Do you need to love literature in order to understand the Bible?
In this volume, Matthew Mullins raises this question and makes the case that understanding and enjoying literature can equip you to love the Bible. Mullins teaches English at the College at Southeastern and aims in this project to examine the “pleasure of understanding.” His twofold contention is that “understanding what we read can be pleasurable,” and that sometimes “you must take pleasure in something in order to understand it” (ix). As he explores this topic, Mullins discusses both a framework for reading in general and also specific strategies for engaging literary texts like poems.
What’s Part of the Problem?
Recognizing that many readers simply do not enjoy poetry or struggle to understand literary texts, Mullins examines some of the reasons why this might be the case. Why do we hate poetry? Why is it difficult to understand texts that are literary, indirect, and not explicitly didactic?
One of the primary culprits here is not only the way that we read but how we characterize the texts we are reading. It’s possible to think of the Bible exclusively as an “instruction manual” that contains a series of distinct messages or even principles that you then need to apply to your life. This approach works fine for some parts of the Bible, but strains when reading texts that communicate in different modes. Throughout his study, Mullins discusses poetry as a prime example of a literary text that requires a different set of tools to understand and experience.
Drawing on the work of Jamie K. Smith (You are What you Love), Mullins characterizes this “Bible as instruction manual” viewpoint as a “hermeneutic of information” that regards humans as primarily “thinking beings.” This interpretive framework is ill-equipped to deal with literary texts (and life situations) that are designed explicitly to evoke emotions as part of their intended meaning. By this, Mullins does not deny that the Bible provides instruction. His suggestion is rather that “we expand our understanding of what these things are and how they are communicated so that we might better love the Scriptures and allow them to shape our whole selves, heads and hearts” (30). He also clarifies that his goal is not to “exchange head for heart, intellect for emotion,” but rather “to develop a theory and practice of reading that account for both” (9).
The first series of chapters in the book are focused on what literature is and also on the way that it works. Mullins first tells the story of “how reading literature became a quest for meaning” (chapter one). If poetry is understood as “imitation,” you might be looking behind the poetic form to “what it really means.” If poetry is understood as “expression,” you might be looking for the feeling that the poet is trying to convey in the poem. If poetry is understood as “tradition,” you might be looking for how the poem itself is drawing on universal concepts from the history of ideas. In each of these cases, there is a separation of form and content that encourages readers to ask what a literary text “really means.”
What’s Part of the Solution?
In order for readers to appreciate the way literature works, they have to have a framework for meaning that is wider than “finding a message” (chapter three). Here Mullins discusses the role of emotion, “defamiliarization,” and association in the meaning of literary texts. The meaning of a poetic text is wrapped up with the emotions it evokes, the way it helps us see everyday things in fresh ways, and how it captures rather than resolves interpretive tension. As Mullins summarizes, “We have to learn to feel, resee, and come to terms with the process of making peace as a form of understanding” (58).
One might view this approach to reading poetry as hopelessly subjective. However, Mullins also takes time to address the way that literary texts constrain meaning as well as generate it (chapter four). Mullins insists that literary texts cannot be “reduced to a singular main idea,” but that “this irreducibility” does not mean that they could mean “anything” (61). Rather, literary texts generate “a limited range of meanings, not an infinite range of meanings” (61). In this way, Mullins argues both that “the language of the literary text itself is the best guide to its meaning,” and that “emotion doesn’t make meaning simplistically subjective” (64). In his discussion of “Reading with your gut,” Mullins also presents several distinct ways to conceive of the reading process other than extracting a message from the text (chapter five). Delighting in something can also be instructive (chapter six), and this is part of what fuels the worship of the churches who not only read but respond to biblical texts through song and liturgy (chapter seven).
How Do You Enjoy (Biblical) Literature?
The last series of chapters in the book shift to some of the practices and implications of reading the Bible as literature. After unfolding this theoretical model for meaning, reading, and responding, Mullins seeks to show what this approach might look like. Mullins suggests that “poems are more like paintings than like prose” (126). When encountering a poem like Psalm 23, you can stand in front of it, notice interesting elements, and then ask questions informed by your reflective observation (127–134). Mullins then discusses how to read for the general sense of a poem, how to identify and feel the central emotion of the poem, and how to notice the formal features that enable the poem to work in the way that it does (chapters nine through twelve).
In his conclusion, Mullins returns to the broad themes of reading and the effects of our reading practices. Good literature, Mullins insists, “leaves room for us to grapple with uncertainty, and good readers are capable of living in that uncertainty without always needing to resolve it into a clear and final message” (178). Theologically, “where we encounter and experience uncertainty, or multiplicity, in God’s Word, we are being invited to speculate, question, and wonder” (178). In other words, this capacity enables us “to pursue God without a definite end in sight” and “pursue God in the Scriptures for God’s own sake” (178). Mullins’s final point relates to “habituation.” If we can develop habits and reading practices that encounter the Scriptures in this way, it will not only inform us but form us into readers with a Scripture-shaped set of affections. Reading the Bible can be a spiritual and liturgical act that can transform us “into the kind of person who loves his Word” (184).
Appreciation and Engagement
Hating Poetry: Who Me?
In this work, Mullins has a very specific interlocutor in mind, namely, someone that reads poetry in search of propositions and principles (2–16, 82, etc). He is speaking to those who may misunderstand the meaning and function of poetry because they “expect poetry to function like explanatory prose” (x). While many readers might initially locate themselves outside of this target audience, as Mullins unfolds his study, I think most readers of the Bible will recognize themselves at various points. Finding the “big idea” or “timeless truth” of a psalm, a proverb, or a biblical story is a well-worn practice for most believers.
In some ways, Mullins also tackles this topic in such a way that two distinct scholarly groups might be unhappy with his work. From the literary side, Mullins might concede too much to notions of normative authority, interpretive controls, and the sociological function of the Scriptures within the churches. From the biblical studies side, Mullins might concede too much to the notion that emotions and feeling are integral elements of meaning. However, at strategic places throughout the volume, Mullins connects these two fields of inquiry. He speaks of instruction and delight. He affirms the message and effect of literary texts. He aims at formal features and emotional entailments.
One of the great strengths of this book is that Mullins opens up a way for non-specialists to reckon with not only what the Scriptures say but how they communicate this meaning. At the end of the book (and at the close of each chapter), Mullins provides an exercise designed to implement some of the principles discussed in the book. These helpful tools will allow casual Bible readers and church members to appreciate the insights Mullins articulates throughout his wide-ranging discussions.
2. Enjoying an Authoritative Text
Sometimes a literary approach to the Scriptures entails a rejection or a neglect of the theological confessions about its authoritative or inspired status. Mullins demonstrates, though, that reading “the Bible as literature” does not necessarily entail an a-theological approach. Rather, a commitment to the divine inspiration of biblical writings actually requires readers to take seriously its formal qualities and literary types. Believing readers also affirm the theological function of biblical texts. As Mullins insists, “The Bible is our most direct access to God’s words—it was written not only to convey information about him but also to provide a way for us to commune with him, to meet him in his Word” (xi). This confessional approach to literary studies will serve students of the Scriptures well.
3. Enjoying a Canonical Text
One limitation of Mullins’s work is that it does not engage biblical scholarship. Mullins focuses on general hermeneutical elements and uses English translations for his exposition. This is a limitation because of the unique formal and functional elements of the Bible’s original languages. On this issue, Mullins acknowledges the “mediated nature of our reading” when encountering translations (xii). Much of Mullins’s discussion about the nature of reading literature, though, applies equally well to someone reading the Bible in any language. Further, the vast majority of Bible readers in the churches will read in their own language. Learning to read an English translation well, too, is an important accomplishment that will enhance one’s understanding and enjoyment of the Scriptures.
In this regard, two areas for further reflection involve the notions of a canonical collection and the reality of intertextuality. Biblical poetry is embedded by design within carefully crafted collections. Individual psalms are found by biblical readers within an ordered book of Psalms. What’s more, these poetic texts are profoundly intertextual. Thus, grappling with literary language in one text that is simultaneously an allusion to a theologically significant intertext would not be a shift into didactic study but a meaningful extension of a literary mode of analysis.
Reckoning with the unique literary qualities of all of the biblical genres would also be a fruitful further endeavor. Even including just the sophisticated nature of narrative and the rhetorical moves of NT epistles would help explain how to read most of the Bible. Developing a “poetics” of each biblical genre alongside an appreciation of poetic texts would unlock an entryway into the ranging literary landscapes of the biblical canon.
This is not really a critique but a possible avenue to explore for someone who is convinced of the explanatory power of Mullins’s work and wants to bring that into dialogue with features of biblical studies that resonate with the overall thesis. These canonical and intertextual features also resonate with Mullins’s point that “the Bible requires more than one kind of reading” (ix).
Learning to understand and enjoy literary texts requires a certain disposition and a certain set of skills. Enjoying the Bible is a readable and reliable guide for this pursuit. Let the reader understand (and enjoy!).