A poem w/ insight about how not to approach the Bible

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside a poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out if it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Yep just like with the Bible, many people would rather cash in the living poem for a handful of settled facts … what it ‘really’ means.


One of my favorites of his! My husband used to teach a small-group class at our house about how to study the Bible (way back in the pre-Covid days) and used this poem as part of the introduction.

Definitely something I need to contemplate more when I feel the “answers addiction” rearing up again…


Then, perhaps worse, though less often used on biblical interpretation, is

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope,
and give it a lecture about how it means nothing like what it says.

They begin beating it with postmodernism
to find out the author’s mental disorders.


Where does poetry end, and torture begin?
Is it fantasy or reality? Which is the poetry and which is the torture?
Is it an instruction booklet for building computers, people, or universes?
for curing cancer or schizophrenia?
If we must believe it to do what it obviously does not do, then must we replace reality itself with a fantasy in order to be a follower?
Or is it more likely that those making such unreasonable demands have altered it and twisted it into something completely different so that we are made to follow them in blindness?
With the word “poetry” or the phrase “word of God” are we just trying to keep it real or keep it a fantasy?

In my mind I substitute, text for poetry. There is meaning in texts and we have interest in getting at the meaning, that’s not the problem. But we shouldn’t be trying to beat the text into submission with our surefire interpretive methods and formulaic Bible study questions. And the more poetic the biblical text the more we are going to be like the mouse, making some wrong turns, thinking we get it but later realizing we’ve hit a dead end. I like the image of feeling around for the light switch. I don’t think we are doomed to darkness and shadows when it comes to understanding the Bible, just that sometimes finding the light switch involves some fumbling around.


Is the meaning in the text or the context?
Do we search the molecules of ink
or plumb how we imagine a world buried long ago?
Is the past any more singular and certain than the future?

Of course we believe in communication.
It is a necessary faith.
Minds connected by an elaboration of words.
But is this solid, liquid, or gaseous?
Bending, flowing, twisting, or finding…
entirely new forms like clouds in the sky.

Probably depends on the distance and interaction
A beam of steel too long to be solid.
Or a surface of water like concrete when approached too fast.
Thus our everyday faith fails in the extremities.

Is poetry a veneration of a human right to imprecision? :wink:
Allowing the reader some freedom of interpretation does seem to avoid confrontation.

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Definitely. In the relevance theory model of communication, poetry is often what they call “weak guidance” because the intended implicatures are highly debatable or very open-ended.

Or admitting that reasonable people can disagree about the inerrancy or authority of the Bible, which then precludes the religious authoritarianism that has plagued so much of church history.

At a time when child sacrifice was common in the land, Abraham sensed that God was asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. When they arrived at the appointed place, Abraham prepared a torch, placed the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and took up his knife. Upon reaching a suitable place on the side of the mountain, Abraham prepared an Altar, placed the wood on it and placed his son over the wood. Raising his knife for a fatal strike, an Angel stilled his hand and told him not to harm the boy.
God was satisfied that he feared him, and he did not want Isaac sacrificed. From that day, the descendants of Abraham were taught that they were not to sacrifice their children. God did not want the lives of their children He only wanted their devotion.

Very fitting. I just read a piece from an evangelical journal that put forward a biblical defense of slavery. It confirmed what I always suspected. I think that is my next writing topic. The author didn’t support slavery but just reiterated mainline Christian defenses of it from the 1800s. I’ve seen far more today justified with a lot less biblical support. It’s a sobering reminder of how important hermeneutics is and also understanding scripture is accommodated and absolutely not inerrant.

Even those theologians who have rejected slavery (oddly!) but still defend those problematic misogynistic passages (because they are tied into the created order) are just doing what those theologians defending slavery during the 1800s did. History will view them the same way. Personally, I think those who think homosexuality is a sin are in the same boat. I had an intelligent Christian immediately point to homosexuality as the problem of Sodom and Gomorrah and my response was “are you sure it’s not gang rape” that is the problem? Whether the mob wanted the men or the daughter’s it’s evil either way. So is the father’s reaction in this to offer his daughters in their place. He should have been turned into a pillar of feces, not his wife salt for looking back.

These groups will be the Christians that future followers of Jesus have to apologize for (morally and theologically) in addition to many others before us.


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I like to point out the verse Ezequial 16:49: “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.” Maybe the other stuff that gets focused on was just symptomatic of their complete failure to be hospitable to strangers and people in need, which was a major way of assessing character in the ancient world.


That’s quite a claim. Would you care to mention names?

I believe there is a wide (or narrow) spectrum between egalitarianism and _____ (I’m drawing a blank on the right -ism, patriarchalism?)

You might be surprised by what you find when you really look closely at the text. One of my last big aha moments with the Bible came in looking at Paul’s reference to the woman as the one who was deceived.

Try Wayne Grudem for starters.

“Patriarchy” is probably the needed word. Might as well call it what it was - and still is today.

Though I would add I think there is something more layered onto it (and has been from time immemorial) - and maybe that is something like “domination”. Or power-obsessed heirarchy. It’s a satanic thing that patriarchy (among other things) were all enslaved to back then, and remain seduced by today as well. However, we have become more “egalitarian” in that it isn’t only men and so-called “masculinity” today that have been seduced and enslaved by this age-old demon.


Yes, and he goes right to it with the eternal subordination of the Son… the section on this in his revised Systematic Theology was well handled I thought.

Age old demon or a relationship in the Trinity… pretty stark contrast


It certainly is! Subjugation vs. 100% voluntary and loving submission.

Even for those complementarians at odds with Grudem, submission only occurs in Christ’s earthly role. In their estimation the Son does not submit to the Father pre-incarnation.

For me, I don’t see any conflict between perfect hierarchy and perfect submission. For some it seems as if submission means there is a necessary disunity of will.

It’s the difference between me taking advantage of you by stealing, coercing, deceiving, or otherwise using you against your will or without your informed consent; or you lovingly offering me some service just because I need it, and you choose to provide it simply out of love for neighbor. The former is of Hell, the latter of Heaven. Christ (and the entire God-head identity that we now know through Christ) always and forever has been one of those things and never the other, even if early on (especially prior to Christ’s revelation) it sometimes seemed (and was even reported as if) God did evil.

I know there have sometimes been benevolent instances of patriarchy or matriarchy and heirarchy generally through history. We certainly have a need for order. But any humans in possession of excessive power over others (and it’s historically been men most often) have a dismal history of showcasing its evil nature. The well has been so thoroughly poisoned that it takes down anything that associates with it - including Christianity.

I’ve started in on Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of…” and in the foreward to that work, Scott Williamson writes (of Sophia Auld, the wife of the slave owner who ‘owned’ Douglass):

She was a …

…warm and caring woman who was injured by slavery no less deeply than Douglass himself. Auld was reprimanded by her husband for teaching young Frederick how to read along with their son, Tommy. Douglass wrote that Sophia Auld was “a pious, warm, and tenderhearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities.”

Her husband, Mr. Auld had become a Christian, and Douglass had hoped it would make him a less cruel man. It increased his cruelty. The verdict was in: When Christianity comes into contact with institutions of power, like slavery, it is the corrupt power that most often survives, leaving in its wake an empty religion bereft of any goodness or decency that it might ever have had. Wide is the road to perdition and many are those who trod it.

May we each be brought to want to pursue (and be pursued by) the God of Christ instead.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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