The Bible as Epic Poem

I want to share with you how I view the Bible. Next week, I will give an overview of the Bible, focusing on the historical development of the Bible.
When I was a younger person, into my 20’s, if I were asked how do you see the Bible, I would have answered I see it as the literal Word of God. I would have quoted I Timothy 3:16 which says All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. I would have insisted the Bible was inerrant, without error. So that everything the Bible declared was true and truth, and the way things really happened. I would have said the Bible is both a map for our salvation and a newspaper declaring the good news. If I had to classify the Bible in my personal library it would have been placed most certainly in the non-fiction section, the Bible being the most non-fiction texts there are.

After I experienced a crisis of faith in my mid-20’s, I came to see things in a different light. I sojourned into the wilderness of lost faith and often came across and even considered the opposite claim that the Bible is nothing but an antiquated book with a lot of violence and vengeance, exclusivity and an extraordinarily unenlightened view of the world. The Bible was fiction from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and should not be used in any way to get at truth. If one, according to this opposition view, were to classify the Bible in one’s personal library, it would be in the pure fiction section.

Now, a more moderate view would be the one presented by most mainline denominations: the Bible includes both fiction and non-fiction, yet the overarching message of the Bible is true – God’s Love through Christ offers us grace and life and hope. The famous declaration comes to mind – we take the Bible seriously, but not literally. And the point of it all is Christ.

However, for me, this more moderate view is missing something. It is a missing an elegant way to view the Bible as a whole. It is also missing how we understand the nature of God’s inspiration. How exactly did God inspire, how did God breathe God’s self into the scripture?

I want to offer a way to view the Bible as a whole that answers to these lacks.

It may not surprise anyone that poetry would come into play in my presenting a new way of viewing the Bible.

I offer here that the Bible is a long, epic poem. Let me explain.

If you were to go to your local library, you are likely to see either the Dewey Decimal System of classification of all those books or the Library of Congress system. And if you were to look for poetry, you would find it classified where? In the fiction or non-fiction section? Well, both the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system place poetry in the non-fiction section.

Here, we have a guard against the critique that says reading the Bible as a poem diminishes its truthiness, to coin a word made famous by Stephen Colbert. Reading a poem , the literalists would claim, is not the same as the reading the history of God’s work in time or a sacred and timeless rendering of just the facts, ma’am. The Bible is non-fiction.

However, a poem isn’t non-fiction in the same way a science text book is. Reading a poem is not the same as reading non-fiction in the normal sense. Poetry speaks to truth, what is real, yet in a way that is no, not literal, but artistic and oriented toward deeper understanding. A poem speaks to truth in a way that is more powerful and profound.

Consider Emily Dickinson speaking of the essential strength and graciousness of hope in her famous poem, poem 314.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

My saying in a literal way that "hope is resilient" is fine. But how much more beautiful and profound is Emily Dickinson saying it with her poem. Why? Because a poem taps into not only the head, but the heart. It engages more of what makes us human. It engages our souls.

The Bible seen and read as a poem does the same.

Now, as mentioned Poetry is categorized as non-fiction in many libraries. Nonetheless, libraries often put books of poetry in their own section, cordoned off from novels and non-fiction. 

This makes sense. Poetry is in a class all its own. Poetry has its own section. Poetry transcends the fiction/non-fiction division. Poetry defies divisions between “the real” and “the unreal.” God is the same. God has a reality all God’s own, transcending all divisions.

Of course, the Bible itself includes various books with different genres. Included in the Bible are actual poems, the Psalms.

Some will state, other than the Psalms, the rest is not literally poetry. They were not written or intended as poetry, so how can we defy authorial intent and call what was not intended to be poetry, poetry?

I will say that the first part of Genesis, where the creation story is told is seen by many Hebrew scholars and readers as poetry. It has the rhythm and structure of poetry in the original Hebrew.

But that still leaves the vast majority remaining that wasn’t written as poetry.

I suggest considering the principle of God’s Inspiration of Scripture. Remember, I said we need an understanding of how God breathed the scriptures into being? We come to that now.

Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals alike often talk about God inspiring the scriptures. God breathed through the hearts, minds, and pens of human authors and out came God’s speaking to us. Yes, the human authors had some free will in the specifics of what they wrote, but the intent, the truth, and the purpose of the words they wrote were God’s. That is known as the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture.

The doctrine of inspiration could be used to explain our contradiction that the Bible is a long, epic poem and yet the vast majority of the authors did not intend to write poetry. What the biblical authors intended as nonfiction history or fact-based narrative, in reality is a God-breathed poem. The poem includes history and narrative but rises above the mundane world and taps into the sacred realm, the realm of what Emerson called the Oversoul of God. So the human authors intended it as the news of the day or of their experience, but the realm of God inspired the beauty and power of the Bible as pure poetry.

Now, we must clarify that the Gospels, the story of the good news for all people incarnated in Jesus Christ, is the climax, the center, the point of the poem. 

The Gospels also beg the question, were Jesus words merely a poem. The answer is rather obvious to me. Jesus taught in Parable. That was his method of teaching the truth of the Father. Another word for Parable for me, anyway, is Poem. Jesus spoke poems to teach the truth of God.

What’s more, Jesus is himself called the Word
in the first chapter of the gospel of John, the Word that was with God and is God . Jesus as the Word can be seen as the ultimate poem of God. Jesus is the poem that became flesh and dwelt among us.

Why does this matter? Why does reading the Bible as a long, epic poem whose theme is the love of God that breaks through the limits of humanity? It matters because we cannot get around the sacredness of the Bible in the world and in the lives of so many. It remains the world’s greatest seller for a reason. We cannot dismiss it. We cannot ignore it or ridicule it without ridiculing millions who find greatest meaning within its pages. At the same time, we who are Christians but not biblical literalists need to read the Bible in a way that is honorable and sacred and meaningful. Reading the Bible as a sacred poem, timeless and boundariless, offers us a way, a way to honor, to see sacredness, and to find meaning in the Bible.

So in our readings and internalizing of the Bible, may we see deeply and find the rhythm and rime, the cadence and the elegance, and even the toughness and loudness of the love of God. May it be so. Amen.

So beginning next week, we will look at the creation story in Genesis. I want to ask that if you have a Bible that is easily totable, bring it. Evangelicals like my parents have often remarked that what separates their churches from mainline churches is that they carry a Bible to church. So if you want to experience what that is like, maybe for the sermon series, you can carry your Bible to church. If not, you can use a pulpit Bible.

Danger: The Path from Ideals to Ideology

READING: Matthew 26:6-

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

REFLECTION: “Danger: From Ideals to Ideology”

Jesus in our scripture is being extravagantly cared for. He is a man who is facing death, death on a cross. He knows this. His disciples have been told but don’t believe it. The woman in the narrative seems to know. She is preparing him. Jesus sees her compassion and accepts her compassionate act.

Jesus’ disciples do not see her compassion. They are blind to her act of compassion. They instead see misplaced intent and undue extravagance. One speaks for them. “Why are you allowing her to come in here with her expensive perfume she paid thousands of dollars for, thousands that could have been used to help the poor, but instead she is using it on you?” Using this expensive ointment simply to comfort those who are comfortable enough, that is wrong, unjust, sinful. The Gospel of John has Judas offering up this complaint.

They do not believe Jesus is facing imminent death. They do not see the compassion behind the act. They do not see the internal state of the woman. They only presume this woman is robbing the poor with her extravagance. The disciples get it wrong. Jesus lets them know this with a penetrating statement. The poor will always be here. I will not.

What I hear Jesus saying on a deeper level is this: don’t let your ideals become ideology. Don’t let your understanding of God as the absolute become dogmatic absolutism. Don’t let your compassion for the poor become hate for the un-poor. Don't be attached to only one mode of compassion. Don’t let your care for one person become animosity toward a different person.

Not much at all in this life is black and white or always obviously right or wrong. There is nuance. There is gray. There are at least two sides to every story. There are varying views of things and often one view isn’t absolutely right and the other absolutely evil.

Compassion means desiring to help the poor. There is no doubt about that. But compassion takes many other shapes and forms, doesn’t it? And what we see as lacking compassion, sometimes may wholly include it.

The woman anointing Jesus’ feet with oil was exhibiting compassion, even though the disciples did not see it. Yes, it is compassionate to help the poor. But it’s also compassionate to tend to the needs of someone confronting death, be they rich or poor.

The common denominator is compassion. And compassion should be what grounds us and all we do.

There should be no doubt that Jesus cared for the poor. His explanation of why he came, what his ministry was all about, was this after all: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” His ministry made it clear he meant what he said.

Yet Jesus, amid this anointing, claims, “the poor you will always have with you.” In other words, you will not win this one completely. We will not eradicate every evil or every example of evil. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that you will. There are some people who truly choose to be poor, or at least do not have the capacity to choose otherwise. Showing-up is all you can sometimes do. Some monks and nuns take the vow of poverty. Jesus did, it seems. Whatever the case may be, it is true – we will always have poor people. We cannot save everyone. This of course doesn't mean we are not expected to give our all. However, without a humble heart that admits to our vulnerability and looks for help outside ourselves and our just our group of people, we will face a bitter battle. Those doing the good work of caring for the poor need to remember the necessity of humility and love. There is no complete victory in the work of compassion. But complete victory should not be the reason we help the poor.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13. "If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

The dangerous transition of going from idealism to ideology where we compete our ideologies against another is something Jesus was attempting to guard against in his words to the disciples. It is good to believe in your heart of hearts that the needs of the vulnerable must be at the forefront of what we do. It is good to believe that the way of peace must be tantamount and the way of war must be resisted. It is good to believe that love and compassion must be the basis for all we do, including the government.

Yet when these ideals become ideology, when what I think are the answers become what all must think are the answers, when my ideas of what we need to do becomes the only correct ideas of what we need to do, when adherence to a political philosophy removes the desire for compromise, we enter the realm of ideology. And ideologies and ideologues are dangerous because there are always more than one.

When I was a Religious Studies student in college, I learned about the fancy phrases orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. Some religions fall in line with the orthodoxy category. They focus on correct (ortho) doctrine (doxy), believing the correct way. Christianity is maybe the biggest example of orthodoxy based religion. Other religions fall in line with the orthopraxy category. Orthopraxy means correct practice, practicing the correct things – Five times a day prayer in Islam. Practicing Meditation in Buddhism. Following kosher diet in Judaism. These are examples of correct practice.

I’d like to introduce a third category. Orthospem. Correct hope. I for one believe most people of good will hope, share the hope that children be fed, clothed, sheltered, cared for. I cannot think of many people who see poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as good things. Virtually all of us share the hope that these wrongs will be made right. At least we should.

This is what I mean by correct hope. We should stay centered in on the correct hope that no one goes hungry, homeless, poor, neglected, excluded. Too often we move too quickly to the solutions and stay centered together on the problem, taking it in, contemplating it as a community, and seeking common purpose. When go quickly to the solutions, disagreements on the best solutions naturally arise and soon become the focus.

Compromise and working together are so essential. But compromise and working together takes practice. It takes sitting together and contemplating the hopes we share, namely that there is as little poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as possible.

If we sit with our shared hopes, if we sit and reflect on the real people being effected by poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, and exclusion if we also sit with those being affected by these evils, it becomes natural that we start building the strong foundation upon which we confront those evils.

More than ever, we need to a laser focus on our shared hope, our sitting together with our shared hope in mind and heart.

Focusing on our shared hope leads to humility. I am not the only one who wants less poverty, less hunger, less homelessness, less neglect, less exclusion. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals of good will all want this. And I can learn from others who want the same things. This humility allows us the space and openness and inclusiveness to look honestly at things and admit when something isn’t working, make corrections midstream, and hopefully make it work.

None of us have the market on the truth. None of us is right about everything 100% of the time. None of us in can get what we want 100% of the time. Without humility, without a flexibility that allows for compromise, without a willingness to say what I proposed doesn’t work and what you proposed might, without an open mind and an open heart, we will have more poor people, more hungry people, more homeless people, more neglected, more excluded people.

We have seen the dangers of political rigidity, absolutism, ideological litmus tests. We have seen them throughout history. We have seen them in America in the Religious Right and the extreme elements on the Right. We are seeing them increasingly on the Left as well. We are increasingly becoming two separate and isolated camps that no longer even attempt to meet each other in the middle.

We must stem this tide. And we do this best by doing what we do here. Honing in on our shared humanity and shared hopes, building community on what connects us – the love of God. This is what we need. Let us preach the gospel that without love we are nothing.


One of God’s greatest promises to us is that God will never leave us nor forsake us. God is present with us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times, in birth and in death, and all those in betweens. That is what helps us to hope and get through it all.

The best thing we can do when we pray is to practice godliness by being spiritually as present with those we are praying for as possible. So as we pray, I ask that you be present with those we hold in God’s light.

For those facing health issues or health procedures, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are grieving losses or are feeling lost and alone, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.

For those who are impoverished, hungry, homeless, neglected, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who simply struggling with the daily grind, bored with life, and needing friendship, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.

For those who are feeling the blessing of joy and gratitude, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.