I wonder if Rob Bell went to Hesston College. Actually, I know he didn’t, but his new book, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, sounds like he could have. It’s an explanation of key stories in the Bible and a collection of responses to questions that often come up about the nature of the Bible.
While Bell — a prominent writer, speaker and former pastor — puts his signature polish on the material, he is doing something familiar to anyone who has gone through a Bible class at a Mennonite or Church of the Brethren college or seminary.
Bell’s interpretive lens for reading the Bible is based on three simple assumptions:
- The Bible is a human document, written by real people, in real places, in the midst of real history and political situations, in an attempt to make sense of themselves, their world and God.
- Our first task as Bible readers is to figure out what the writer was saying in the original context before applying the message to our world and life.
- The story of the Bible is going somewhere. It’s not a static book. God is moving us in a direction, and different parts of the Bible should be read in light of that movement.
I will go out on a limb and say those propositions are the foundation for almost any Bible and religion department at any Mennonite school of higher education. This can even be seen in the list of authors Bell suggests for further reading. I’ve got probably half of these books on my shelf, primarily because they were assigned in seminary.
While reading Bell, I kept coming back to a book by faculty from one particular Mennonite school: Hesston College in Kansas. I’m not a Hesston grad, but I have encountered a good bit of information from its Biblical Literature class, now available in The Bible as Story: An Introduction to Biblical Literature by Marion Bontrager, Michele Hershberger and John Sharp.
I couldn’t help but find parallels between What Is the Bible? and The Bible as Story. Both share the three assumptions I mentioned earlier. Both see the Bible as growing out of particular contexts, shaped and written by real people. The Hesston writers call the task of reading the Bible in context before applying it the “hermeneutical bridge.” They devote a chapter to inductive Bible study, which is essentially the process Bell uses.
When Bell says, “The stories in the Bible — and the Bible itself — have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have. . . . The story is headed somewhere,” he is describing what Bontrager, Hershberger and Sharp call the Heilsgeschichte, or salvation story.
What’s more, the crescendo of Bell’s book leads to the point that the Bible is a story of God standing on the side of the poor and the oppressed and against the empires that show up throughout the story. This interpretation fits squarely with the Anabaptist understanding of Heilsgeschichte.
The Bible as Story rightly talks about the difference between historical events and people’s interpretation of those events (Geschichte). This is exactly what Bell does when talking about how some biblical authors attributed actions (particularly violent ones) to God — events that may or may not actually be God acting but rather the author adding a layer of interpretation.
Or, take the definition of sin from both books. The Hesston authors say: “The four fall stories in the Primeval Geschichte [the early chapters of Genesis] illustrate sin’s alienating power in the breaking of four relationships: with God, self, others and all creation [emphasis mine].” Bell says: “Sin is the culpable disturbance of shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, wholeness, health and blessing. Shalom is the harmony God intends for the world. Shalom is how God wants things to be. Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth, with God [emphasis mine].”
Even the structure of the books is similar: a series of contextual explanations of key scriptures set within an unfolding trajectory, followed by chapters addressing issues that come up when studying the Bible.
It makes me wonder if The Bible as Story is on Bell’s shelf.
The truth of the matter is that Bell is influenced by the same circle of theologians and historians that Bontrager, Hershberger, Sharp and other Bible faculty in the Anabaptist community are. To be sure, many of these theologians and historians come to very different interpretations of specific scriptures. But their way of reading the Bible as a whole is not that different.
This approach to the Bible is not the norm in vast swaths of American Christianity. Bell is in good company with a theological community that hits close to our Anabaptist home.
Alan Stucky is pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kan.