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Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures

Matthew Mullins
Published by Baker Academic in 2021

In “Finally Comes The Poet, Daring Speech for Proclamation,” published in 1989, Walter Brueggemann declares to pastors honing their preaching skills:

     “When the text comes to speak about [the] alternative life wrought by God, the text must use poetry.  There is no other way to speak.  We know about that future—we know surely—but we do not know concretely enough to issue memos and blueprints.  We know only enough to sing songs and speak poems.  That however, is enough.  We stake our lives on such poems….

    Poets, in the moment of preaching, are permitted to perceive and voice the world differently, to dare a new phrase, a new picture, a fresh juxtaposition of matters long known.  Poets are authorized to invite a new conversation, with new voices sounded, new hearings possible.  The new conversation may end in freedom to trust and courage to relinquish.  The new conversation, on which our very lives depend, requires a poet and not a moralist.  Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules.  The deep places in our lives—places of resistance and embrace—are not ultimately reached by instruction.  Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors, and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fears and hurt.  The reflection that comes from the poet requires playfulness, imagination, and interpretation.  The new conversation allows for ambiguity, probe, and daring hunch….”

As a theologian, Brueggemann is not rejecting the intellectual rigor of Bible study, but he is affirming the very profound Truth found in the large body of poetic Scripture and religious expression that is diminished with a solely analytic approach.   

The Brueggemann quote well expresses the premise in “Enjoying the Bible,” a recent publication by Matthew Mullins, literature professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The author says, “The point is not to exchange head for heart, intellect for emotion.  The point is to develop a theory and practice of reading that account for both, even blurring the lines between them.”

Reading the Bible as literature, as Mullins himself says, is not a new idea.  Both the Brueggemann and Mullins books are filled with references for further reading, from quite old to more contemporary, varying according to projected audience or specific approach. It is clear that many people have explored the implications of reading the Bible, not as “an instruction manual” or as a “source of information” but as literature. If you want to be one of those explorers, you will have a great deal of company, and it is hard to think of a better starting point for many of us than “Enjoying the Bible.”

How we read the Bible affects the boundaries of our vision as much as what we read in the Bible, so Mullins’ core question is an important one: “What would it mean to read the Bible for love and not only for instruction?”  Mullins says, “The experience the Bible offers is that of a relationship with God, a communion with our Creator.  Shouldn’t such a view change your relationship with the text itself?  We are called not to complete the quest or conquer the text but to delight in it.”

He challenges us to note that historically “we are likely to take informational writing more seriously than literary writing”; “we are likely to treat anything we know we’re supposed to take seriously as if it were informational writing”; and “most of us don’t know how to read poems.”  Those might be more or less applicable for specific readers.  If you are frustrated by a cousin who will only read nonfiction because otherwise, “it’s not true,” or you squirm through “children’s sermons” that are determined to include abstract analogies, or you already love to read poetry, I can tell you with authority that you may at least appreciate the deft and comprehensive way Mullins leads readers down a more literary path. 

This book is a model of good teaching with a “here is what we will do,” “here is a new idea,” “here is what we did” approach.  The author constantly reviews and expands concepts, spiraling to make connections and build understanding. This, plus end-of-chapter questions and exercises makes it an excellent choice for small group meetings or church school classes. The bibliography and index would make it a useful reference as well. 

James K.A. Smith from Calvin University says, “Matthew Mullins invites readers to encounter the Bible as literature, not to diminish its revelatory authority but to break open its luminary capacity.”  It’s a good invitation to accept. 

Jane Cronkite

Jane Cronkite

Jane Cronkite has been a kindergarten and preschool teacher in public and private schools, and continues teaching music and piano to young children in her home studio.  She is a member of Third Reformed Church in Holland, MI.