Dante’s Inferno offends contemporary sensibilities. Cataloguing horrific punishments for sin is a hard pill to swallow in any historical moment, but perhaps especially so in an age of laissez-faire morality. Whether you’re a card-carrying atheist or a Christian prone to what Christian Smith dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism,” there is a lot in the hellish horror show of the medieval Christian imagination that scandalizes those of us comfortable in our live-and-let-live culture. We are a people who do not like to be, and do not expect to be, unsettled.
But for me, one of the most unsettling episodes occurs in the twentieth canto. About two-thirds into his journey through the underworld, Dante encounters the mishappen forms of the diviners. These wicked seers used their powers to predict—or divine—the future while they were time-bound, living creatures. Now, in good contrapasso form, their fitting punishment is to be so twisted out of shape that they can never look ahead again. With skulls corkscrewed around, these shades must eternally wander their circle “backwards,” crying out in anguish from the pain of their deformity with tears that drip down their backs and into the “clefts of their buttocks,” as Robert Durling’s translation has it.
This is not supposed to be humorous. (Really. It’s not that kind of divine comedy!) Dante is actually overwhelmed by the encounter. He weeps. He does not weep in pain, like the damned, but rather in pity and compassion. And in one of his seven direct addresses throughout the poem, Dante asks his readers—that is: he asks you and me—how one could do anything but mourn if they saw such disfigurations of the human form, of the imago Dei. These men and women have become beasts in their sin. Surely not to weep at this sight would be its own type of bestial deformity. Right?
Yet no sooner has Dante issued this challenge to us than Virgil, seeing Dante’s emotional outpouring, harshly scolds: “Are you still one of the fools? Here pity lives when it is quite dead: who is more wicked than one who brings pity to God’s judgment.” Dante’s emotional response, at least according to his guide—the allegorical voice of reason—is not only wrong, it’s foolish. It may even be blasphemous. Virgil wants Dante, his pupil, to know that on this point of the journey toward encountering and becoming more like God, he should know better. Here is Dante’s carefully laid rhetorical trap: If you are a Christian, dear reader, not only should Dante know better, but perhaps so should you.
To know better. It is such a mundane phrase it takes some effort to hear again the strange magic of it. I could not stop thinking about this phrase nor stop thinking about the meaning of this odd little scene in the Inferno after finishing Matthew Mullins’s latest, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving Scripture. Because what Mullins is encouraging us to do, among other things, is to know better when it comes to why and how we read Scripture.
Mullins’s argument in a nutshell: To enjoy a piece of poetry you cannot—or should not—abstract the message from the medium. Marshall McLuhan’s well-worn dictum, albeit spoken in relation to technology, holds equally true for literary writing: The medium is the message.
As a fellow literary scholar and a generally bookish person who delights in language and the beautiful marriage of form and content—the what and how of good writing, or the logos and poiema as C.S. Lewis beautifully describes it in An Experiment in Criticism—I understand that I am not quite the intended audience for this project. Mullins really is “preaching to the choir” as far as I’m concerned. Now this is not to say I don’t appreciate the book. I do! Even the best choristers enjoy a good sermon. I only mention this because the central argumentative thread of this book is best read in light of his intended audience. The reality of this audience, though, is at the heart of my critique of a project I really do like. More on the critique in a moment.
The folks Mullins addresses are the scads of young men and women who don’t like and/or have little training in literary (primarily poetic) reading. They therefore despise the complications and hard work such reading demands. And, therefore, they generally approach the Bible like some kind of instruction manual and do not know how to enjoy or experience Scripture. For Christians it’s obvious why this is worrisome. If the Bible is God’s self-revelation to his people and we are called to be immersed in it as a way to know him, ourselves, and others, then to find no joy in it because of our malformed reading habits is an issue with serious stakes for discipleship. Like Dante, we too are on a journey to an encounter with the living God, and our hope is that we are made ready to enjoy him forever.
The cause for these impoverished reading habits, Mullins argues, is that such readers approach the Bible like one might approach a fable from Aesop, extracting the “information”—the “what”—of a moral lesson or idea while paying much less attention to the literariness of the imaginative world—the “how”—of the story or poem. Such readers don’t need or want to get bogged down in a long story about a tortoise and a hare. They want to cut to the chase and take out the “slow-and-steady-wins-yada-yada-yada” theme.
Mullins, drawing heavily on James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project, diagnoses this problem as reading with “Cartesian eyes” and having a “hermeneutic of information.” These readers want to dissect, abstract, and extract propositional truth claims from texts. They are, in a phrase that upsets the stomach, “brains-on-a-stick” who fail to engage their imaginations and hearts—their “guts”—in actually experiencing a text in all its emotional complexity. Consequently they fail to properly read and enjoy the great Book of Books. They have reduced it to paraphrase.
So far so diagnosed. Now, toward a solution. To remediate this hermeneutical reductionism, Mullins calls these readers to consider a new hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of love. (For those familiar with Alan Jacobs, you’ll likely hear the echoes of his early work A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.) To counteract the hermeneutic of information, Mullins argues that we need to train young readers to recover the pleasurable delight in encountering the subtleties of language, the repetition, the imagery, the narrative arc . . . the literariness of Scripture. This is not just a better form of reading, but a way of loving communion with the God who breathes and inspires the truth in his authoritative Scripture. Good reading is a full-bodied encounter.
In one of the most compelling framings of the argument, Mullins encourages readers not to just try to find the truth claim embedded in the story (as if the story of David and Bathsheba, for instance, could be reductively paraphrased into: “Do not commit adultery”) but also to allow the story to generate a full-bodied visceral experience that involves our minds, to be sure, but also our bodies and emotions. Reading by love demands all of us. Indeed, think about the prophet Nathan condemning King David about his adultery with Bathsheba by telling a story of the unjust man. David is so swept up in the narrative he becomes visibly and physiologically angered and then bodily sickened upon the realization he is the one the story condemns. Or think of Christ’s “sermon” on the mount, a tapestry of rich, complexly layered parables that stir the heart and the imagination, the emotions and the mind.
To know Scripture is not simply to abstract and memorize pithy truth statements, but to “experience delight, comfort, shock” as the story or poem intends them.
To know Scripture is not simply to abstract and memorize pithy truth statements, but to “experience delight, comfort, shock” as the story or poem intends them. In a way: this is how we can know better. And, much to my delight, this means that the best readers should be honing these skills by reading all sorts of literature and poetry, exercising their reading muscles so when they journey back into the Word, they are more capable of hearing the music and experiencing the emotional response a given text creates.
I am not going to waste time here rehashing the more fine-grained examples Mullins provides. The book is wonderfully readable and helpful for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in self-study or even lead a small group in their church. In fact, I think many pastors would do well to read this book and then a book of poetry and a modern novel alongside their commentaries to not only appreciate Scripture more richly, but even to start crafting sermons that are not merely dry, yeastless prose. Mullins has much to offer.
The Right Diagnosis?
Nevertheless, this book provides a good answer to the wrong problem. Or maybe better, the problem Mullins (drawing on Smith) diagnoses is not the right one in that it is not quite what our time requires. To be fair: Mullins teaches in a Baptist community for which this may very well be the problem. But my hunch is that today in many Christian communities the problem is the exact opposite. We are not so much in danger of becoming heads without hearts, but hearts without heads.
Both James K.A. Smith, a Gen-Xer, and Mullins (and I), an earlyish millennial, grew up in a secondary system still awash in formalist studies of literature. The English curriculum of the ’80s and ’90s required character studies, symbol charts, plot graphs, and of course: theme statements. Throughout the twentieth century, literary formalism trickled down from the Ivy League schools, which wanted English literature to have a more scientific, objective approach that the other disciplines would respect. This school of thought shaped literary pedagogy all the way down to primary school. Such formalism is an offshoot of the excarnational, brain-on-a-stick anthropology that encourages the dissection of texts and the extraction of truth claims abstractable from the more formal elements. This scientific approach to literature affected the reading habits of many Christians as well. There’s a reason that Lewis’s text I mentioned above, An Experiment in Criticism, is addressing this problematic approach—in 1961.
We are fallen, and our fallenness runs through our reason and our emotion.
But if you’ve sat in a primary or secondary English classroom today, you’ll know that the end of formalism that has been accomplished in the postwar “critical turn” of the university has now trickled down to the lowest, most foundational tiers of education. We are no longer awash in reductive formalisms, but rather fairly reductive forms of reader-response theory. And I am increasingly unconvinced that our primary problem today is that students and readers are too heady, too rational, too concerned with propositional truth claims over against emotional experience. Survey your freshman students about their experiences of writing and I guarantee many more of them are quite at home with writing emotional journal responses and experientially inflected reflections on texts than clear, logical arguments or even a concern with the truth claims proposed through stories. I think if you told freshman writing profs that their students understood themselves to be brains-on-a-stick, they would look at you wistfully and think “If only . . .”
Again, Mullins’s desire that more people learn to read the Bible experientially as a literary text is good and worthwhile. I am on board! But I am not entirely convinced that the brain-on-a-stick anthropology still underwrites the tacit picture of the world for most readers, especially the younger generations Mullins addresses. Students today are much more prone to be tuned in to their emotional responses to a piece of writing than to parse out abstract truth claims. And while I really do love Mullins’s project of reviving the literariness of Scripture, his strategy is bit off-kilter from what we need today in a world, I would argue, that is led much more easily by the emotive than by the rational.
Why It Matters
Given that I appreciate the general argument of Mullins’s book, this might seem like nitpicking or semantic quibbling. But the right diagnosis matters. Indeed, you can’t offer a healing word if you don’t properly understand the disease.
This brings me—at long last, I know—back to Dante and that enigmatic vignette that opens the twentieth canto. Dante asks us as readers of his poem to reflect on our emotional response to what he’s presented. We, like the pilgrim, are caught up in the story, and we too have a visceral, emotive response. But when Virgil chastises Dante (and, perhaps, us too) for pitying that which God has damned, we are meant to be unsettled. Now, to be clear, I understand that Dante’s thought experiment is to place himself in hell, a world where choice no longer matters and salvation has become impossible. So this is not to argue that pity for suffering or compassion for evil people is wrong because Virgil says so in a thirteenth-century poem.
What unsettles me is that this vignette reveals that even our emotional experiences can be wrong. We are fallen, and our fallenness runs through our reason and our emotion. While it might seem like pity here is the proper hermeneutic of love, Dante challenges us to consider that even what seems like properly ordered love based on our physiological and emotional response might still be disordered. And the only way to evaluate this response is through submission to something higher, more authoritative than our “gut” response or our fallen intellect.
There has been an increasing clamour in the church today to recover the “heart” over the “head,” for story over apologia, for drama over dogma. I get this, and in many cases I agree that a corrective is much needed in some forms of church life to revivify the experiential heart and the imagination of the faith. We perhaps have a right to take issue with our more intellectualist, modern forebears who wrongly conflated true discipleship with intellectual assent.