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.