Review: Enjoying the Bible

Enjoying the Bible, Matthew Mullins. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: Explores how learning to read literature helps us love the Bible rather than just reading it as a divine instruction manual.

Sometimes, people come to the Bible, say a passage in the Psalms, and come away baffled. Shouldn’t we be able to just read it and get the message? Yet this is not always our experience. We walk away saying, “I don’t get it.” Or we treat the Bible as a divine instruction manual, looking for the answer to particular challenges in our lives. Or perhaps, from our Bible quiz days, if we did such a thing, we treat the Bible as an information source. But Matthew Mullins wonders whether such ways of engaging the Bible help us love the scriptures, and in turn the Triune God to whom they point.

Mullins teaches English, and he finds that for many of the same reasons, people hate poetry. They read it and don’t get it, the message isn’t straightforward. He contends that our difficulty is reading with Cartesian eyes, looking for information: who is the author and what is the author trying to say? When was it written? What is the main idea? He encourages instead, a hermeneutic of love, where we enter deeply into the passage, allowing it “to captivate, entice, comfort, shock, and even sicken” to allow ourselves to experience the emotional weight of the passage, not just the information within.

He contends that the Bible is literature and to be read literarily, recognizing the various forms that make up scripture. He contends that the literary parts of scripture, like the Psalms don’t just tell us something but invite us to inhabit a world. Psalm 23, for example, not unlike Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” elicits emotions, feelings, the sense of a world. The Psalm invites us to see what a relationship with God is like, in both times of peace and danger.

He invites us to read with our guts rather than “studying.” He encourages us to slow down, even, in the words of Alan Jacobs, to read at whim. Using poetry alongside scripture, he takes us through a number of exercises that allow us to enter into the world of the text–standing in front of it and looking, asking questions based on what we see. Three chapter follow on how we read, looking for the general sense, the central emotion, and the formal means (that is, the forms, like metaphor, used to convey meaning). He uses Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerfully evocative “We Wear the Mask” alongside Psalm 119. He follows the chapter on the formal means with an explanation of some of the forms we encounter in scripture.

In concluding, he discusses “negative capability,” our ability to wrestle with and rest in uncertainty. Entering the world of a biblical text takes time and if we are uncomfortable with lots of questions and uncertainty, we will never get to the other side of its complexity, of encountering and loving God in the text. He invites us into habituation, taking regular time to sit with texts of scripture. Then, in the afterword, he invites us into one further practice–reading aloud. Reading aloud slows us down and helps us hear the rhythm of the language. It enables us to listen to the sound and sense of the text. Done communally we hear and speak the word of God with each other, and love the One who speaks.

I found much to commend and a few sticking points. The biggest sticking point was that I felt he created a straw man of Cartesian reading. Perhaps this is a reality in his own circles, but much more common in my experience is the lost art of reading observantly, contemplatively and literarily. Many have spoken of how the internet has “broken” our brains when it comes to attending to more complex forms of writing, whether poetry or the Bible. The other issue is the focus on poetry. There is a lot of poetry in scripture to be sure, but also a lot else, with relatively less guidance for how to read these genres or forms other than to be aware of them.

Having noted these criticisms, I found much of value in his approaches to paying attention to the general sense, central emotion, and formal means of the text. I loved setting poetry alongside scripture to show similar reading strategies with each. I appreciated his encouragements that we become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, similar to what his students (and perhaps all of us) have felt before a poem like The Wasteland. I’ve often asked graduate students why they are comfortable spending months or years studying a challenging text, trying to accurately render a historical event, understand a physical phenomena, or solve a math problem but are uncomfortable that they still have questions after studying a Bible passage for 45 minutes.

Many people don’t love scripture. They think they should but often walk away frustrated. This work can help, particularly if read slowly, working through the exercises the author gives the reader. To begin with, he leads us into some familiar texts and helps us love them. He offers strategies for reading that, if they become habits, may help us “in-habit” the text and come to love it as we encounter in it the God who loves us. And, who knows, reading Mullen might whet our appetite to try our hand at other poetry, which would not be a bad thing.

Review: The 30-Minute Bible

The 30-Minute Bible, Craig G. Bartholomew and Paige P. Vanosky, with illustrations by Br. Martin Erspamer. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: An overview of the big story of the Bible, broken into 30 readings of roughly 30 minutes in length, accompanied by charts, diagrams, and illustrations.

Paige Vanosky, a co-author of this book describes its beginning with a request from an ecumenical women’s group, asking if she could “explain the story of the Bible in just thirty minutes?” This, in turn led to a chronological study of the message of the Bible with women’s groups and her collaboration with theologian Craig G. Bartholomew in development of The 30-Minute Bible, a collection of thirty short readings tracing the big story of scripture through six acts:

  1. Act One: God Establishes His Kingdom: Creation
  2. Act Two: Rebellion in the Kingdom: The Fall
  3. Act Three: The King Chooses Israel: Salvation Initiated
  4. Act Four: The Coming of the King: Salvation Accomplished
  5. Act Five: Spreading the News of the King: The Mission of the Church
  6. Act Six: The Return of the King: Redemption Completed

The largest portion of the readings are devoted to Act Three (15 readings covering Old Testament history from the fall to the intertestamental period) and Act Four (7 on John and the ministry of Jesus in the gospels).

The readings are straightforward, clear, and free of technical language. Here is an excerpt from Chapter Two (Act One) on the Creation:

“If, like us, you love art, Genesis 1 is like being taken to the most extraordinary exhibition you have ever seen. But imagine if, even as you are exploring the exhibition with wide eyes, a friend comes up to you and asks, “Would you like to meet the artist?” Of course, your answer would be, “Yes.” This is exactly what the Bible does in its opening chapters. Yes, the creation is wonderful, but even more wonderful is the One who made it, and a major aim of the Bible is to introduce us to the Creator God. What is the Creator like? The opening words begin to provide our answer.

Craig G. Bartholomew and Paige P. Vanosky, p. 15

At the conclusion of each chapter of four to six pages, short scripture readings related to and often referenced in the readings. The authors encourage reading these passages in a modern translation. In my own reading, I found I could read each chapter and the scripture passage in about twenty minutes, although one might want to take a little more time for reflection, so the title is accurate.

This is not a comprehensive introduction to every book in scripture, although a helpful chart outlines the organization of the books in our Bibles. The Old Testament portion focuses on historical narratives, with scattered references to the writings and the prophets. Likewise, in the New Testament, the greatest attention is to the gospels and Pauline works, Acts, and Revelation. The authors suggest online and written resources that help in going deeper.

The readings do include charts, chronologies, maps and diagrams that help provide background context. One of the most delightful features are the illustrations by Br. Martin Erspamer, allowing for a visual as well as textual engagement of the story. I was particularly taken by the art piece showing Jesus with Mary in the garden after the resurrection.

I’ve worked with many intimidated as they try to read the Bible. They got lost in Leviticus or numbed by Numbers. They lack a sense of how all the books of scripture cohere. Even for many who have some familiarity with the Bible, they know the stories, but lack a sense of the big story of God, how this is for everyone, and relates to all of life. The authors point out how all of us live within Act Five, Spreading the News of the King, looking forward to Act Six, the Return of the King. Knowing the story within which we live is life-shaping, speaking to our sense of purpose, what we value most dearly, how we relate to the different communities we are part of, and how we think about the substance of our work. This compact book leads the reader into discovering that story. I wish I had this to pass along years ago and I look forward to using it with groups in the future.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Going Deeper: A Book of Glory or A Confusing Book?

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

For some of us, our experience of reading the Bible seems to vacillate between these two extremes. Sometimes we see amazing things about God and God’s purposes and the human experience that catch us up in wonder. And sometimes, we are just plain perplexed and confused as we read and try to figure out, “what is this about?”

My title though has a particular reference to what we’ve been considering in our church’s study of John’s Gospel. Often the book is divided into two parts: The Book of Signs (John 1-12) and The Book of Glory (John 13-20 or 21 if you include the epilogue). The first part consists of Seven Signs that are meant to help persuade us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (cf John 20:31). The second part concerns the final events of Jesus life and passion, in which John sees Jesus being glorified. Five chapters (13-17) consist of a lengthy talk and prayer that at first reading may seem confusing, even if there are some glimpses of glory along the way.

An example of both is John 13:31-32. Judas has just left to betray Jesus and here’s what follows:

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

There is definitely some glory in there but also some fairly convoluted sentences. There is a good deal of this kind of thing in these chapters. It is not my intent to unravel all this here but rather to remind those of us in our church what our pastor said about working through this material, which might be helpful for others who find themselves confused either in John’s gospel or other parts of scripture.

1.What Jesus says is worth our attention! Right before this section, Jesus reminds his followers:

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (John 12:49-50)

If Jesus is saying just what the Father wants him to say and these commands lead to eternal life, careful attention is warranted!

2. A good way to pay attention is to read (and re-read) before our messages. That’s not a bad way to pay attention for one thing. Also, even if we can’t figure it all out–it will prepare us to hear the word explained in our Sunday messages. This is just good sense in general and a good argument for knowing ahead of time what texts of scripture will be preached on so we can read, pray, and be working with our pastor to understand what God is saying. Rich even gave us a schedule–so no excuses!

3. The third thing that Rich shared is to reflect. The questions he gave us are good for this section, and maybe more generally as well.

  • How does my belief in Jesus affect my daily life?
  • How well am I doing at loving?
  • How well am I doing at obeying?

Believing, loving, and obeying are pretty basic stuff–basic but also challenging! I will never in this life get beyond believing, loving, and obeying. I often want the new and exciting. But if I’ve seen anything in John, it is in these things that we find life in Jesus. We’ve learned that our healing is in our obedience. In the man born blind, we saw that believing was seeing for him–the more he believed, the more he saw.

So, where will you make time this week to pay attention to Jesus, to read and re-read what he says, and reflect on how well you are believing, loving and obeying? Can you take time this week to read over on your own the text from either last week’s message in church, or the one for the week to come? Are there some others you can talk with about this stuff?

If’s funny how many times I listen to messages and forget what I heard before I get to the parking lot! If nothing else, Going Deeper helps me keep reflecting on how what I’ve heard should affect my belief and my behavior. I hope that for all of us, that we can be not only hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). That would be glorious!

All the posts I’ve made for our “Going Deeper” blog now appear as a separate category on my home page.