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.