Pt 2: But is he biblical?
That’s the question. The answer in short: it depends on how you define “biblical”.
If “biblical” = Evangelical hermeneutics, the author’s historically-determined intention for a passage governing the modern meaning and application, then no, he is not biblical.
Of course, much of popular, Evangelical, “Bible-believing” Christianity is a heckuva lot more about reinforcing and reinterpreting the traditions of American folk religion–moral therapeutic deism, anyone?–than any consciously historical-critical hermeneutic.
Most conservative American Christians are more about reinterpreting “old time religion” and the particulars of their denomination than they are about what the Bible meant when the biblical writers wrote it.
In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to describe (not judge or evaluate) Bell’s approach to scripture. AFTER the description, I’ll offer some criticism and evaluation.
First, Bell’s approach to scripture is a kind of modern rabbinic midrash. In his interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (Robcast #100), he talks about how, early in his preaching career, a Jewish Christian in his church came up to him after a sermon and started talking him through how rabbis taught the Torah.
Midrash is a thoroughly Jewish way of approaching the scriptures that goes beyond the text and explores ambiguity in the meanings of stories and words, fills in gaps, builds in multiple directions from a single starting point.
Midrash builds moral and theological lessons on, for example, the multiple meanings of a word, using the word in its context as raw material but not bound by the context.
Midrash is playful. It can delight in word games.
In midrash, a text is multivalent; it doesn’t have just one point, but can be used and applied in multiple ways. What controls meaning? Not the historical meaning of the text, but whether the congregation and the body of teachers judge an approach to be faithful or not.
Bell’s series on Lamentations, linked above, is a beautiful example of midrash.
Another beautiful example of Bell’s midrashing is sermon he podcasted earlier this week, tying Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.22f (“The eye is the lamp of the body”) with passages from Deuteronomy and Proverbs that use the image of a clear / dark eye to refer to generosity or selfishness. I daresay that most of the preachers I know could remove some of the more politically-correct facets from this sermon and happily preach it in their churches.
(More about Bell’s approach: narrative theology, N.T. Wright, Teilhard de Chardin, and Colossians 1 in the next post.)