Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett exchanged over five hundred letters before their kindred passion for words and writing blossomed into a love for one another. “I love your verses with all my heart,” Robert wrote in his first letter. Her poetry contained, he said, “fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought.”
From these love letters was born one of the world’s greatest love stories between two of the world’s most brilliant poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The Bible Textbook or Love Poem?
Their letters birthed and nurtured a mutual love. Is the Bible a “strange music,” “affluent language,” and “true new brave thought” on God’ love letter purposed to birth the same kind of love? I once taught that the Bible was similar to a text book or a driver’s manual. Please forgive me!
In the Bible poetry far outnumbers life assembly instructions. In his book Art and Faith artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura asks, “What if the entire Bible is a work of art, rather than the dictates of predetermined ‘check boxes’ for us to get on God’s good side?”
Even the logical Apostle Paul was a poet. In 1 Corinthians he wrote a poem on God’s love that’s been read in more weddings than any other love poem. And prose that prefigures Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? poem written for her beloved Robert, Paul prayed we might “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
God gave us a book filled with love stories, love songs, and love poems. Yet many continue to reduce it to an instruction manual.
Unread Letters of Love
Nearly a year after Elizabeth’s and Robert’s first correspondence, the two met in person and began courting. But Elizabeth’s oppressive father vehemently disapproved of their relationship. Undaunted, Robert proposed and the couple eloped to Italy to be married. In Italy their love for one another and for writing grew.
Sweet, rhythmic words drew Elizabeth and Robert to one another. Writing as if their love and lives depended on it, they sealed their vision of love into the hearts of lovers for all time. Not only did their words win one another’s hearts but the world’s too. Today their letters and poetry are classics of English literature. Even most school children can quote the first line of Elizabeth’s poem defining her love for Robert: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
But there is one man Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words could not touch–her father. After Elizabeth and Robert eloped, her father never spoke to her again. Still Elizabeth never gave up her hope for reconciliation or her belief in the power of words. She wrote her father nearly every week for ten years. He never replied.
How could her father ignore a love communicated so powerfully that the rest of the world considers even these letters classics? He never read a single word Elizabeth wrote him! After ten years, he returned to her each letter unread in a large box. She later wrote, “Ever since my mother’s death these letters were kept by my father in a certain inlaid box, into which they exactly fitted, and where they have always rested, letter beside letter, each in its consecutive order and numbered on the envelope by his own hand.”
The Bible is Best Read as a Poem
And so a love that moved thousands never affected one she held so dear.
And so it is with God! Through the rhythm of human history God wrote his poem to us. Every page of the Bible is filled with the record of God’s desperate desire to win our hearts. In one story God compares his heart sickness over our broken relationship with him to that of a husband whose wife sells herself again and again to the highest bidder. In Isaiah God compares himself to a mother who will nurse us and dandle us on her knee. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” God croons. Through Jeremiah God sings, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”
Jesus tells us loving God and one another is God’s greatest desire for us.
But just like with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father, much of this goes unread or misunderstood. Despite millions of Bibles being sold each year (it is still the number one best seller of all time) and hotels hiding Bibles in bedside drawers and scholars and scoffers arguing over its message, few of us have fathomed God’s love letter to us. Years ago, I heard a comedian on The Prairie Home Companion radio show warn listeners not to use the maps in the backs of their Bibles when traveling in Israel–because they’re out of date.
And therein lies the problem. We often use the Bible as God never intended. It is not a hammer to pummel those who disagree with us. Or a sword to eviscerate them. It is not a proof text for our personal or political choices. It is not a mere container for propositional truth. Logic expounded. It is not a science textbook or a batch of outlandish myths. The Bible is a series of stories detailing a Lover’s pursuit of an ex-lover on the run. It is best read as a story or a poem. It begs us to imbibe not merely memorize. It calls us to taste it like honey, use it like light, eat it as bread, worry it as a dog does a bone. Poetic phrases all.
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her novel Aurora Leigh:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
Unfortunately Elizabeth’s father did not even pluck blackberries. Let’s the rest of us take off our shoes and walk onto holy ground.