The Bible is a revelation of who God is and what he has done and is doing for his people. And so much more. It is important that we read it well. And so Christians are rightly zealous to systematize its truth claims, have an apologetic for why its authoritative, and teach the dogmas of the church. We can become very cerebral, debating what the Bible says and missing what the word of God does. We can approach the text as something that needs interpreted with a fine-tooth comb rather than something that is meant to be enjoyed.
This is what Matthew Mullins wants to help us with in his book, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures. As an associate professor of English and history of ideas at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mullins noticed an incongruency. Most of his students say they love the Bible, and yet they don’t know what to do with poems. This is a real problem, because how can you read Scripture well if you can’t read poetry well? And what Mullins is getting at here is important—it’s about how we even approach the Bible. It is written to be enjoyed. This is the argument of Mullins’ book. “The implication is that if reading the Bible does not enact pleasure in you, then you may not understand what you have read…it was written not only to convey information about [God] but also to provide a way for us to commune with him, to meet him in his word.”
Borrowing from James K. A. Smith, Mullins reminds us that we are human beings who cannot be reduced to “brains on a stick.” We don’t just read for facts and information. We have emotions and imaginations which play a huge part in our understanding. The Bible isn’t to be read like an instruction manual. Who even likes to read instruction manuals? It is God’s word for his people. And so Mullins urges us that, “The purpose of our reading, and our understanding of what we read, should be filtered through the love of God and neighbor.” He suggests that if our Bible reading doesn’t result in this, then maybe we aren’t actually reading with understanding.
Mullins is careful to say that he is not setting up a dichotomy between our heads and our hearts, but to better understand and appreciate how intellect and emotion must work together. He begins the book making a case for how we have become so focused on finding the meaning in literature that we miss the art of it. In our attempts at interpretation of poetic literature, we can often miss the experience to be had in reading it with delight. He helps us to see the Bible as literature, which is meant to do more than download information. “It seeks to form us as people—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.” Yes, this certainly requires instruction, but Mullins is challenging our idea of what that means. “The purpose of a literary text is to activate our imaginations, to encourage us to pause, to wrestle, to reflect.”
The Bible invites us into a whole new world—the real world. There is much to discover. Of course it’s full of poetic language! In reading it, all of our senses are aroused as it invites us not only to learn about this world cerebrally, but to also to see it, feel it, and to long for it. Mullins writes about how fine poetry invites us to respond, seizing our imaginations intellectually. And then we don’t just read with our brains, we read with our guts. We don’t just worship our God by going through the motions; we worship with our guts.
Are you interested in this kind of reading? If so, I suggest you pick up Mullins’ book. Because he does much more than make a case for reexamining our approach to how we read the Bible. He does the work of teaching the reader how to read it as literature and even provides exercises to help you get started. You will begin to change your posture, notice new things, ask new questions, and participate more fully in the world it reveals with delight.
4 thoughts on “The Difference Between Conquering the Bible and Delighting in It”
SUPERB! Thank you, Mrs. Byrd!!
I recently listened to Simon Armitage’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and really enjoyed it. The music of the language is so fulfilling and pleasurable.
At the same time I was reading Job in the ESV. Ugh, what a slog! I switched to the MSG near the end and suddenly the poetry of the writing came alive. Sometimes I think it’s hard to delight in God’s word the way it is sometimes translated.
I love reading the Bible and have used the RSV since I learned to read, which is not to say other translations aren’t fine. When I’m teaching, I tell they children they should have a Bible they can read comfortably, in English or Spanish – tell your parents to try Amazon.com – and to start reading in 1 Samuel, because the Samuel/Kings histories are chock-full of fantastic stories.