We love data, big and small. Facts. Analytics. Info. In the past several years, even, you can see ways in which our whole society operates by a near-obsessive equivocation between data and truth. And you can certainly see our fact obsession at play in the ways Christians read the Scriptures. In evangelical circles, if not the broader Western church, the Bible functions a lot like an encyclopedia of life principles. Consciously or not, we often think the Bible is a collection of divine info. A life manual. Proof-texting is our version of data-mining.
This phenomenon fits part of what author Matthew Mullins calls a Cartesian hermeneutic of information, which he sees as the dominant, Western Christian approach to reading. At the risk of oversimplifying, it goes like this: the content of any text — a sentence or paragraph, book or email — has only little to do with the actual word choices and syntax. What you’re doing when you read, in this model, is trying to get behind the text to get to what it means. The form(s) only matters as a vehicle for content.
When it comes to Christians and our reading of Scripture, you can see the tension. The Bible holds all this data, and yet God breathed it into life in forms other than bullet points. In the introduction to his new book, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures, Mullins poses this more pointedly: Christians believe God gives us his word in the Bible in order to form our families and our work and all of our lives around it, and yet many Western readers evidently see little value in poetry and poetic forms. And the reality is that the Bible is full of poetry.
“The hatred of poetry poses a unique problem for Christians not only because roughly one-third of the Bible is made up of poems,” writes Mullins, who teaches English at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, “but also because it exposes a serious problem with how we read the Bible and understand its purpose.”
That serious problem, and how we may right it, are what Mullins and I discussed last week.
I know people, as I'm sure you do, who read the Bible (admirably) regularly. And yet they often can’t tell you much about the Bible as a composition — what are the books, what do they say, how do they relate. What’s going on in those cases?
It's a product of what kind of lenses we bring to the text, what kind of assumptions and presuppositions about what it would mean to understand the Scripture. If you have a view of the Bible as this list of instructions, sometimes buried in weird stories or lists of people’s parentage, about who I should marry or where I should go to school or how many kids should I have, when you take that approach, you actually start to cut away and lose all of the features that make the Bible what it is.
No one enjoys reading instruction manuals. You can enjoy fixing something or assembling something by way of reading the instruction manual. But you’re not going to get that manual back out a year from now and curl up with it in bed with a cup of coffee just to revisit those steps. No one does that. You only read an instruction manual for a desired outcome that exists beyond the text itself. It's because of that I think that we don't enjoy the Bible, and we don’t really take pleasure in it.
Often among Christians, there’s an emphasis on loving the Bible. In your book, though, you hone in on enjoying.
The idea of the pleasure of the text is both understanding the text as pleasurable, and sometimes you also have to take pleasure in something in order to understand it. That's what I think a lot of Christians who want to read the Bible in order to form and shape their lives are missing.
What I'm trying to say is that instruction is not only about telling you what to think or do. Instruction is about being transformed as a human person, and instruction is about love and not just knowledge. Knowledge is about guts and not just neuro-chemical synapses. We have an impoverished understanding of what instruction is.
I want to redefine understanding to include emotion or intuition or affect, which my colleagues who teach the Hebrew Bible tell me is much more in line with the way the Hebrew Bible conceives of understanding. It’s this inseparably intellectual and emotional act.
Is it possible to read the Scriptures well and not enjoy them?
I think the answer to that is no. An example is Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path.” If I'm walking in darkness or I don't know what to do, then I should turn to the word of God, it offers me some type of instructions. Voila, my path is lightened up. Is that what the verse means? In part, yes. It is trying to instruct your mind and trying to give you practical advice as to what to do when you don't know what to do, which is to turn to God's word.
But that’s an incomplete reading. Because, when you start to attend to the form of the text and how it was written as a poem to pull at your guts and to appeal to your heart — it's using this metaphorical language of light and darkness — you begin to realize that the point of the Scripture isn't just to tell you to turn to God's word, it's actually trying to cultivate in you the same kind of desire for the Bible that you would have for light in a dark place. It’s not only trying to tell you to do this thing when you're uncertain, it's trying to instill in you the desire to do that thing. A complete understanding of Psalm 119:105 is one that accounts for that very practical advice and also for that spiritual formation goal of the verse.
What should we make of the fact that so much of the scripture is in poetic form?
On the one hand, poetry is just older than what we think of as prose. For a lot of ancient near east cultures, poetry was the primary way in which they told themselves the stories of who they were.
On the other hand, there is something fundamental about song and about play with language that renders ideas and emotions more accessible and memorable than just description. Because even when poetry is being descriptive, which it often is, it's not simply trying to explain something to you, it's trying actually to make you picture whatever the subject is in that moment. There's that famous line from Joan Didion in her essay “The White Album,” where she opens with, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In part, God created us as storytelling, song-singing creatures.
Once at church, in a college-aged gathering, I heard a speaker make a raised-voice point about the gospel of Christ beginning with the sonship of Jesus. That Jesus is God’s son, he said while chopping his arm at the air the way guys did at the time, forms the basis of Christian teaching. In his non-chopping hand, the speaker had his Bible open, as were ours, to the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and he camped out on verse one. “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Now, you may be able to make a case about sonship as the starting point for understanding the Christian gospel. But this verse isn’t it.
What the speaker ran into wasn’t necessarily a theological issue, at least not at first, but a grammatically one. He essentially saw a comma in the text and interpreted it like a colon. And it seems like he confused the two meanings of the word gospel, too. What he read, and taught, as a grand theological pronouncement is better read as a fairly simple clarifying clause. Not “This is the starting point for the gospel: Jesus is the son of God,” but “I’m about to give you the biography of Jesus, who is God’s son.” But the better reading is a bit beside the point. I recall this instance often because it illustrates pretty simply the way reading the Bible (or anything) requires following along with stories, recognizing vocabulary, and, yeah, paying attention to punctuation. Reading scripture depends on reading.
Which, as an English scholar, is an aspect of enjoying the Bible where Mullins can supply help.
Okay, given we embrace the literary nature of the Bible, what are we to do with the fact that so much of the scripture is in poetic form?
I'm big on what Alan Jacobs calls “reading at whim.” And I'm actually a proponent of this with regard to the Bible specifically. Even though Jacobs applies reading at whim more broadly to reading, I think if we were to stop only reading the Bible for those very instructional purposes and start reading it for whim and pleasure, my sense is that it might start to change our relation to the Bible for the better.
It worked for me. I was doing this over the winter. I just got obsessed with the story of Samuel, and I had never really attended to the story in this way. I probably read the first five or six chapters of 1 Samuel about 20 times during those months. I kept coming back to it again and again and again, and I love that story now. I knew it before, but I didn't love it. I encourage people to pick up the Scripture and start to read it at whim.
Another really important reading strategy is to slow down. Stop reading like you've got to get at some goal. I'm not saying reading plans are bad or that church group readings are bad. We read through the New Testament three years ago at my church, and that was great. But if we're talking about strategies of reading that can shake up your expectations and reform your values, I say pick up a passage you really like or a verse that's stumped you or a psalm that you just think is beautiful and just sit with it. Set a timer for eight or 10 minutes, sit down with your passage and read it a few times, and then sit and reflect, meditate, close your eyes — don’t worry about where your brain goes, it's fine. I've found this to be helpful in realigning my expectations of reading the scripture.
Like basketball or piano or really anything, reading is something we can do well or poorly — and we can get better. What are some ways we can improve as readers in that respect?
Probably the two most important, really practical, technical questions from a literary standpoint are, first, to stop asking of a text at hand, What does it mean? Not forever. But if you need to ask a question, one you might ask is, How does it mean?
I take this in part from the famous book about reading poetry by John Ciardi called How Does a Poem Mean? If you ask how not what, you start paying attention to the structure of a text. The way a verse means is by using metaphorical language. The writer calls the word of God a light and a lamp. When you focus on the structure of a text, you realize that the structure, the form, is actually inseparable from what we often think of as “content.” We're told all throughout the Bible that scripture is God-breathed, that Scripture is to be delighted in. What's significant about this particular use of “light” and “lamp.” Start asking how does a scripture passage mean.
The second practical question is related. Once you start to pay attention to how the text is structured, you can start asking, How else could the author have said this? How else could the psalmist have said, “Turn to God's word when you need instruction”? Maybe he could've said something like, your word is a river. Or he could've said point blank, “Turn to God's word when you need instruction.” Be he didn’t. So, we need to ask what about “light” and “lamp” are so integral to the passage’s meaning?
If you learn to ask those two questions — How is this text meaning? and How else could it have been structured? — and thereby to start to pay closer attention to the form in which a passage or chapter or book is written, the world of reading and understanding the more literary aspects of the text will open up to you.
Like you’d expect from an English prof, Mullins stays tethered to his thesis. And as much as we talked about the nature and work of reading, the hermeneutics of Descartes and the punctuation skills of Floridians, he returned consistently to the generative, knowledge-broadening value of enjoying the Bible. “If you want more about reading the Bible as literature, there are plenty of good books on that,” he said toward the end of our conversation. “You can go read Robert Altar on the Art of Biblical Poetry or the Art of Biblical Narrative, and those will illuminate your reading in English. But my point is that if you can’t ever get to the place where you want to read Mark because you're tantalized by the story, it’s only ever going to feel like homework."