Falling in love with Scripture

March 14th, 2023

Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you’re alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you’re wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. These [words] have come from a great distance to find you.[1]

When I teach the year-long Old Testament Interpretation course, I end the first lecture and the last lecture with this quotation from Edward Hirsch’s book, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. I read it because I want them to fall in love with scripture. I read it because I want them to read the text both “day and night” like the person described in Psalm 1 who delights in the study of Torah. I read it to them because these words come to us from a great distance, and I do believe they seek to “find us.”

Language is complicated. Words can mean more than one thing, and this passage from a book about poetry informs my students that the words of scripture not only come a long way to find us but, like a poem, must be read with attention. Poetry does not yield meaning easily, and it doesn’t promise to make sense. “In my not so humble opinion,”[2] readers of the Bible would be better off if they approached scripture like poetry. When we read poetry, we know that we will have to look past the words on the page and find the images, tropes, sounds, and metaphors that are meaning-full. Readers of poetry understand that poets often use words or phrases that have double meaning, which, even when contradictory, are a part of the poem. The surplus of meaning in poetry is the reason a poem is never mastered or finished.

This type of writing invites, rather demands, the imagination. We must accept that we will only get so close but that this is close enough. Our imagination spans the gaps left by sparse language and incomplete narra- tives. Imagination affirms that what we experience in the reading of a poem transcends the transmission of information through words. The point of the poem is the encounter itself. Before we know all there is to know about the author and context and the events that led to the poem’s composition, the reading of a poem is an event to itself. We will return again and again, with more information and perhaps more experiences. The words are the same, but we are not; and for that reason, there are always new discoveries.

With this understanding, we conclude that there is no such thing as an “unimaginative” reading of scripture. There are only readings that acknowledge the imaginative universe that shape them and those that do not. This literary principle looks for a surplus of meaning in symbolic language and invites the reader to use their imagination in the act of read- ing, just as the creators and curators of scripture used their imaginations to tell the stories of a God who called, formed, and redeemed them again and again.

Because it is a theological text, the Bible is inviting us to imagine God and God’s work in the world. In many African American preaching traditions, preachers will refer to their sanctified imagination. It’s a signal to the audience that they are following the text’s invitation to engage the text imaginatively, to see themselves in the story and to apply the tenets of the text to their current situation. In this way, preachers of this hallowed tradition have encouraged their communities to imagine aspects of God into their current circumstances, equipped with an existential knowledge of a God who acts in real time, facilitated by a text that is imaginatively written. 


Excerpted from Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible by Judy Fentress-Williams. Copyright © 2021 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (New York: Harcourt, 1999), 1.

[2] In the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Albus Dumbledore says, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic” (Steve Kloves and J. K. Rowling [Warner Brothers, 2011]).

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