I’m particularly thrilled to interview Matthew Mullins (Twitter: @MullinsMattR) this month, not only because his book Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures (Baker Academic 2021) is such a timely and insightful book, but also because Matt is my colleague at The College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he serves as Associate Professor of English and History of Ideas and Associate Dean for Academic Advising.
KSP: The overall claim of your book is that if we aren’t enjoying the Bible, then we really aren’t understanding it. Explain why that is.
MM: The biblical texts are not mere vessels that convey information to us across space and time. They are also works of art—sources of imaginative power that appeal to the heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we read them exclusively for information, we risk missing out on their radical capacity to transform us. After all, merely knowing that God is good, or that we should read the Bible each day, or that we should love our neighbors as ourselves is not enough. We must actually do these things. Fortunately, the writers of the Scriptures employ a wide range of literary and rhetorical devices intended to captivate readers—to enliven, shock, comfort, and excite us—heart, soul, mind, and strength. They wrote stories, poems, letters, and historical accounts that evoke emotion as often as they communicate ideas. In short, the Scriptures were written to be enjoyed in the hopes that they might cultivate in us a longing for the things of God, even as they renew our minds. So, if I read a passage of Scripture without being moved by it, I may be able to restate its main idea, but I would say that I haven’t fully understood it. We must enjoy the text in order to understand it.
My example is Psalm 119:105. If you’re someone who reads the Bible, you likely know that you’re supposed to turn to God’s word for direction when you are uncertain about what to do in life. But if grasping that main idea is what it means to understand the verse, then why doesn’t the psalmist simply say that? Why does the psalmist say, instead, that “Your word is a lamp for my feet, / a light on my path”? The writer uses poetic language here, imagining God’s word as a lamp and a light. We are not simply supposed to render the verse into the idea that we should turn to God’s word in our lives like we would turn to light in the darkness. Rather, like a good song, the imaginative language should evoke in us a longing for God’s word like the longing for light in darkness. If we don’t experience that longing, then we do not fully understand the verse. The ultimate goal of this enjoyment, however, is not simply an enjoyment of the Bible as an end in itself. Enjoying the Bible facilitates our enjoyment of God, who is the ultimate end of all enjoyment.
KSP: You begin your book discussing “the hatred of poetry and why it matters.” What does it say about our age that we do seem to lack appreciation for poetry?
MM: In his book, The Hatred of Poetry, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner argues that we hate poetry because it is an art form devoted to engaging with the ineffable, and any attempt to describe the indescribable is inevitably going to come up short. Poems seek to grapple with unresolvable tensions, irreducible emotions, and overwhelming ideas, so they do not typically seek to lead us to neat and tidy conclusions. Instead, they dwell in the unresolvable, the irreducible, and the overwhelming. While the hatred of poetry is at least as old as Plato, I think there is a distinctly modern dissatisfaction with the uncertainty that attends poetry’s engagement with the ineffable. Poetry’s marginal place in much of the modern world may well reflect an obsession with rationalism and empiricism—and the sense of certainty associated with them. Many people are uncomfortable with the notion that a phenomenon might lie beyond the reach of explanation. We are after the correct interpretation of everything we read and experience. We expect the things we read—especially authoritative texts like the Bible—to give us all the right answers, not to invite us to meditate on difficult questions. Poems tend to frustrate such expectations.
I also see the marginal role of poetry as a symptom of our domineering impatience and relentless desire to move forward. Most poems are not intended to be read, processed, applied, and checked off some cosmic to-read list. They are opportunities for meditation, reflection, and rumination. Poems are the kinds of texts, above all others, to which we can return again and again. But in a society that is obsessed with progress and forward momentum, going back to reread something seems like a waste of time, a delay, a setback. A society characterized by patience and thoughtfulness—one that is collectively slow to speak and slow to become angry—would prize poetry.
KSP: Why does our hatred for poetry matter? In particular, why does it matter outside the English classroom?
MM: The world beyond the classroom is in desperate need of poetry. In my book, I cite the poet Ross Gay, who points out that poetry is still a central part of modern culture in some ways. It’s ubiquitous at weddings and funerals, for instance. Gay is right, of course, but in my assessment, the kinds of thinking and communication that dominate our various forms of media and our political discourse, especially, do not evince signs of the nuance, contemplativeness, or patience required by poetry reading.
The hatred of poetry matters for Christians in particular because poems make up nearly one-third of the Scriptures! If we hate reading poetry, then it follows that we may hate a significant portion of the Bible. Conversely, if we can become ardent readers of poetry, we can become thoughtful and enthusiastic readers of the entire Bible, and not just the poetry of the Bible. Poems teach the kind of reading-as-enjoyment I discuss above and can therefore retrain us as readers to approach the Bible not only as an instruction manual but also as a means of enjoying God through God’s word.
KSP: Last month in this blog, I interviewed Carl Trueman about his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, in which he traces the way our culture has been taken over by subjective expressivism and the dangers of this aspect of the modern condition. Yet, in your book, you point to some ways in which we have diminished our ability to feel what the Bible (and other literary works) can teach us. Can you talk about this tension?
MM: I should say that I have not read Professor Trueman’s book, but based on your interview with him, the point of contact between our respective analyses may be that we both seem to agree that the dominant view of the modern self relies on a fundamental distinction between the inner and the outer. But there are two different inner/outer distinctions that help to explain the modern self. Professor Trueman seems most interested in the self’s internal split between who I believe myself to be inside and the form of myself I present to the outside world, or how the outside world perceives me. I am more interested in a different inner/outer distinction when it comes to the role of emotion in interpretation, and that is the external split between the self as subject and the text/world as object. In the modern history of interpretation, this divide between reading subject and textual object poses an obstacle to understanding.
The dominant view of the last few centuries in terms of overcoming this obstacle has been to set aside any forms of bias that might obscure my ability to see and understand the text as a product of its place and time. Emotion is perhaps the most notorious form of bias in the modern world. Emotions are seen as unstable, unreliable, and unsound. How often do we hear that someone is letting their emotions prevent them from seeing what’s going on, or that they are letting their emotions interfere with their reason? In other words, emotion becomes a barrier between the self and whatever object the self seeks to understand. The problem with this view of emotion as an obstacle to understanding is that many forms of communication are resolutely dependent upon emotion, not least of all poetry. In our efforts to treat the objects of our understanding objectively, we have set aside emotions, which we imagine as being pesky subjective expressions that get in the way of seeing the objects clearly. In fact, we are emotional creatures, and our emotions are integral to our ability to understand all sorts of things.
KSP: We live in a digital information age. Perhaps no other culture has been as exposed to words as much as we are every day. Yet, our ability to read critically and well and to harness the power of words (whether our own or someone else’s) seems to be steadily diminishing. Why do you think this is?
MM: I’m on Twitter, primarily for the benefit of engaging my academic peers and talking about birds and gardening, but I think the form and incentive structure of social media cultivates an ethic of communication that prioritizes being noticed above all else. While this structure has the capacity to encourage and amplify truth-telling, it does not necessitate it, and thus truth is optional in the world of social media. While this may also be true of more traditional outlets (network/cable television, print journalism, radio), there are fewer gatekeeping mechanisms on the internet. What’s more, the ethic of online communication seems to be infiltrating those traditional outlets more and more with each passing year. Two other factors contribute to this social media problem. First, with the glut of information online, it’s easy to insulate yourself with powerful, seemingly reputable voices that only ever agree with you. Second, the glut of information itself creates an overwhelming sense that there’s just too much material to evaluate.
The other major hindrance to critical reading is the economization of every dimension of life. In the world of late capitalism, we have become people who see virtually everything in terms of investments and returns – not just our money, but also our time, our attention, our energy, everything. Should I spend the money and time required to get a college education? Should I devote my energy to answering this email? Should I go to church this weekend? Should I give my attention to this person trying to engage me in conversation? Should I read this book, watch this movie, visit this family friend? The answer nearly always depends on what returns we can expect on our investment. When I decide it’s worth my time to read something, I’ve framed my understanding of what I’m reading as something that’s going to be worth my time, and when I read in this instrumental way, I’ve already short-circuited my ability to understand what I’m reading. This doesn’t mean I’ll be inevitably wrong all the time, it just means that my ability to read and comprehend is limited by a picture of the world in which everything is an investment on which I expect some kind of return. And when we read that way, we subject our understanding primarily to market logic and only secondarily to the logic of the thing we’re trying to understand.
KSP: How might Christian institutions (churches, schools, universities, and seminaries) be uniquely equipped to rebuild our love of and appreciation for the power of language?
MM: Christian institutions are especially well-suited for cultivating a love of language in general, and literature in particular, because we are people of the Book. This tradition gives us a head start. We value the reading of Scripture, the recitation of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and the proclamation of the Word. I would love to see more clergy integrating imaginative literature, and especially poetry, into worship services as a way of training congregants to engage the world around them and to slow their thinking down.
As higher education goes through a dire crisis that is eviscerating the humanities, Christian colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to preserve the study and love of language and literature. We should, in theory, serve a mission higher than the marketplace. We should, in theory, be primarily interested in the spiritual and intellectual formation of young folks, though this does not mean that we ignore their need for employable skills and the like. But where non-confessional colleges and universities must answer to boards, boosters, investors, parents, and (less and less substantially) taxpayers and states that demand to frame everything in terms of return on investment, Christian colleges and universities should be able to put spiritual and intellectual formation first. That’s what can allow us to become the epicenters of literature and culture, philosophy, and history as we have been in the past.
The challenge will be that doing so requires us to prioritize human flourishing and spiritual growth over marketable skills and job prospects, trusting that the former will make the latter possible rather than the other way around. To do this will require people of faith to recalibrate their priorities and invest in institutions without a promise of the kinds of returns that our culture values.
KSP: That is quite a challenge. I pray our Christian institutions accept it.