Hendersonville, NC. In 2011 the American Bible Society began examining how Americans relate to the Bible, and their research shows that there has been a steady increase in Americans’ lack of engagement with the Bible. Fewer Americans are going to church and reading the Bible.Those who are “Bible Disengaged” make up 66.3% of the population. “Bible Disengaged” means that the person only engages with the Bible through someone else or a group, but they do not seek the Bible out for themselves. To most, the Bible is an old tiresome book reserved for pastors and grandma. In light of this grim state, Matthew Mullin’s new book Enjoying the Bible is a beacon of light showing the way out of the darkness.
As a high school biblical studies teacher, the pervasive bible illiteracy hits close to home. It is in such Bible classrooms that students are receiving their exposure to the Scriptures. Sparks must be struck in schools that have the ability to teach the Bible. Teaching our students to know Scripture is not enough; we must teach them to love Scripture. Mullins offers a helpful vision for reading Scripture that will helpfully challenge and redirect pedagogical methods in the classroom.
Mullins addresses this pervasive biblical illiteracy up front, stating that the vast majority of people hate poetry. Our distaste for poetry, Mullins argues, stems from a singular reading perspective that has crippled our ability to read. Mullins borrows the phrase “Cartesian eyes” from James K.A. Smith to describe this singular reading perspective. He elaborates on Smith’s phrase saying, “To read with Cartesian eyes is to read with the implicit belief that what’s important about whatever you’re reading is how it seeks to inform you, meaning how it seeks to give you facts or information.”
I can hear one of my students right now saying, “But what’s the point of this passage?” In the Google age, where information travels faster than our ability to process it, reading with “Cartesian eyes” is the dominant reading lens. Poetry evades this type of reading because its aim is not to dispense information, but rather to evoke emotion, to encourage contemplation, and to affect our being. If we have a poetry reading problem then inevitably we have a Bible reading problem because at least one-third of the Bible is poetry.
We have become so conditioned to read every text as an instructional manual that we become frustrated when the meaning of poetry and Scripture are not clear. This diagnosis sets the stage for Enjoying the Bible. Recovering the art of reading Scripture requires teachers, pastors, and parents to train students to exchange their “Cartesian eyes” for the right pair of reading glasses. Mullins has lifted his lantern and taken the step forward to guide us out of the darkness of Biblical illiteracy.
But how do we convey a new process of reading to our students? Bible classes constructed around lectures where the teacher is the expert dispensing information about the text to the students may convey the impression that the Bible is something to be mined for truth, not something that cultivates an emotional response or asks us to imaginatively enter into its world. The literary nature of Scripture is often neglected while the theological and doctrinal are primary. Near the end of Mullin’s book he asserts his thesis in this way: “[E]motion and imagination are the doorways to meaning.”
From Conquering to Enjoying
One of the most helpful aspects of Mullins work is the historical survey he provides concerning how we came to see interpretation as a quest for singular meaning. Our quest for singular meaning often confounds our love for Scripture rather than encourages it. The question, “Have I discovered exactly what the text means?” hovers over us like an angry school teacher. Beginning with Aristotle, Mullins addresses three schools of reading: imitation, expression, and tradition. “What all three have in common,” Mullins notes, “is that they encourage us to ask what a poem really means.” This places the position of the student above Scripture rather than below or better yet in Scripture. Each of these implies that reading is a process of conquering the poem to pursue its essence. We only enjoy the poem, in such renderings, if we figure it out. This forces us to a utilitarian mentality where the reader strip-mines the text. Poetry becomes inferior to direct language in its ability to convey meaning.
This mindset poses a serious problem when accounting for the literary aspects of Scripture. If the Bible is more than a vehicle for dispensing information then we should not pass over its literary aspects. Mullins provides the following features of “literariness” to constitute a piece of literature: “narrative point of view, figurative language, grammar, rhythm, tone, genre, closure, and so on.” Referring to the Bible as literature simply means that we should carefully pay attention to its literary qualities as listed above. This requires us to understand how Scripture uses the above-mentioned formal qualities to appeal to our imagination. Imaginative literature shows rather than tells. For example, the story of Cain and Abel shows the depths of human anger and resentment rather than telling what anger is. In literature questions of morality and theology are explored through story and poetry not presented in abstraction. As Mullins argues, “Literary texts thus mean in different ways than nonliterary texts. That is, they are equally meaningful, but they mean differently.” This should alleviate the burden of a teacher to feel that they must have the right answer. We shouldn’t teach our students to read the Bible in the same way they would read an instruction manual, as a quest for a singular conceptual meaning. And we shouldn’t create an environment in which the teacher holds the keys to unlocking the meaning of the text.
What Do You Mean by Mean?
This raises the question: what does Mullins mean that the Bible means differently than nonliterary texts? Learning to teach students to enjoy Scripture requires us to abandon the common understanding of meaning as a singular idea or point. Mullins asserts that meaning is also feeling, defamiliarization, and association. By feeling, Mullins means that poetry is primarily written to evoke emotion; feeling a poem is a form of understanding. Metaphorical language is meant to defamiliarize the reader because comparisons aren’t actually the same (God’s Word is not literally a lamp). The power of metaphor is in its ability to create a fresh experience for the reader. This shock of newness helps the reader experience the meaning of the poem. Both of these elements of meaning set the reader up to read a poem as an experience of association. The imagery and metaphorical language in poetry often opens us up to a “drifting” experience as we conjure up memories of our own life connected to the words in the poem. Association means that images are purposefully used to create an imaginative experience in the reader. Mullins encourages us to “make peace with this associative drift.”
It is at this point, however, that the heresy of subjective meaning may appear to rear its nasty head. If the text means what we feel then doesn’t that open it up to an endless number of interpretations? Mullins argues against this, sticking to his thesis that a text does not merely have a singular meaning but “function[s] like a spectrum.” Contrary to propelling the reader into subjectivity, emotion can actually act as a guard rail for the reader’s proper interpretation. Mullins discusses Psalm 23 as an example. We can read that Psalm and know that the poem is not encouraging us to feel prideful or scared. Rather, the poem’s meaning lies in the relationship it describes between the shepherd and his sheep. The experience of being this shepherd’s sheep is the poem’s meaning.
Reading in this way appeals to our humanity as people who feel our way through life. It can be a welcome surprise for students to be taught that they actually need to utilize their feelings in reading. I applied this method in my ninth grade course on the prophets while reading Lamentation. After reading a portion of the text I asked the students to go back and circle all of the emotive words and then spend some time slowly writing a response to how these words made them feel. We then discussed the feelings students dwelled on, for example angry, sadness, anxiety, hopeless but hopeful still etc. This discussion led to a deeper conversation about how these emotive words contributed to the meaning of the text. After class, I had more than one student tell me how much they enjoyed reading Lamentation considering they had only heard of the book, but never read it. This reading of Scripture was a full-bodied experience including the mind, body, and soul.
Reading With Our Hearts
Mullins encourages his readers to “learn how to read with [their] hearts.” This is a process our students are in desperate need of. Mullins contrasts studying with reading: studying implies the need to work on the text to extract its meaning; this doesn’t sound like a lovely process. Our students should immerse themselves in the literary riches of the Biblical text. As students slow down and learn to spend time with the text they are trained to experience Scripture like a slow walk through an orchard, enjoying the freshness of the air and the fruit of the trees. While this may seem idealistic, we should attempt to cultivate an environment where this type of love of Scripture is possible. Mullins also suggests the contrast between abstractions and enchantment. When I read to my two-year-old daughter, she is so captivated by the story that it’s as if she can’t distinguish between her life and the story. This is what it means to be enchanted. I am often asked how I keep my ninth graders interested in reading the prophets. While they are initially taken aback by the harsh language used, by about the fourth week they are drawn into the world of ancient Israel and the life of a prophet. This isn’t an overnight transformation; we read slowly and with attention to detail. They learn to muse over the text for the sake of its beauty. The payoff is when they begin shedding light on details in the text that I had missed in my own reading. This cultivates a relationship centered on the wonder of the text rather than its application or abstract singular meaning. The Bible emerges as a living organism with life and Spirit rather than a cadaver, lifeless and cold.
At this point, another objection to Mullins’s thesis may rise to the minds of his readers: Isn’t the primary purpose of Scripture to instruct us? If we approach it from a literary perspective do we diminish its instructive impact? In chapter six, Mullins argues that ignoring the literary elements of Scripture in exchange for its abstract principles actually does the opposite. We aren’t purely intellectual beings and our students are often flooded with passion and desire. The Bible represents the total human experience and allowing its literary elements to captivate us shapes our humanity. In this regard, Mullins says, “When we lose a love for the Scripture and become interested exclusively in its propositional truths, the Christian life becomes a matter of having the correct answers rather than loving God and neighbor.” A literary approach to Scripture teaches our students how to love rather than merely what to think. Do our pedagogical methods get at the hearts of our students or only their minds?
Reading the Bible in the way that Mullins proposes creates an apprenticeship-style classroom. The teacher is a craftsman of the art of reading the text, sharing this art with the students. When the teacher is truly captivated by the beauty of reading Scripture the students will be inspired. It is in a mutual reading experience that transformative pedagogy takes place. The Bible is properly elevated in the classroom as that which holds the community together. Exchange the Bible for a lecture, and the center will shift.
Mullins unpacks his pedagogical method in light of his thesis. He offers a helpful analogy by comparing reading to admiring a painting. In order to read a painting one should stand before it, carefully observe it, and ask the following questions: What do you see? How does it make you feel? What questions do you have? The beauty of the painting drives curiosity and therefore engagement.
This raises some final questions in terms of reading and teaching Scripture: What is our posture towards Scripture? How are we presenting that posture to our students in our pedagogy? Does our pedagogy reflect that belief that the Bible has the power to move and transform our students? Does our pedagogy reflect our belief that the Bible is meant to be enjoyed? How much time are our students spending reading, noticing and asking questions about the text?
Simply put, Enjoying the Bible is a book about beholding. Beholding the deep riches of beauty in Scripture. Every detail is given for our joy, as James Schall so eloquently stated in The Life of The Mind, “Nothing is so unimportant that it is not worth knowing. Everything reveals something. Our minds cannot fully exhaust the reality contained in even the smallest existing thing.”