, and I have to say you totally nailed me at one point. You make this wry observation that sometimes the exact same people who accuse the Bible of being so violent have a boxed set of "The Lord of the Rings" and watch it over and over again. Guilty!

A • Yes. People will say, "What can I ever learn from a book that has that in it?" To which I would respond, "So our world is completely perfect? How would you ever learn from anything? Is there any setting that is completely free from violence or what has not yet evolved?"

» Next page... Single page