Matthew Mullins. Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021. 224 pp, $22.99.
I stood before my class of mostly unengaged private Christian school students in a small Texas town. Masks covered the bottom halves of their faces. I saw only their eyes, staring blankly as we began the most dreaded part of high school English classes: the poetry unit.
For my students, and most people in general, poetry is a frustrating artform, an overly complex way of saying something simple. In the West, many desire straight forward, matter of fact consumption. Anything else is flowery and excessive. Therefore, when I bring up poetry — to students or church members or anyone at all — I typically get the same reaction: rolled eyes and shaking heads.
That’s what makes Matthew Mullins’ new book Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures so important. He has a bone to pick with the poetry haters, but there’s more at stake in this work than liking or disliking a certain type of literature. Mullins argues that loving poetry will help you love, enjoy, and understand God’s word more fully.
Retraining Cartesian Eyes
According to Mullins, the reading habits of the modern world have led to an incomplete way of approaching the scriptures that exchanges a delightful experience with an informational transaction. In the introductory chapter, he associates the problem with the philosopher René Descartes, who changed the trajectory of Western thought with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” This modern view of humanity — that we are thinking beings before anything else — has caused us to read with what Mullins calls “Cartesian eyes.”
“To read with Cartesian eyes,” he writes, “is to read with the implicit belief that what’s important about whatever you’re reading is how it seeks to inform you… how it seeks to give you facts or information” (6). Cartesian readers risk stripping the beauty, mystery, and wonder out of a text for the sake of getting answers out of it. We want to “tie it to a chair and beat a confession out of it,” to borrow a phrase from former poet laureate Billy Collins.
Mullins compares this “hermeneutic of information” to reading an instruction manual, emphasizing that while people learn from those, no one loves reading them. Reading for information alone rarely produces the emotional responses that come while listening to one’s favorite song or entering a literary world. That kind of engagement requires a more poetic approach.
Poetry, writes Mullins, is “the ideal form for retraining Cartesian eyes” because “it requires us to develop that emotional/experiential end of the reading spectrum” (10). While poems may have some instructional, moral, and thematic elements within them, their first goal is to reshape our imaginations and desires. They want to engage your intellect and shape the way you think, and they do this by engaging your heart first, giving you an emotional investment in addition to the cognitive one.
Arriving at this larger place of understanding requires the use of one’s imagination. “To understand a poem, or any work of literature,” he writes, “you must be willing to give yourself to the world of the text. You must be willing to play the game of the literary world like a child plays” (48). Entering this world produces a more holistic understanding of the scriptures, one that engages the reader’s intellectual and emotional side of their beings.
The emotion the text wants to rile up within you “is an integral element of the meaning” (71). Thinking differently is not the only goal. What we feel matters, too. “If you do not feel an emotion when you read a poem,” writes Mullins, “the primary aim of the passage is lost on you” (47). You start to feel what the text wants you to feel as you enter its world. Your entire whole gets involved, and Mullins wants to ignite that same level of engagement and delight for those who read the scriptures. If our hearts are not engaged when reading scripture (especially the third of it that is poetry), then we will miss out on the full experience of encountering God’s Word.
Mullins, anticipating pushback to this idea, often clarifies that he is not against dogma or doctrine, nor is he advocating for subjective, reader-response approaches to the text. Rather, Mullins claims that the authority of the text extends over one’s emotions as well as their intellect. The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor has spent plenty of time with people who want to caution against relying too heavily on subjective, emotional responses to the scriptures. He does not want to live in a world where the text means anything, either (hence the name and message of Chapter 4: “Not Anything”). He merely recognizes that complex texts “resist simplistic conclusions” (71). A poem, or a passage of scripture, cannot always be reduced to a single bullet-point or takeaway. To really understand the literary passages of scripture, we need an imaginative and emotional encounter with the worlds they create.
He uses Psalm 23 as a launching point to explain that the passage “is not only trying to tell us something about the nature of God and our relationship with him.” Instead, it “creates an entire world we can imagine ourselves inhabiting” (74). By stepping into this world, we not only understand that God is comforter, we experience the emotional reality of God’s comfort. That’s what the scriptures want to do: shape every part of us. Anything less is incomplete. Just because you cognitively ascend to the idea of God as your shepherd doesn’t mean you feel the power of a world where that is true. Whatever passage you read won’t fulfill its total purpose until you’re willing to bring your whole self into the space it creates. Only then will readers begin understanding delighting in the strange, literary world of the Bible.
Constructing a New Hermeneutic: Reading with Your Guts
Mullins couples his critique of the hermeneutic of information with an ability to construct a practical solution. Using his classroom experiences, he softens the heart of skeptical readers. He never shames them for their lack of experience with poetry; he communicates with charity and grace as he guides them toward a more literary approach to reading, one that emphasizes the emotional and experiential parts of our beings. All he asks is that you play along.
Aspects of this will likely be unsettling to those less practiced with this approach. Poetry, literature, and scripture all confront the reader; they challenge us. The deeper we let ourselves go into their worlds, the more we feel their effects. That could mean sharing David’s satisfaction in Psalm 23, but it could also lead us to feeling Jeremiah’s agony and frustration toward Israel’s injustice. We might break down when we read of Christ hanging on the tree or weep tears of joy when he reappears to his friends. We might even start to live with a constant longing for the day he returns, a holy dissatisfaction toward this world that is not yet made new. These experiences don’t come with head knowledge alone. They demand the affections of our hearts as well, and engaging our hearts requires reading with our guts. Mullins dedicates chapter five to providing a few practical ways to do this.
First, readers can immerse themselves within a text instead of trying to extract from it. Second, they can slow down to see the details of the text rather than settling for mere summaries. Lastly, Mullins suggests readers of scripture exchange abstraction for enchantment: “Instead of trying to identify the main idea in a story, embrace the labyrinth of relationships, conflicts, characters, and resolutions and the frequent lack of closure” (86).
Here Mullins draws a distinction between reading and studying. Reading is what he describes with the strategies above, but he clarifies that they should never replace study. Study happens through more traditional ways of reading the text when one engages with a hermeneutic of information. The two approaches complement each other, working together to provide a greater level of instruction and delight.
Mullins dedicates the final four chapters of the text to equipping readers with strategies that help strike this balance. He encourages readers to “stand in front of” (127) the text like one would stand before a painting at a museum. Take it all in before you start to interpret. “Notice things” (128). Don’t think about what should stand out. Go with your gut and jot down the things you feel stand out and then “ask questions” (130) about the text.
Each of these starting points give readers a “general sense” (137) of the text and allow them to locate its “central emotion” (147) before they move on to studying the formal elements and arriving at an interpretation (157).
Mullins’ ability to concretize these abstract ideas with examples and guided exercises — using both scripture and poetry — enables readers to apply the strategies and see how delightful the scriptures can be with a poetic reading.
As the title suggests, Enjoying the Bible is ultimately about reading the scriptures with that level of delight. This is not hedonistic, as if delight simply makes the reading better. Instead, Mullins makes a case for why a literary approach to the Bible fuels love for the scriptures and for the one who spoke them into existence.
He explains that “God is not only inviting us to study his Word in order to know right from wrong: he desires a relationship with us. The Scriptures offer texts designed to accomplish both. The literary portions of the Bible . . . don’t want you to look for the quick fact or reason; they want you to question, wonder, struggle, rejoice in your efforts to know God” (180). Reading with Cartesian eyes — using merely a “hermeneutic of information” — leads readers to misunderstand God’s words and his nature. That’s what’s at stake here, and that’s what Mullins so excellently fights against.