Religious scholar, pastor, and all-around fascinating guy Rob Bell thinks that most everyone teaching religious texts these days is teaching it wrong. It’s a lot of parables and metaphors, he posits, and there’s no way that people should be reading religious texts like the Bible or the Quran literally. As we’ve seen over the course of history, the more fundamentalist the approach to religion, the more destruction is caused. Apply the stories to the historical context to which they came from, he says, and you’ll learn to appreciate religious texts a lot more. Rob’s latest book is What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.
Rob Bell: Yeah, oftentimes when people talk about sacred texts, for many people the sort of thing that you say to show how serious you are is “Well, you know, we take it literally.”
That actually has caused an extraordinary amount of destruction in the world. So I begin with, I try to take it LITERATELY. So if it’s a poem, then it’s a poem. And if it’s a letter, who wrote it, and when did they write it, and who are they writing it to?
What was the world like at that time? If it was history but the writer is kind of winking along the way like “This is what I’m really saying,” then you take it with that subtlety and nuance and even humor.
So all religious texts have to be interpreted, and the really dangerous thing is when someone says “I’m not giving you my opinion. I’m just telling you what it says.” Because that’s actually their opinion!
If you deny human agency it generally leads to some sort of oppression or exploitation. So everything gets way more interesting when you start reading it literately because you then don’t have to do those awkward explanations.
One of the greatest examples of this is there’s this ancient story about Jonah who gets swallowed by a fish. Not a whale, a fish. Because that’s what it says in the ancient text. And so the question often becomes a debate on whether or not a guy really got swallowed by a fish.
And you have the literalists going “it says he got swallowed by a fish, he got swallowed by a fish.” And then you have the others going “no, it’s a larger metaphor.”
But what’s interesting: as the story begins, the Assyrians were the worst neighbors. They were the cruel oppressors who had made life miserable. And so this man Jonah is told go and bless Nineveh, and Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.
So the story begins with a man being told “go bless your worst most heinous enemy.” And he doesn’t. He goes the other direction. He runs away, which I think the original audience would have cheered this man Jonah on. “You go the other direction! Whatever you do don’t go bless the person who has made your life a living hell.”
So he eventually gets on a boat. There’s a storm and he’s thrown overboard and he’s swallowed by a fish. I think the power of the story is not arguing about whether or not he was swallowed by a fish. I think the story was told to a group of people to confront them with how they cannot forgive their worst enemy.
And will the past and the wounds that you have suffered define you and hold you back, or can you forgive? Can you move towards your enemy, not with violence, but with love? Do the things that have happened to us define us, or is there a love that can transcend even this?
So this would be a classic example to me where there’s an ancient text and a story where you can in your attempt to defend it literally actually avoid the more interesting questions of the heart that I think are the questions the storyteller is trying to get at.
And yes, in our world to this day, taking some of these texts literally has caused so much violence.
You read the ancient text. You also use your mind. You listen for what new thing might be happening in the world. You read it as a fully orbed experience, and then it actually gets quite inspiring.