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.


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