Scripture is often read only to find answers to life’s perplexing questions, to prove a theological point, or to formulate doctrine. But if read properly, what the Bible does most fundamentally is arouse a sacred sense of life-transforming wonder; encouraging us to linger in wide-eyed awe.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. William Brown about his book, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015).
What is “going marveling,” and why do you say it’s an act that should be cultivated for reading Scripture well?
Dr. Brown: This felicitous phrase is taken from the great Methodist preacher Fred Craddock, who tells of the ancestral practice of taking walks every Sunday afternoon and finding things to marvel at and to share with others. It’s a lost practice in our hyper-hectic world. In my book Sacred Sense, I argue that “going marveling” is an apt and necessary way of reading the Bible. We read the Bible for many reasons—for answering questions, for guidance, for supporting what we believe, for arguing a point, for finding comfort—that is, for specific ends, many of them utilitarian. And that’s perfectly fine. But if we don’t also take the time to read Scripture simply out of a sense of wonder, then we’re missing the Bible’s most fundamental purpose: namely, to evoke a sense of reverence and awe about God and God’s loving ways in the world. What would it be like simply to read the Bible for its own sake; for God’s sake? That, I believe, is the basis for reading the Bible devotionally; to “go marveling” through the Scriptures, to linger over and love what is read, to experience Scripture for its own sake, for God’s sake, and to share it.
How is God encountered in wonder?
Dr. Brown: The question could be taken to imply that there’s a means by which to encounter God in wonder, as opposed to encountering God in some other way. But that’s entirely up to God, not to technique. Nevertheless, it’s my contention that wonder lies at the core of our encounter with God, however varied that may be. The experience of wonder precedes doctrine; even belief. The Bible has countless stories about encountering God, and the wondrous thing about them all is how diverse they are—from the dramatic to the mundane, from the earth-shattering to the still small voice, from the grandeur of creation to ordinary people, from the cross to the empty tomb. Yet all these encounters share one thing in common: wonder.
What, then, is wonder?
Dr. Brown: Great follow up question! Sacred Sense explores the many facets of wonder as witnessed in biblical tradition, from the fearful to the playful. Wonder is what takes your breath away and gives your breath back to you, to breathe again, transformed. The biblical sages defined wonder as the “fear of the Lord”—the kind of “fear” that’s “the beginning of wisdom.” It’s not terror but rather reverence and awe. Wonder! Such wonder is the beginning of wisdom, a blend of humility, awe, and courage that propels one forward on the path of wisdom. The “fear of the LORD” is another way of defining wonder as “fear seeking understanding” or, more succinctly, “inquisitive awe.” Genuine wonder leads to new understanding.
How has the overuse of the word “awesome” in people’s vocabulary contributed to the loss of wonder in their lives?
Dr. Brown: Probably so. I avoid using the term, only because it has devolved into sarcasm through its overuse. Another case in point is the word “awful,” which now means something entirely negative, even though it is based on “awe-filled.”
Why is wonder an important element of a Christian’s maturing faith?
Dr. Brown: We usually associate “wonder” with childhood. Once we grow up, we become responsible, objective adults who have no room for wonder. Yet Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). According to Matthew, Jesus was talking about the necessity of humility, the flipside of wonder. So a “maturing faith” is also child-like faith, and remains so no matter how old and experienced we become. Jerome Miller, a philosopher, likens wonder to the experience of a young child who encounters a secret door for the first time. She either flees from it, stands mesmerized by it, or tentatively reaches out to turn the knob and open the door. As Christians, we know who stands on the other side: the one who says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). Now that’s a wonder!
The ancient sages claimed that wisdom is nurtured best by a sense of wonder. Without wonder, wisdom withers. On the other hand, without wisdom wonder tends to wander, aimlessly and naively. Wonder and wisdom fit hand in glove. Without a sense of wonder, faith and practice become routine, lukewarm, trivial.
Why do you call reading the Bible with an eye for wonder a “strange discipline”?
Dr. Brown: Simply because reading the Bible is a far cry from reading the newspaper or an instruction manual. Reading the Bible invites a whole other kind of reading: of reading closely, longingly, lovingly, contemplatively, actively, with an openness for surprise. It’s a way of dwelling in the text rather than reading the text for some particular, expected outcome. A “strange discipline” indeed.
What do you mean when you write, “Scripture is a full-bodied text that requires full-bodied engagement”?
Dr. Brown: Scripture is sense-filled, whether it’s the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon or the anguished words of the psalmist. It appeals to all the senses, not just to hearing. Sight, smell, taste, and touch also figure significantly in Scripture. “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). The Song of Solomon is filled with a sense of erotic wonder (which I call “Fifty Shades of Green”). Scripture engages the mind and the heart—both body and soul, the material and the spiritual—and it concerns, no less, than the transformation of all creation. And so we should read Scripture holistically, with a concern for all life, for all bodies and souls, here and now and forevermore.
Each chapter of your book explores a different Bible passage as an example of one of many facets of wonder you identify. “Cosmic wonder” seems to be a natural response to the Creation description in Genesis, but what is “mundane wonder”?
Dr. Brown: You might say that the Bible covers the whole spectrum of wonder, from the cosmic grandeur of creation to the “mundane wonder” of a good meal. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). Qoheleth, the sage of Ecclesiastes, discerns the “hand of God” in the little things of life; things that bring about simple pleasure, gratitude, and love (Eccl. 9:8-9). According to Sam Keen, there are three basic kinds of wonder: sensational wonder, ontological wonder, and mundane wonder. It’s the last one that we encounter daily; those things that sustain us day by day: the grace of a good night’s sleep, a delectable meal, a loving touch. They’re the gifts of God from the “hand of God.” The Bible celebrates such moments as much as it highlights the awe-filled encounters of God.
Why do you term Proverbs 8:22-31 as “playful wonder”?
Dr. Brown: Read the last two verses, and you’ll find out why. This is one of those remarkable passages that uniquely highlights the playful side of God. I devote a whole chapter on this text, and I’d rather not spill the beans. Let me just say that dwelling in this text has surprised me to no end when I consider the full impact of what it was saying about God, wisdom, and creation.
How will those who take your book to heart be better because of it?
Dr. Brown: Cultivating a sense of wonder is paramount to fostering a deeper, more open, non-defensive form of faith. To “go marveling” in Scripture invariably leads to “going marveling” in life (and vice versa). My hope is that readers will find renewal in their faith as they find more in Scripture to discover in awe and wonder.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Dr. Brown: Yes, just to say that I’m not at all concerned with whether my readers agree or disagree with my interpretations of various biblical texts. Some readers may find certain interpretations controversial or at least challenging. If, however, I have caused you to wonder more deeply about these texts, then I have accomplished my objective.
Bio: William P. Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. He has also taught at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s the author of several books and numerous essays on biblical interpretation and theology, including most recently Wisdom’s Wonder (Eerdmans), The Seven Pillars of Creation (Oxford University), and Seeing the Psalms (Westminster John Knox). Bill is also an avid Sunday School teacher, and he volunteers for Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL).