You and me and Rob Bell should all hang out. Why? Because that is the point, at least according to Rob Bell. It would be cool, plus he could enlighten us. I am writing this in reaction to a two-part podcast I listened to where Rob Bell unwound the story of Ruth from the Bible. Title:, “You and Me and Ruth.” You get my drift, if you understand who Rob Bell is.
Rob Bell is a former paster, who is now a humanist and universalist. His latest speaking tour (2019) is called the “Introduction to Joy” tour, because, you know, we can’t figure out joy unless Rob explains it to us. He is the man with the answers. To cut to the point, Rob Bell thinks we should ditch the idea of God, and substitute something a little more amorphous - the “divine” (whatever that means). I think for him, some kind of enormous Kumbaya that we generate all together. When we figure out that there is really nothing more, we will be filled with joy. If you caught a hint of sarcasm in that last sentence, you are on the right track. I am not buying what Rob Bell is selling.
Rob Bell has riled orthodox Christian thinkers with a series of books intended to demystify and debunk the Bible, because for him, the Bible is a no more than a huge library of human consciousness. His latest book is entitled: “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 sells us a vision of the Bible that is similar to Brian McLaren’s - a reflection of human culture and how far we have progressed, but nothing more. This does not stop smart people like, say, Rob Bell from adding to that ancient canon of wisdom with his own cleverness, hence his podcast, You and Me and Ruth.
Rob Bell can be annoying, because he uses his pastoral training in Hebrew, and in methods of exegesis, to browbeat the uninitiated. His best audience, I think, young people who have really never read the Bible for themselves and are therefore easily impressed. In this particular podcast, he makes much of pronouncing Bethlehem, according to the Hebrew pronunciation Bethle-kh-em with heavy emphasis on the Kh slurry sound in the middle. It makes him sound erudite. It can be distracting. He makes much of his own commentary, equating it with ‘midrash’, that is interpretation extrapolated from ancient scriptures by Talmudic scholars, and tacked on as commentary. Rob Bell wants to be your Rabbi because you are too dumb to read the source and figure it out yourself.
Getting to the story of Ruth: I am assuming you are familiar with it. If not, read it here. It is a series of books in the Bible that tell how Ruth, a Moabite, came to be married into the blood line of King David and Jesus Christ. It is an extraordinary story, because it shows us how God treats the stranger and the foreigner. It is also, simply, a good story. It has all the elements of what makes great reading - loss, hardship, exile and return, restoration, love, and the promise of a future.
Rob’s take on the story is entirely humanist. In reading the story, we are looking for ourselves in it, and understanding the points where we have experienced loss and hardship, but found a way to move forward. In my estimation, it is a real human story, yes. But that is not what sets it apart. The Gospel happens to real human beings, even bitter ones, and that is what makes it special. The story also falls into the meta-narrative of the entire Bible. In the end it is a story about Jesus Christ and that is where Rob Bell misses the point. He fails to see the connection to the whole.
That does not stop Rob Bell from hitting all the right buzz words. He points out that the story is about WOMEN. It’s a chick story, where chicks get empowered and the men are useless. He makes much of the Hebrew word “Khesed”, which he claims is the key to the story, the idea that we can practise a better kind of universal love that can move us forward as a society. He waxes saucy on the portion of the story where Ruth plants herself in the threshing room with Boaz, her love interest. Rob wonders what REALLY went on, (you know, the part that stays in Vegas) where Ruth pleasures Boaz, because of course, how could two people be in a room together and not have sex? It is with such asides the Rob Bell gets off track with his own clever and modern take on things yet fails to see what is plain, if you just read the story. It is ironic that Rob Bell wants to teach us how to unpeel the onion and see what is really there, but in the end simply overlays his own bias on the surface without going much further.
The subtext of the entire story of Ruth, is the Kinsman Redeemer, from Leviticus 25. It is part of God’s instruction for his vision of the perfect society, the one where human beings forgive and help each other, and where those who are broken or suffering from bad luck get a chance to heal. The kinsman redeemer narrative points out that a relative has first responsibility in helping you out when you are down on your luck. Even Jesus obliquely refers to this order of obligation in Mark 7:11 when he criticizes the Pharisees for accepting “corban”, the designation given to a special gift to the church that allows people to sidestep their primary obligation to help their aging parents.
The story of Ruth, is about doing the right thing. Manning up to your obligations. This is where Bell gets it wrong. Given the emphasis on chastity in ancient cultures, the idea that Ruth and Boaz are getting it on in the threshing room is simply silly. It’s a teen-ager’s take on the events. In my estimation, Ruth’s appearance alone with Boaz on the threshing floor makes herself vulnerable to his sense of honour. Being there forces his hand - she trusts he will do the right thing and stand up to his own obligations to help her as a distant relative.
The coda to the story of Ruth, appears in the first chapter of the book of Matthew, which details the lineage of Jesus Christ. Ruth gets her mention as foreigner, as well as Rahab the prostitute, and Tamar, who got pregnant by her father. And so and so begat so and so, on down the list to Jesus Christ. Rob Bell, it’s all one big story in the end, the story of Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who gathers in the stranger, the abused, the oppressed, the disenfranchised.
Rob, you missed the point.
Rob Bell’s version or God’s version? While Rob Bell may dupe a generation of the Biblical illiterate, I think there are deeper riches to be had if you just read the Bible for yourself, for what it is. You can deep dive into the larger connections the Bible has, as one narrative about Jesus Christ, not so deeply buried beneath the pages.
No Midrash necessary. Especially from Rob Bell. Not my rabbi. Ever seeing but never perceiving, ever hearing but never understanding is how Isaiah framed it. There is a better story to be had in the story itself, if Rob Bell will simply forego his own bias and read it for what it is.