What is the Bible by Rob Bell – Part 4
Part 4: Fish#2
In this section I want you to see how insane some discussions about the Bible are and how they serve as massive distractions from the transforming experiences that are possible when we read these stories as they were meant to be read.
That said, according to the story Jonah gets swallowed by a fish. Jonah then prays in the fish, and then three days later
the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
-Jonah Chapter 2
Now some instantly respond to a man being swallowed by a fish and living to tell about it with a rolling of the eyes followed quickly by Really? It’s 2013! Haven’t we moved past all that magical/mythical thinking? Haven’t we outgrown these fairytales? Aren’t these the exact sort of claims that have turned off so many people from the Bible-let alone God and faith and Jesus and all that?
Others have a very different response: If the Bible says a man was swallowed by a fish, then a man was swallowed by fish! If you deny that this story happened as the author says it happened then what about all the other stories? If you deny this one, then aren’t you denying all the others with miraculous elements in them? And if you deny this one but affirm others, aren’t you essentially picking and choosing which ones you want to believe?
What do I think? I don’t think it matters what you believe about a man being swallowed by a fish.
If you don’t believe it literally happened, that’s fine. Lots of people of faith over the years have read this story as a parable about national forgiveness. They point to many aspects of the surreal nature of the story as simply great storytelling because the author has a larger point, one about the Israelites and the Assyrians and God’s call to be a light to everyone, especially your enemies.
Right on. Well said.
Just one problem. Some deny the swallowed-by-a-fish part not from a literary perspective, but on the basis ofthose things just don’t happen. Which raises a number of questions: What’s the criteria for the denial? Do we only affirm things that can be proven in a lab? Do we only believe things we have empirical evidence for? Do we believe or not believe something happened based on…whether we believe that things like that happen or not? (That was an awkward sentence. Intentionally.) Can we only affirm things that make sense to us? Are we closed to everything that we can’t explain?
If we reject all miraculous elements of all stories because we have made up our mind ahead of time that such things simply aren’t possible, we run the risk of shrinking the world down to what we can comprehend. And what fun is that?
That said, there are others who say Of course he was swallowed a fish, that’s what the story says happened!
Just one problem. It’s possible to affirm the literal fact of a man being swallowed by a fish, making that the crux of the story in such a way that you defend that, believe that, argue about that-and in spending your energies on the defend-the-fish-part miss the point of the story, the point about allowing God’s redeeming love to flow through us with such power and grace that we are able to love and bless even our worst enemies.
For the people who first heard this story, it would have been intended to have a provocative, unsettling effect. The Assyrians? The Assyrians were like a huge, gaping, open wound for the Israelites. Bless the Assyrians?
The story is extremely subversive because it insists that
your enemy may be more open to God’s redeeming love than you are.
That’s why the book ends not with a conclusion but a question. A question God has for Jonah-a question God has for the Israelites-
Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh…?
This story demands what is called non-dual awareness. Many see the world in dualistic terms, terms in which there are the good people and the bad people, the sinners and the saints, us and them-a world in which people stay true to the labels and categories we’ve placed them in…
But this story wants none of that. It blasts our biases and labels to pieces with the declaration that God is on everyone’s side, extending grace and compassion to everyone-especially those we have most strongly decided are not on God’s side.
Religious people have been very good over the years at seeing themselves as US and people that aren’t a part of their group as THEM. But in this story, the dude who sees himself as us is furious because of how chummyGod and them have become. He’s so furious, he’d rather die than live with the tension.
Which takes us back to the fish: it’s easy for the debate about the fish part to provide a distraction form the tensions of the story that actually have the capacity and potential to confront us and disrupt with God’s love, the kind of love that can actually transform us into more mature and courageous people, people who love even our enemies. (Nod to Jesus there.)
Now let me take it farther: It’s possible in defending the literal “facts” of the story to be missing the point of the story that can actually change your heart and in the process be turning people off from engaging the Bible.
Which takes us back to the insane part: You can argue endlessly about fish, thinking you’re defending the truth or pointing out the ridiculous outmoded nature of the man-in-fish-miracle, only to discover that everybody in the discussion has conveniently found a way to avoid the very real, personal, convicting questions that story raises about what really lurks deep in our hearts.
Next – What is the Bible? Part 5: Tower