The Bible is more than an instruction manual, argues Matt Mullins in this talk at Wisdom Forum: The Good Life. Here’s a transcript of his talk (edited for clarity).
My subject this evening is reading and the good life. I want to start with a few questions. Why do we read? More importantly, what are books for? How do we fit them into our vision of the good life?
If you are anything like me, over the course of your life, you have probably been taught both implicitly and explicitly that books serve two basic purposes – they inform and they entertain. Typically, these two purposes – information and entertainment – are represented as very distinct. One teaches, the other gives pleasure. One appeals to intellect, the other to emotion. As professor Jamie Smith has tirelessly argued, this stark separation of mind and body can obscure an important truth about who we are as humans. We’re not, as professor Smith likes to insist, “brains on sticks.” We are fully embodied creatures whose heads and hearts are designed to work together.
What does this mean for us as readers? How should books factor into a fully realized vision of what it means to be a person who is in pursuit of the good life? Maybe more specifically, how should we read the Bible in this pursuit? I mean, why is it that all of these competing visions of “the good life” seem to overpower the one that we find in God’s holy scriptures?
I want to cast a vision for how we can become better readers. I’m going to do so by making a claim that I have found to be a little provocative in my experience as a literature professor at a seminary. Here’s the claim, so that you won’t miss it: You can’t understand the Bible if you don’t love poetry. It’s one thing to imagine the scriptures as an instruction manual for living the good life, but its quite another to live the good life because you love the scriptures. Most of us have, I think, an instruction manual view of the Bible. I’d actually argue that this attitude prevents us from understanding the book because it prevents us maybe from loving it. Do you have a favorite instruction manual? Maybe you like to sit back with your car’s owner manual? But understanding entails a lot more than just the translation of ideas from the page to our brains. But how do we learn to love the scriptures?
I’m blessed to teach college students, and each semester I encounter a fresh new group of faces here at our College at Southeastern. Because I teach literature, I have the great privilege of studying poetry with them. These are bright people, many of whom have been raised in the church. They’ve been listening to sermons and Sunday School lessons for years. Many have attended Christian camps, conferences and worship events. My students are not usually novice Bible readers. Yet there tends to be a disconnect between the reading of the Bible and most everything else in their lives.
So, when we come to our first poet, in a survey of American literature, I routinely hear the same kinds of questions and laments. “What is the author trying to say?” “Why doesn’t she just say what she means?” “It’s like they are trying to make it confusing on purpose!” “Why don’t they just come out and say it?” And, the classic, “I just don’t get poetry.” So, in short, they hate poetry. They’re not alone. The poet and novelist, Ben Learner, just wrote a book called The Hatred of Poetry. Marianne Moore wrote a famous poem about poetry that begins with the line: “I, too, dislike it.” So, everyone seems to hate poetry, even the poets.
The hatred of poetry presents a serious problem for Christians who want to pursue the good life. After all, the most direct revelation of the good life we have is the Bible – and, as it turns out, about one third of the Bible is poetry. If we hate poetry, then it follows that we might actually hate a significant portion of the Bible. That’s not even the worst part. You probably don’t even realize that you hate the Bible because you think of it so thoroughly as an instruction manual that the arrangement of some of the words into poems probably doesn’t even register. So, in other words, you might hate the Bible and not really even know it.
Now maybe you are freaking out a little bit. You might even think that loving poetry, and thus the Bible, would require some kind of special training or higher education. As one poet, Matt Zapruder observes, “Poetry has an unfortunate reputation or requiring special training and education to appreciate it, which makes most of us feel, unnecessarily, as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.” So seemingly only elite scholars could really appreciate the poetry of the Bible. But, according to a well-known Bible scholar, biblical scholars rarely fall into the category of people who love poetry. So, rest assured – you don’t need a Ph.D. to learn to love the scriptures. In fact, it might very well make things worse.
I’m going to turn now to an example that I hope will offer a few concrete practices that, with time, can change your attitude and mind toward poetry – maybe shape our love for reading the scriptures. I’m going to use an example. Psalm 119:24 is one of my favorite verses: “Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors.” Now the plain sense of the verse is not difficult to understand, even though it uses the poetic language of metaphor. It asks us to imagine God’s statutes as a group of counselors. Metaphors make unfamiliar things familiar. They make abstract things a little more concrete. God’s statutes – that might seem kind of abstract, and so the psalmist use the metaphor of counselors to help us to imagine a relationship to his word. Counselors tend to be wise, experienced, honest; they may be interested in our well-being. A ruler might seek the advice of counselors when facing a tough decision for which she or he will bear the responsibility. Counselors can tell you when things are wrong, but they can also tell you when things are going well. They can advise, and they can encourage. So, the interpretation of the verse is pretty straight-forward. I would go to a counselor if I needed counsel. God’s word is a counselor. I should go to His word, when I need counsel. Nailed it.
That’s a little bit of an instruction manual view of what the book is for. Again, I have to ask– do you have a favorite instruction manual that you just love? Now, you may be thinking that I am going to tell you why that was wrong and what the real, secret, deeper meaning of the verse was. No. That’s not it at all. Of course, that’s what the verse means; or, at least, it is a part of what the verse means. We should turn to God’s word for counsel. But that’s not the entirety of the meaning, because the meaning is not reducible to that message. There is more to the meaning of Psalm 119:24 than that intellectual truth.
Let me try to illustrate. This verse became a favorite of mine when I was facing a really difficult trial. I didn’t know what to do in my life, and I was unsure how to handle a situation. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by older, wiser colleagues at Southeastern – experienced teachers and scholars who have run into every problem I will ever face and more. So, in the face of that difficult trial — when I didn’t know how to respond, I thought to myself one morning during my devotions and in reading Psalm 118, “I’ll go see Dr. Hammond. He’ll know what to do.” I can’t quite express the relief and assurance and even the confidence that flooded my heart just when I thought “I’ll go see Dr. Hammond.” In fact, my whole point is that only a good poem could make you feel it, too. But I felt so much better about the difficult situation, even though it wasn’t even over yet. So, I set I time to meet with him. He prayed for me and gave me wise counsel that ultimately helped to resolve this problem peacefully.
So, in the same way that Dr. Hammond embodied wisdom for me, the poetry of the Bible embodies God’s decrees. So now I want to sit down with the scriptures, like I sat down with Dr. Hammond. That the light of relief and assurance is why the psalmist wrote a poem rather than simply saying, “You should read God’s statues when you need counsel.” He wrote a poem! He didn’t just command us to do that. The poetic form of the passage is designed to enact emotion in us, as it instructs us. Here’s the key right here – to feel the relief and assurance of delighting in God’s words as counselors — that’s what it means to understand that verse. The ability to feel that feeling is what it means to understand Psalm 119:24. If you feel the emotion, you understand the verse. If it does not evoke an emotion, your understanding is incomplete. In other words, if you don’t long for it, if you don’t love it, then you don’t understand it. You should want to read the Bible not only to learn information about who God is, but also to experience, in the reading, his love. To feel his fatherly strength of comfort, reproof and protection.
You should want to read the Bible not only to learn information about who God is, but also to experience, in the reading, his love.Click to tweet
God’s love and statutes can seem very abstract. I know what it means to love and be loved by my parents, wife, children, friends and colleagues. What does it mean to love and be loved by God? It’s a very difficult question to answer with propositional truths; no offense to the philosophers. Thankfully, the Bible contains much more than propositional truths. It includes stories, parables and poems designed to appeal to the whole of our beings and not just our minds. Have you ever listened to a sad song because you were sad? Or a happy song, so you can get your arm out the car window and do “the wave?” Well, that’s what music is for! When you are sad, you want to listen to sad song! “Stop telling me to cheer up; I just want to be sad for a minute.” That’s what music is for, and that’s what poems are for!
So, let me ask when you need counsel, comfort, wisdom, correction, inspiration, relief, reproof, a vision of the good life do you instinctively turn to the Bible? Does your heart incline your head to His word? Do you love the scriptures? If you don’t love them, it might be because you are confusing a part for the whole. It might be because you’ve been taught to read everything as if it were the same kind of thing as Romans 1.
What, then, should you do? How can you experience the fullness of Psalm 119:24? So, here’s a practical, simple suggestion. Poems are more like paintings than prose. So, stand in front of them like you would stand in front of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” Ironically, what we enjoy most about poetry in the Bible is that we see that empty space on the page and think, “Yes! I’m going to fly through this passage!” But why are you in such a hurry? Do you have to finish reading the Bible by a certain day? I mean, for class…yes; do what you are supposed to do. But for your life, by a certain day? Maybe by the time you are 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80.
Imagine the poem…imagine Psalm 23…Psalm 119:24…is hanging on a wall somewhere and you can see the whole thing at once. Read it again. If it were a painting, certain features would just stand out at you, like the crazy ominous cypress tree in the front of that Van Gogh painting. So, what stands out in the poem? Don’t ask what it means, ok? Just for a minute. There are plenty of passages in the Bible for which that is a super-viable first question. What’s different about poems is that they open things up, rather than tying things up. They create an experience. Your part is to get in the right position to have that experience. So, take your time. Stand in front of it. Read it again. This move toward a deeper experience is especially well-suited toward the poetry of the Bible, which is more often than not designed to encourage meditation on our love and need for God. So just take what the text has to offer. Learn to love the scriptures.
This article is a transcript of Matt Mullins’ talk at Wisdom Forum: The Good Life.