Thoughts about Rob Bell’s comments on the Bible

I have just read a discussion about the Bible that deserves a better response than I can provide.  The author of the discussion, Rob Bell, has achieved some notoriety, largely for his idea of what the Bible is not.  He does not think it helpful to ask if the book is true or divinely inspired.  Rather, as he says,  “When you read the Bible, then, you are reading an unfolding narrative that reflects growing and expanding human consciousness”.

I think this is a common view outside of the church, though Mr. Bell communicates it with uncommon capability, and from inside the church.   His skill and cultural sensitivity has attracted a large audience to his thoughts about Christianity and, while there may be much good in this, his argument that the Bible is an important – if not necessarily truthful – book reminds me of those who say that Jesus was a good – if not necessarily divine – man.

The problem is that, like Jesus, the Bible claims for itself an embarrassing level of authority.  Jesus said that he was God; that he could forgive sins, that no one could reach God without him.  Such claims are either crazy or deceitful or…true.  As C. S. Lewis said of Jesus, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Likewise, the Bible, which speaks with uncompromising moral authority and claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions.  It is absolutely tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.  You can revile it as a work of human posturing or revere it as God’s self-revelation.  Make your choice but do not speak of it as merely a good or important book; God has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.

Or so I thought.  But Mr. Bell recommends a middle ground; a view of the Bible that is well suited to a culture steeped in Darwinian mythology.  In his opinion, the primary characteristic of the Bible is humanity; of authors whose inspiration may or may not have been divine, whose words may or may not be true, whose message developed over time.  Indeed, Mr. Bell is not a materialist; God is in there, somewhere, mysteriously superintending the spiritual evolution of the race.  He is somewhere  behind the scenes in the Bible, too, though its human authors sometimes distort his image.  (Most often, it seems, in those parts of the Bible which our culture finds most offensive).

I do not fully understand Mr. Bell’s position and, in any case, I am not qualified to criticize it.  I mention his teaching because it raises what seems to me the critical question: Can it work?  If we could reasonably explain away every incredible story, every offensive word in the Bible, would it help people draw near to God?

Take, for example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, which seems – I grant – a highly unusual turn of events.  If you think that the whale found this whole thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader…  Why does such a story turn people away?  The obvious answer is that, in our experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece.  Our disbelief, we think, is reasonable; a product of our experience.

But another, less obvious answer also deserves consideration.  What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief?  We might argue that, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in.  Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure the story’s plausibility.

Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man, or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all?  Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess?  Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.

He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder.  He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized, like a child barely aware of the wider world beyond his sandbox.  He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.

He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but he is mistaken.  He thinks that if something happens once it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not.  He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection.  He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.  He is asleep.

We should not, I think, pare away uncomfortable passages in the Bible to make it somehow fit within our modern enchantment.  It is God’s book.  It says what he wanted it to say.  Far better that we recognize the Bible (whether we regard it with suspicion or with gratitude) as a strange message, alien to this world… a message strange enough to break the spell and strong enough to set us free.

A Dream

Man, did I have a strange dream last night.  I seemed to be on the sofa, watching TV as the evening news began and the announcer said something like this…

“…Many in the nation were surprised today by a Supreme Court ruling that the celebration of ‘Christmas’ is a ritual of the largely discredited Christian religion and thus disqualified from public display.  In his response to the ruling, the President stated ‘As this nation emerged – slowly and painfully – from the deeply rooted practice of slavery, so we will survive the turmoil that arises from this painful but necessary decision.  Christian intransigence has forced this nation into a clear and unmistakable response.  Those who continue to embrace a dangerous and hurtful tradition that excludes and offends many of our citizens must be confronted.  Those who would raise their children in an atmosphere of mystical thinking and intolerance must be restrained.  For too long, Christians in America have claimed the right to think and say whatever they want by hiding behind a very un-American tradition.  It is time for a change.’”

“The ruling specifically forbids any observation of the ‘Christmas’ ritual in public and lists both visual and audio indicators which will constitute violation, including manger scenes and several familiar songs.  The American winter holiday, Festivus, is not affected by this ruling.  No word yet on implications of the Christmas prohibition upon observations within private homes.”

“In a companion case, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by Phil Robertson, the extremist jailed three years ago for quoting an unpopular Christian scripture during a media session.  The Court found that the FCC regulation violated by Robertson – which has since become the law of the land – did carry the authority to arrest and incarcerate offenders, even though that clause was appended by federal administrators, rather than by Congress.  Responding to this ruling, the President hearkened back to a major theme of his third election campaign: ‘We remain a nation in transition.  For a brief moment in our history, it has been necessary to increase the protective powers of the federal government in order to guarantee the freedoms of our people.’”

“In other news, the Court upheld the conviction of a Michigan man who, according to NSA records, attempted to transmit an email note stating that ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people is – right now – perishing from the earth.’”…

Suddenly, the dream was shattered by the sound of my alarm.  Imagine my relief to wake up in the real world.

Living in Babel

I’ve lived in Babel for some time now.  At first, I would just come to visit.  I was excited by the riot of faces and voices and ideas.  When I left, the clamor of the place jangled in my ears for a while and it was good to get away but, over time, I developed a taste for it.  I began to stay longer and when I left it was the quiet that seemed strange to me as if something was missing.  Eventually, I moved in.
And so it was quite a shock last week when a tree limb, bowing under a heavy layer of ice, snapped and fell, dragging a power line to the ground and severing my connection to Babel.  The restless city, to which I was linked through television and radio and computer, fell silent and I was alone with my thoughts, which is to say, quite alone indeed.  This was late afternoon and the brooding sky was already growing dark and, with it, our soundless, waterless and rapidly cooling home.  The darkness and silence felt like an invasion, a blitzkrieg of some foreign power, suddenly cutting us off from the world.
It took a few minutes to recognize how wrong I was, which tells you something about the severity of my condition.  So addicted have I become to consuming the clamor of Babel that I felt lost without it.  Our little house had not moved, nor the sky above.  The quiet and the dark had always been there, though for so long suppressed that they seemed new to me.  The rhythms of the planet, which felt strange and arbitrary, were those into which I had been born.  When Babel fell, the invasion ended and I reentered the real world.  I did not like it.
My television remote and my browser have given me a God’s-eye view of the earth.  I can see almost anything happening almost anywhere.  The world is small, I think.  But I sometimes forget the distinction between observing and experiencing.  Good-looking and intelligent people provide expert commentary on everything under the sun.  I know what’s important, I think.  But I forget the difference between hearing and thinking.  My devices allow me to effortlessly calculate, navigate and communicate.  I am capable, I think.  But I have forgotten the distinction between using and understanding.
When we came to our senses we lit a few candles, huddled on the sofa and read some stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, soon wondering why we do not do this more often.  C. S. Lewis warned (even before the television and computer era) against “chronological snobbery”: the mistaken sense that we see the world (and ourselves) clearly.  He suggested a regular diet of voices from previous generations to help us see into the blind spots common to our age.  What seems odd about the ideas of Laura, or Mr. Lewis or (far better) the Bible may, in fact, be the shape of a forgotten truth, seen through the distorted lens of our forgetful culture.
I’ve lived in Babel for some time now and I have been changed by it.  When it is taken from me I feel awkward, empty and lonesome –  a consumer made superfluous by the absence of something to consume.  People talk about the tower of Babel but, reading the story again this morning, I notice that the problem was really the city of Babel, that riot of faces and voices and ideas that murdered solitude, excelled at self-congratulation and, yes, sprouted into a tower.  But I don’t think that God was afraid of towers.  He stopped the riot of Babel, as he perhaps stopped my electricity, so we would be quiet for a little while, reenter the world and, possibly, hear his voice.

Our moment in the sun

We are sitting at Denny’s, Joy and I, taking her grandfather out for breakfast a couple of days after Christmas.  An odd thing happens when I pick up the menu.  This faintly sullen room in a largely forlorn city falls away and I am drawn into a different place.  On the cover of the menu there is a picture of a young couple dining in a booth very similar to our own, but also very different.  Perhaps it is only the photography and lighting, but rays of warmth seem to shoot out of the scene.  The woman in the picture, in particular, is radiant.  Her golden hair emits light, her eyes sparkle and her mouth is open, breathing in the world, breathing out warm sweetness.  There is no trace of pride in her smile, nor reservation.  Her face is a gentle spring sun and there is not a cloud in the sky.

Hank sits across from me.  As I lower the menu, ruminating, his face is the next thing I see.  He settles his teeth, sighs faintly, wears an expression of grim resignation.  Hank is a veteran of WWII, a man of great strength and honor, yet there are many clouds in his sky.  Time has done to him what the Great Depression and the Japanese army and years in the steel mills of Buffalo could not.  He shuffles across the room, gripping the cursed walker without which he can no longer stand; shuffles past faded pictures of his once-young wife, past stacks of CD’s and LP’s of once-popular musicians, past all manner of things which, at times, can raise a memory of the good that is gone.

He is a quiet man.  Probably, there were years or days or even a moment in his walk through this hard world in which the skies cleared, in which he smiled and his eyes sparkled and his hair gleamed in the sunlight, but they are an old memory now that he keeps to himself.  He settles his teeth, blinks in grim resignation, grips the walker and shuffles to his chair.  When it is time to go I touch his arm, say goodbye.  He looks at me and drops, for a moment, his faraway look, and says, “So long”.  Yes, I think; it sure is.

My youngest daughter was sifting through old photos the other day and pulled one out.  I am in it, sitting on the Borisch’s porch some twenty years ago, hair still dark, arms around (what were then) my two little girls.  Emily appeases the photographer with her normal composed and slightly ironic smile.  Annie, impossibly skinny and a world younger in spirit, is not so much smiling as baring her teeth in selfless, defiant abandon.  I love this old picture for the same reason that she does not; it is a moment saved from the wreck of time, a moment before the need for vanity or dignity had occurred to her, a moment in which joy seemed solid and permanent, not the fragile and teetering thing we have found it to be.

It is for this reason that a Christmas tree stands in my living room, even now as we approach the middle of January.  Early every morning, I stumble across the dark room and plug it in, then sit for a while, watching.   What is it that I watch?  Not a memory of something good that is gone, but the defiant gleam of a small light in a dark world.

I hope you don’t mind my saying that this world is dark.  Its every beauty is, at some level, heartbreaking because we  know that it will not endure; every wedding is the preface to two funerals.  Though God has set eternity in our hearts, our other parts will soon enough return to dust.  This is not a dark way of looking at the world; this is the world, however we choose to look at it.

And so, Christmas;  not just the holiday but the holy fact that Christ did come and will come; that every real joy we meet here is a gift from him, that every evil done here will receive his eternal veto.   If I were a braver or wiser man, I think that I would smile as Annie smiled that day, in selfless, defiant abandon, for it is darkness that shall pass, or that is what the Christmas lights seem to whisper to me.