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In this episode of Faith for Normal People, hosts Pete Enns and Jared Byas speak with Irish poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, delving into the appreciation and understanding of the Bible through the lens of poetry and exploring how poetry can offer alternative perspectives on theological questions. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What is the role of a poet? What is the role of a theologian? How do those roles differ when it comes to the specific and the general?
  • How does Pádraig think about the intersection of his work as a poet and as a theologian?
  • Which scriptures particularly interest Pádraig?
  • How does the Bible intersect with culture?
  • What three ways of looking at art can help us understand the Bible better as a piece of literature?
  • What interests Pádraig about using biblical references in his poems? What is he trying to do in those? 
  • How did the exorcisms forced upon Pádraig impact his own view of theology?
  • How can we develop, even within traumatic and painful experiences, the sense that Scripture actually opens up a conversation about theology and being in the world?
  • Why and when did Pádraig find himself leaving religious community?
  • What are some steps people can take to engage with poetry?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • I’m interested in language, and I’m interested in what language can say about the human experience. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • Speaking broadly for the Christianities of the world, there’s many different kinds of faces of the Bible that show up in many fruitful or problematic ways, depending as to what culture and what imagination of the purpose of those texts is. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • There’s evidence even within the text of warnings about how the text should be used—about those who wish to use seemingly innocent questions about eternal life for the purposes of strangulation. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • What’s absolutely true is that the Bible is art. And what’s absolutely true is that it has been used as propaganda in so many parts of the world for horrific and violent purposes. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • Let’s read a text closely—and underlining that is: have you read it closely? And then—have you read your reading? What are you trying to make the text do? — @theb4np @duanalla
  • In many ways, the danger of art is that it becomes propaganda in the hands of people who wish to use it for manipulative purposes. And what’s absolutely true is that the Bible is art. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • So much of poetry is writing something today that is in conversation with something much older. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • I’m going to let the unmuzzled voice in me speak back. And that for me is what it means to take a literature seriously. Not that it tells me what I should say, but in a certain sense, it opens up the gates of hell for me to say what I need to say. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • I am just one small corner of enormous populations of the world whose lives have been terrorized by the power of those who interpret religion for their own purposes, and I do not let them reign over my imagination about what a text can say. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • I love the idea that when you remove the possibility of trying to recruit or have some kind of password to say that you belong to something, that really what you open yourself up to is wonder. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • I haven’t moved away from religion because everybody’s horrible there. They’re not. Religion’s full of great people and terrible people, just like any city, just like any village. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • I moved away from formal belonging to religion because I was interested in language that was at once more precise and at the other time more full of wonder. — @theb4np @duanalla
  • The point is to be alive, and does your reading of the text inspire your life in the world and open you up to the possibility of what it means to be in the world? — @theb4np @duanalla

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Jared Byas: You’re listening to Faith for Normal People, the only other God ordained podcast on the internet. 

Pete Enns: I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared Byas: And I’m Jared Byas. [Intro music plays]

Before we get started with our episode today, we need to take a minute to celebrate because our newest Bible for Normal People commentary, Revelation for Normal People, is out now. And again, in this book, New Testament scholar Robyn Whitaker uncovers the real world context behind this ancient, apocalyptic, and usually confusing text, helping us find meaning for our own time.

As many of you know, I mentioned this before, I grew up being taught that the Left Behind series was accurate biblical interpretation. Things like microchips and barcodes were signs of the Antichrist, and I was taught conspiracy theories that to this day have real political and social implications. And a lot of that came from a certain reading of the book of Revelation.

So, reading Revelation well continues to be so important. So check out this book by Robyn Whitaker. Buy your copy of Revelation from Normal People today, wherever you like to get books. We particularly like or, which helps to support local bookstores. And don’t forget to leave a review before you get raptured.

Pete Enns: Welcome to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is a poetic look at the Bible with Pádraig Ó Tuama. 

Jared Byas: Pádraig is an Irish poet and theologian whose work centers around themes of language, power, conflict, and religion. He’s the author of several books of poetry and prose, and he’s also the host of the popular podcast, Poetry Unbound.

Pete Enns: And folks, don’t forget to stay tuned at the end of the episode for Quiet Time where we will reflect on the conversation and how we’ve been thinking about our own faith lately. Let’s dive in.

Pádraig Ó Tuama: [Clip of Pádraig speaking plays over music] “I get enormous comfort when I think of all of the many, many authors who wrote what we now consider to be the Bible, which is really a small library. If you put them all in the field, I’m over in the field with the people who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, who were saying, look, what do we know? You know, the sun shines on the good and the bad. The bad die happy and the good die hungry. Do good anyway. I go, I like you. I’m over there. I’ll open the whiskey.”

[Ad break]

Jared Byas: All right Pádraig, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Thanks very much. Nice to be with you both. 

Jared Byas: We’re going to do something we’ve never done. I’m going to start this podcast with the words “Richard Rorty” for the three people who maybe know who that is. So, Richard Rorty is a philosopher that I read and he describes the poet as one who looks at the particular and the specific, while the philosopher looks at the universal and the general.

And so, having someone as a poet and a theologian, I thought it was interesting to ask this question up front. Like, what’s the relationship between poetry and theology for you? Like, how do they hang together as the poet as one who’s looking at the specifics, the stories, the everydayness, and then the philosopher or theologian who’s maybe looking at the universal or general?

So, for you, how would you describe the relationship between those two things?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: I suppose it’s probably true to say that not every poet is trying to look at the particular. Some poets are trying to look at the general and the universal and trying to write to a broad, as they might see it, universal you.

And other philosophers are speaking about the specific. I think of the French philosopher Hélène Cixous, for instance, who continually brought things back to the specific and located questions about philosophy in the individual body. And then from that went back to perhaps just saying something about certain populations.

So, I mean, I think what Richard Rorty’s saying is really worthwhile thinking about, but I’m not sure that everybody who calls themselves those names, or is called those names, poet, theologian, philosopher, I’m not sure that those things would, that everybody would, would go along with all of those. I think more particularly, I can speak about myself.

I’m interested in language, and I’m interested in what language can say about the human experience. And, of course, I think perhaps I spend all of my life trying to believe that there is such a thing as other people and trying to remind myself, so the idea of ever speaking to a universal is impossible, but I do hope that there can be an impulse toward moving away from self centeredness in poetry as well as whatever moral framework or stories I have about the world or tell about the world.

Jared Byas: And with that then, what’s specifically, for you, how would you define as a theologian, how is your work theological? Can you say more about that? 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Well, I, I’ve never described my poetry as theological. My poetry is poetry. I’ve done a few degrees in theology. So that’s hence why the term theologian is accurate, and conflict resolution practitioner too, I did a lot of training in that also. So in all of the theological training that I did, I focused specifically on the literatures of Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament as well. I’m very interested in the literature and particularly within that both the poetic and the narrative literatures. So whether that’s the Psalms or the Book of Job or the Gospels or the Book of Genesis.

Yeah, in all of those, I’m very interested in how the literature and how the artists behind that literature were writing. So I suppose I’m more interested in theology as poetry as you look at these sacred texts and consider the fact that it was an artist who wrote them, whether a poet or whether somebody who was working, or a team of people or a community of editors who knew or didn’t know each other, working to put some kind of corpus of literature together that was, as far as they were concerned, saying something important, but also saying it in a very particular artistic way, shaped probably by whoever the main authors were.

Pete Enns: So, I mean, while we’re on that, before we take a, maybe a little bit deeper dive into biblical literature, are, are there aspects of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament that resonate with you more than others, that you’re particularly drawn to in your thinking and in your writing?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Yeah, I think this reflects my interests, you know, rather than thinking that some of these texts that I have not been drawn to are in any way lesser literature. Of course they’re not. My God, who am I to say anything about world literature that’s survived thousands of years? 

But yeah, I’m fascinated by Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, the Book of Job, the Book of Ruth, the Minor Prophets, the Song of Songs, and all those books in the Hebrew Bible. Really intriguing, all for different reasons. The Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the book of Tobit that you find in what might crudely be called Catholic Bibles, even though it’s a Jewish conundrum as to how many books should be compiled in the Hebrew Bible. 

And then my work has, I did a master’s looking at the application of literary criticism to the four canonical gospels. So I was very interested in how matters to do with plot and characterization, and denouement and marginalized characters and all of those things, setting, um, were, were shaped by the author or authors behind what we know as the four gospels. So those are the areas that I focused on particularly. I wish I could have focused on more. There’s so many other amazing works. 

Pete Enns: [Chuckles] Yeah. I mean, they all have their own value and people are drawn to different things. That’s certainly true. So with respect to the literature, the Bible, maybe getting more into your work, how do you see the literature of the Bible intersecting with culture and then also, I guess, with your own work as a poet?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Well, first of all, the first association I had when you asked about culture is the culture from which the text comes. And of course, that is both known and unknown and subject to anthropology and history and artistic pursuit. And I tend to think of any piece of art as being able to function at least in three ways.

One is like a window into the culture from which it came, the historical moment from which that piece of art came. The second is like a painting that is done by a particular artist that wants to show us something, whether that is cordant or discordant with their culture. And then the third way is looking at it like a mirror, so you see yourself back. 

And in many ways, I think great world art is all three at the same time and at different times. You’re looking through it, you’re looking at it, and then you’re seeing yourself in it. And so there’s at least three levels of conversation about any great piece of art, great painting, great wall painting, great literature. These are things that I hold in mind anytime I look at any ancient text. I’m very interested in other ancient texts too, Gilgamesh in particular. And I’m interested in, in looking at it through at least those three lens. And I’m in awe of the people who can bring us into different ways of looking at it too—the great scholars who spent decades of their life committed to the exploration of these pieces of art. 

And I think perhaps it’s true to say that certain parts of Western culture have been affected by certain interpretations of certain texts. I’m always going to be a bit of a pain in the ass when it comes to these questions because I don’t quite know that we all have the same Bible. I mean, literally, that’s not true because Jews have one Bible, and broadly Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have three different kinds of Bibles, depending as to how many books are counted in the Hebrew Bible. And also then interpret them very differently and have different imaginations about who authorities are within it.

And so cultures that are influenced by that are influenced in very different ways. For instance, like I’m Catholic on bad days [scoffs] and I was bewildered, utterly bewildered the first time I met anybody who took the book of Genesis as a document that was to be taken seriously as a piece of science when it comes to the question about the origin of the world.

Pete Enns: That is so refreshing, by the way, to meet someone who doesn’t even have bandwidth for that question, but please continue. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Well, the thing is, is that that’s not unusual for Catholics. Catholicism, for all its fundamentalisms about authority and interpretation, is not a literal biblical imagination. I mean, right from when evolution was being put forward and the origin of the species, there’s a document from the Vatican saying what’s being discovered here in the science is all but likely true. 

And so there’s, like my father worked in the physics department of the University in Cork city on the south coast of Ireland as the chief technician. Like, so science and religion were never in any kind of combat. And so depending as to where you are and what culture of what interpretation of what Christianity or religion, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism might mean.

There’s different ways within which those texts are operating and influencing the culture. So I suppose I, I want to see that the speaking broadly for the Christianities of the world, there’s many different kinds of faces of the Bible that show up in many fruitful or problematic ways, depending as to what culture and what imagination of the purpose of those texts is.

Jared Byas: Can we talk more about, you mentioned the three, and I think that’s a really helpful framework. I just think these are three really helpful ways of looking at it in terms of a window, a painting, or a mirror, but behind that, like, what have you found is a helpful way for someone who, let’s talk about the Bible, and wants to appreciate the Bible as literature through these three different frameworks? I guess my question is, what’s the wisdom or how do we gain tools for how and when to apply each of these? How do we separate them? Are they always overlapping? What’s the relationship, I guess is what I’m asking, between these three as we approach the Bible as literature? 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: I think I might be able to give you three examples of books, uh, that are doing perhaps separate things. The first one is put together by Ernesto Cardenal called The Gospel in Solentiname. Solentiname is an island in Lake Nicaragua. Ernesto Cardenal was a priest there and during the time of dirty wars and horrific persecution of artists or anybody who was standing up to the government—and he would say mass outside and he would read the Sunday gospel for mass. And then rather than offering a homily, what he would do is he’d ask everybody there to go, what comes to your mind in light of what you’ve heard?

And as far as he was able, he would go home and write out what he heard from people. And The Gospel in Solentiname is a record of three years of Sunday gospel readings and people’s response to it. And he records their name as well. So it’ll say Maria Lopez says this or Pedro says the following. And often it’s associations with what was happening at the time politically and the fear that people were under for persecution.

And that in a way is looking at the text in a certain sense as, as a mirror where you are looking at the text and looking at yourself in the text and then reflecting back. And it is, I think, a beautiful and brilliant engagement, profoundly moving. And it is in some ways, a core text of liberation theology.

And the collections put together, known as The Gospel in Solentiname, don’t give you the methodology as a, as an abstract idea. You just read it and you go, “Oh wow, that’s how you do it. You ask a question, you shut up and you listen. You don’t try to correct each other. You allow people to free associate.” In some ways it’s, it owes a lot to a certain generosity of listening and the creation of a community of people who can say what they’re thinking and listen to each other.

So that’s the, that’s the third one, I suppose, where the text in a certain sense is a mirror back. I think of Avivah Zornberg as somebody who writes brilliantly when it comes to looking at the text for the art that it is. She has many books, one of which is called The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, where she takes close, close readings of texts in the Hebrew Bible and she just goes into the etymology, the associations with the words. She has a PhD in literature from Cambridge. She teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

And she goes into such profound depths and within the context of that, asks huge questions about literature in the world. But you are constantly drawn back to the text, the text, the text.

You know, I love that. And I mean, all of the depth of her knowledge. And I suppose to look through the text, really, in that way, you’re trying to look through the text as a window. And so I see Avivah Zornberg looking at text like a painting. And obviously all of these people are doing all three things at once. So I’m kind of emphasizing that.

And the final one, to look at the text as a window, I suppose in that, I mean, any kind of biblical archaeology, biblical historian, anybody who was writing about the culture of the time, the question as to who authored it, the question as to how it was edited, you know, there are libraries and libraries filled with so many books to kind of say, you know, here’s a little bit of a history about, the history of the, about the gospels being put together, for instance, or the history about putting together what we know as the corpus of the Christian Testament or the Hebrew Bible or the way within which Martin Luther, for instance, did not wish to continue to include the books in Greek that were included in the Hebrew Bible. And nor did he wish to continue to include either the book of Revelation or the Epistle to James. He called the Epistle to James “an epistle of straw.” 

So just knowing a little bit about that and the history of that, that is a little bit like looking through the text as if it’s a mirror into the culture of the times and the very human arrangement of it. And so I think knowing that these are three ways of looking, three tools to look at, allows a sophistication to look at the human enterprise behind these texts. And it then allows you to ask some very serious questions of yourself. And when somebody says, “But the Bible is really clear.” You go, “In which way? Like a mirror, like a painting, like a window?”

And then to continue on asking even more questions to say, well, what does it say? I should say that a favorite text of mine is in the Gospel of Luke, where it says a teacher of the law comes to test Jesus. It’s interesting that his motivation is given. He asks him this question, you know, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And partly the question is, does the teacher of the law believe in eternal life? Is this just a trick question? 

And Jesus responds in an extraordinary way. He says, um, “You know the Torah—how do you read it?” What an extraordinary question. To speak, um, using a particular kind of theological terminology. You could say, let’s do some exegesis and apply analysis to our hermeneutics.

So let’s read a text closely, and underlining that is, have you read it closely? And then—have you read your reading? What are you trying to make the text do? Are you trying to make it prove you right? Are you trying to undo yourself? Are you laying a trap? Are you setting me up? What are you doing? And so in many ways, the danger of art is that it becomes propaganda in the hands of people who wish to use it for manipulative purposes.

And what’s absolutely true is that the Bible is art. And what’s absolutely true is that it has been used as propaganda in so many parts of the world for horrific and violent purposes, which isn’t to say that that’s its final usage, but a simple analysis of the world will look at the ways in which the text has been used for the oppression of entire populations of people and the justification of terrorists and diabolical behavior.

So, there’s evidence even within the text of warnings about how the text should be used and care about those who wish to use seemingly innocent questions about eternal life for the purposes of strangulation.

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Jared Byas: In that spirit, if you wouldn’t mind, maybe I can flip that question on you and ask, like, maybe we can read your reading in terms of, you know, what interests you about using biblical references in your poems? What are you trying to do in those? 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Well, I’m trying to be unmade [laughs]. That’s what I’m trying to do. I have no, I don’t belong to a religious community. I have no interest in whether people—well, I have interest, but I have no agenda as to whether people do or don’t or should or shouldn’t belong to a religious community. My whole life has been shaped by Christianity and in specific Catholicism, and I suppose also in specific British Protestant colonization, because that has shaped Ireland so profoundly over the last 500 years. British colonization of Ireland, I mean. 

And so I, I see these, these texts, they have infiltrated my life. You know, there were years and years when I went to mass every day. And so the texts of old prayers, the texts of the Bible are everywhere. And so much of poetry is writing something today that is in conversation with something much older.

And so sometimes people might use Greek mythology or Gilgamesh or Celtic mythology or Aztec mythology, or they might turn to Emily Dickinson, or they might turn to a contemporary poet like Gwendolyn Brooks, you know, and find a way within which their, their poetry is in conversation there. That interests me. And the texts, I suppose, that I’ve studied the most, I do love the Greek texts and the Greek mythologies. And I also love Irish mythology, but the texts that I’ve studied the most are certainly the Christian and Jewish Bible. 

When I was younger, I was put through three exorcisms for being gay and being told that I had the devil in me. And, um, I was frightened, I suppose, in a certain sense, when I was younger about the ways with which demonology was spoken about in very literal interpretations. I was involved in ecumenical Christian work and most specifically charismatic Pentecostal evangelical work. Catholics were kind of tolerated provided you were fluent in evangelicalism.

And so there was three exorcisms arranged. There’s this text in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark where somebody says to Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God. And then the reply is, but Jesus rebuked him saying, be muzzled and come out of him. And muzzled is a much more specific and accurate translation of the Greek word used.

So here is um, here’s a sonnet called the exorcism. It’s the first of seven that I wrote about exorcisms. The um, first exorcist I had was a woman from California. So hence the reference to America in this. 

I wish you weren’t American. I wish you didn’t see intrinsic evil in me. I wish you hadn’t dragged my secret from me. Now I know you knew already, someone squealed. I wish you didn’t put your hands on me while you were screaming at the devils in me, all my homosexualities. I wished you’d never gathered people around, instructing them to pray in tongues, or read from Revelations, or chant JESUS.JESUS.JESUS. 

I wished you’d shut up. I repeated jesus.jesus.jesus. 

I wish he’d answered. I wished you dead. 

And I was frightened at the violence in me, and the nest of demons in me, I wondered where they lived: in my semen? in the dreams I had of being kissed? Why did they breed in me? My God. My exorcist.

And so this for me is a way of taking the strength of language, particularly in muzzled and going, okay, I’m going to be unmuzzled. I’m going to let the unmuzzled voice in me speak back. And that for me is what it means to take a literature seriously. Not that it tells me what I should say, but in a certain sense, it opens up the gates of hell for me to say what I need to say.

Jared Byas: I think that’s a really helpful turn of phrase and a concept. Can you just say more about how the literature functions? Not as—because I think a lot of our listeners, the literature functioned as a, as a closing down of conversation. It’s, it’s a shutting down, not an opening up to give us empowerment or voice or spark imagination, to provide a space for us to speak up or to open up, but it’s been the opposite. So, can you say a little bit more about how you’ve been able to develop, even within the biblical literature and your experiences, you know, that even within traumatic and painful experiences, it still provides an opening up.

How has that happened for you? 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: There’s a few dynamics. One is just absolutely leaving the church behind. [Laughs]

Jared Byas: Yeah.

​​Pádraig Ó Tuama: Developing the capacity to not care or to care about other things. I am just one small corner of enormous populations of the world whose lives have been terrorized by the power of those who interpret religion for their own purposes, and I do not let them reign over my imagination about what a text can say. I’m overly qualified in theology, so that helps. But in a way, I did that in order to be able to develop some independence, because I was bored of people who made stuff up, and for their own purposes. I was uninterested in that. 

I knew I’d never work in the church, they would never employ me. And if they did, I would be fired. So I just thought, well, I need to find other ways of making money. And I nonetheless, I’m interested in these texts. So let me continue to be interested and continue to learn with no agenda of what it will do professionally, but rather something to say, what would it do artistically? So there is that. 

It also, like there was a, there’s a nun Frances Hogan. I heard her book around the time when I was involved in kind of charismatic evangelicalism that was trying to be sensitive to Catholics on a certain barely tolerable level. I heard this scholar of the Gospels, Frances Hogan, speak in Dublin, this was in maybe 1993. And her knowledge of the text was so profound. She knew it so well. She knew the Greek. She knew the Hebrew. And she, when someone would ask a question, she’d just go, “Well, let me think now.” And her knowledge was so deep that she was actually very careful about saying anything too specific about, well, here’s what you should do.

For her, what the texts were doing was opening up the experience of curiosity. And she did not seem to be beholden, even though she, of all people, would have been someone who could have said, well, here is what you should do. Because, you know, she could just quote it off the top of her head in Greek and in multiple translations in English and Irish too, probably.

So on the one hand, it’s been moving away. And on the other hand, it’s been moving closer. And with that, I have found a freedom to allow my own voice to respond, to say, if my life has been terrorized by the imagination of people who wish to say that I am demonically possessed, well, what do I want to say back? And that requires me to read the text about devils closely, and then also to, um, open up my mouth and speak. 

Pete Enns: Pádraig, I’m thinking here of a lot of our listeners who are in the process of, I guess we could say, renegotiating their own relationship with their religious communities and addressing that in a myriad of ways. And you’ve mentioned your own having, I think, having once been in a religious community and then no longer finding that valuable to you. Would you mind processing a bit of what went into that? Was it the three exorcisms having a profound moment and turning you away from any sort of religious community? Were there other things, was it a slow process or just some cataclysmic episodes in your life? 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Well, I should say that again, I am so grateful to be Catholic or culturally Catholic. Like when I was 11, my mother was talking to me about, I think St. Therese of the Little Flower, a French, a French saint. And she said, “you know, she died in absolute devastation, convinced that there was no God.” And my mother said this to me about this saint who died very young, maybe in her late teens, early twenties. And my mother said, in a way, it was the calling of God to her to experience the reality of so many people. Like, I actually think my mother made that up. [Chuckles] I don’t think it’s historically true, but it influenced me hugely because what it said to me was that the question about who’s in and who’s out, and as to whether language about belief or not, that there are often much more complex things happening.

I was always moved by the writings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola or Mother Julian of Norwich, and so often they are so humble and careful in terms of what they say. I found that intellectually inspiring, and inspiring also, trying to dwell in the mystery about what it means to shape any sentence about the question of God that pays attention to language as well as pays attention to the human condition and human experience.

So, in many ways, like, of course there’s trauma, you know, exorcisms, etc. But I didn’t move away from religion because of those. That’s, that just makes me a victim and I’m uninterested in being portrayed as a victim. For me, the question about being agnostic about faith is a reckoning with the truth of the world as I see it, and as I try to take it very seriously as a scholar of the Gospels, as a scholar of the Bible, as well as a person who’s trying to make my way through the world. I don’t know what time is, for instance. I read a lot of theoretical physics. Um, what is time? Does it go in the same direction? Is it circular?

Does it go in one direction? And so I also think that you could substitute the question of God in there. And I love the idea that when you remove the possibility of trying to recruit or have some kind of password to say that you belong to something, that really what you open yourself up to is wonder, and I’m really interested in wonder.

It is wonder about the precision of language, as well as I hope, I’m not calling myself humble, but I’m attracted to humility. I hope it’s, I hope it’s humility about how careful we need to be when trying to say anything. So wonder and humility, I think, are what guides me. And I haven’t moved away from religion because everybody’s horrible there. They’re not. Religion’s full of great people and terrible people, just like any city, just like any village. And I’m one of those good people and horrible people on any given day. So I didn’t move away from religion because of judging it. I moved away from formal belonging to religion because I was interested in language that was at once more precise and at the other time more full of wonder.

I read some Meister Eckhart every morning. I find him extraordinary. 1320s writing these sermons. He ended up dying maybe in about 1328, branded a heretic by the Pope in exile at the time, mostly because of arguments between the Franciscans and the Dominicans who didn’t like each other very much.

Pete Enns: Well, that’ll happen, right? I think when you start sparking the imagination, you’re going to be upsetting people in power. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Yeah, I mean Emily Dickinson says wonder is not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not. [Pádraig and Pete both chuckle] And that is what interests me. And so often when I have been involved with some religious community, and I do go and walk around the stations of the cross fairly regularly, anytime I pass by a church and have a few minutes.

So I certainly am very culturally attuned to these things, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve been recruited. I like seeing the experience of this inculturation for the devastation that has caused the world, as well as the ways within which it has opened up questions of wonder and mystery. 

[Ad break]

Jared Byas: Can you expand a little bit more on something you said just a second ago specifically, because again, I’m channeling here, I think a lot of our listeners who are in this space of knowing enough that they are reacting to their upbringing and like you said, they’ve gathered enough precise language to say, well, this framework doesn’t work for me anymore, but maybe not knowing exactly how to move into that wonder part of it.

It’s still thinking that there’s going to be a precise enough language to give me sort of the certainty or the safety that I was hoping for in this framework. And it’s just like, well, Christianity kind of failed me in that precision or in that correctness and without even wanting to, I think it’s just the kind of innate desire sometimes to grab onto another system or another set of words or language. What’s helped you to, it sounds like maybe, let go of that end and move toward a different end, which is wonder and not knowing and finding joy and beauty in that pursuit or in that process?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: I mean, I don’t think I’m anything unique. Like I think if you go to any average congregation, on any average day when people meet, you’re going to get about half the people there to say, look, “God Almighty, what do I know? But I like the ritual, or it gives me comfort, or I like the people here, or it’s something to do, or this is where someone important was buried,” or, you know, there’s all kinds of reasons to belong and to practice in that way.

So I don’t think in any way like I’m anything new. I get enormous comfort when I think of all of the many, many authors who wrote what we now consider to be the Bible, which is really a small library. If you put them all in a field, I’m over in the field with the people who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, who were saying, “Look, what do we know, you know, the sun shines on the good and the bad, the bad die happy and the good die hungry. Do good anyway.” 

I go, I like you. I’m over there. I’ll open the whiskey. [Pete laughing] That’s my interest is to be over there in that corner. It isn’t to say that somebody who has a very deep devotion or wherever Meister Eckhart is or wherever the woman who wrote the book of Ruth is or wherever anybody is, that I’m disdaining any of that, or, you know, the erotic corner where the poets behind Song of Songs are. I visit there too. All of those, like, I’m interested in the broad field of all of that, and to my mind, looking at it like that opens it up to the question of curiosity and exploration and wonder, rather than “Do you belong to our team or not?” That just seems to be a betrayal of the imagination and to be absolutely losing the point.

And the point is to be alive, and does your reading of the text inspire your life in the world and open you up to the possibility of what it means to be in the world?

Pete Enns: So, here’s a very quick and very easy question for you, are you ready?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: [Laughing heartily] Oh my God, no. 

Pete Enns: No, I’m just, I’m very curious because, again, I’m thinking of my own existence and of people I know, and you value, obviously, curiosity and imagination with respect to the biblical text and the quest for meaning, or however we want to put that. Is part of this also sort of a curious agnostic pursuit of God, whatever God means to you? Or is that off the table or am I just completely off base here in that question? I’m thinking of people who are also processing in their own journeys and, and they have all sorts of questions and, and you may have an angle or an insight that would be appreciated by people who might feel alone even in their own difficult process, sometimes with no one to talk to, no one to, to, to listen to what their deep yearnings are.

Pádraig Ó Tuama: The extraordinary poet Rilke has this poem right at the beginning of the book of hours. I overquote this, but it’s worthwhile over quoting where he says:

I’ve been circling around God, that primordial tower.

I’ve been circling for a thousand years and I still do not know, am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?

I love that line. I love that stanza. “I live my life in widening circles,” is what that poem is often translated as, as the opening lines of it, um, from the German. I love what he says, like he says, “I’ve been circling around God, that primordial tower,” as if it’s straightforward to name God. And in the, in the face of that, in the orbits that he’s going around, he asks three questions of the self: a falcon, a storm, or a great song? All of those are dependent on air. A falcon, a storm, and a great song. And I suppose whenever the question of God is asked, we are also asking the question of ourselves: What does it mean to be us? How do we understand the world? What does it mean to be kind today? How do I approach the person who I see in the bus stop, or my colleague at work, or my neighbor, or myself? 

And I’m interested in those questions. I suppose I am uninterested in trying to say, “and they’re all on the way to God,” because that I’m so bored with recruitment. And I have been, people have tried to recruit me to all kinds of things. I am one of millions and millions who were people who tried to recruit to something. Somebody came up to me after talk once and said, “Could you not just try to believe in God just a little bit, just for me?” I was like, my God, how interesting. 

And it was interesting. Her friend was next to her. Her friend looked at me with a mixture of, of apology and, and deep love for the friend. And I thought, and I said to her, “You have a lovely friend” next to ya, because my guess is that the love between the two of them was deeply reciprocal, and that the person who was asking me the question, it was complicated, a bit strange, but it kind of doesn’t bother me. They don’t know me and I don’t know them. She’s much more interesting than that question, but I was moved by the fact that these two know each other with such great love. And so much else is happening around the question of God. So much else orbits. That’s what interests me.

Pete Enns: I can definitely understand if people have been trying to solicit you for certain purposes and—

Pádraig Ó Tuama: I mean, you can do a very, if you go to any average, I mean, I’m speaking specifically here about Christianities of the world and specifically some of the more extroverted kinds, ultimately you could just go and sit in their service and look at them as a marketing strategy—trying to prove to the people who are there that they should continue to be there and trying to prove to the people who are there that they should continue to try to convince those who aren’t there to be there [Pete chuckles] and trying to say that this is a marketing strategy and a theory of everything to explain the world. And like, that’s plainly not true. And so there has to be something much more interesting that you can talk about. I’m not saying that nobody should be there. You should absolutely be there if you wish to be, but isn’t it much more interesting to do much more interesting things?

Jared Byas: I want to ask a question because a lot of what I’m hearing you say has come from, you’re in a community of living and dead folks: poets, people who write poetry. And I know a lot of people have asked over the years, I’ve been in a lot of these conversations, “How do I get into, like, appreciating and reading and writing poetry?” And is there anything, and it’s fine I think if the answer is no, there is no way to do this, but I think I want to maybe end with just, for people who want to, they hear you and they say, Oh, like, I want to read Rilke. I want to understand some of these ways of thinking. What, what are some steps that you might take for people who maybe are intimidated with poetry?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: I’m going to engage in a moment of delicious, um, hypocrisy here. [Laughing along with Pete] Like the, the, so, but this has been part of my life’s work. So. I’ll mention a few. Like, so I think, um, the classes offered by Dilruba Ahmed and Ellen Bass, those are amazing.

I wrote a book called Poetry Unbound and have a podcast called Poetry Unbound. That’s the hypocrisy part. I’m, I’m engaging in a marketing strategy, [Jared and Pádraig laugh] but you asked the question. I, I would never have mentioned this. Um, I, um, yeah, it’s like the imagination behind the podcast or the book are to take a single poem and to look at it—sometimes like it’s a mirror, sometimes like it’s a window, sometimes like it’s a piece of art, and to engage in a piece of conversation about it.

And so there are so many, uh, Edward Hirsch’s great book called How to Read a Poem. Like, uh, so many of the poetry sections will have poems arranged by author, books, you know, volumes of poetry arranged by author, but then there’ll be a selection of anthologies, and those are great. Ilya Kaminsky has a great one, the Echo Anthology of World Poetry, and Bloodaxe Publishers in Britain have got four wondrous, wondrous anthologies called Staying Alive, Being Alive, Being human…I forget the other one. And they are just poems and conversation with human experience. So sometimes just, just dive in. 

And then other times you can find a book, like humbly I offer mine as just one of the many that are there that say, well, here’s a, here’s a few ways to look at some poems. The way I think of poetry is that if you were to imagine all of the beaches, and the little strands that open up to the Atlantic, you know, all across South America, Central America, all down the Western coast of Africa, all the way up across Europe and Iceland and Greenland. And different schools of poetry are different strands opening up to this magnificent, enormous thing called the Atlantic.

And there can be this intimidation to think, “Oh my God, I’m never going to understand poetry.” That’s like saying, am I ever going to understand the Atlantic? No, you’re not. The question is, do you have a few favorite strands? It might be Jared Manley Hopkins, and maybe you never need to stop reading him. Like there’s no obligation. Maybe you just have the few favorite poems that you’ve loved. Maybe it is that, um, you heard Lucille Clifton’s poems once, you bought the book, and you continue to read that. Magnificent. So there’s no obligation to have to learn all the strands. 

If you are ever interested, there’s courses you can take or books you can read, anthologies you can read, that can kind of introduce you to some others. But they’re all participating in this great, magnificent thing called poetry. And that’s a helpful way. There’s, there’s, you don’t have to feel like you can own it because I think anybody who says they do probably doesn’t. [Chuckles] And so really, what we’re trying to do is to find a pathway of curiosity and wonder and humility to say, well, I don’t know much, but I know a few things. And here’s a few things I can say about poems, or here’s a few poems that we can open up. And here’s a few questions to ask back from yourself. 

And finally, perhaps most importantly, what do you see? And then for the person who’s reading the poem to feel like the poem is asking them questions of curiosity and that the poem, the art is curious about what’s going to come back too.

Jared Byas: Well Pádraig, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a wonderful conversation. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.

[Music signals beginning of Quiet Time section]

Jared Byas: And now for Quiet Time…

Pete Enns: …with Pete and Jared. 

Jared Byas: All right. Well, we haven’t had many poets. I was just trying to think back if we’ve had other poets on the podcast. I’m not sure if we have. Why don’t we use this as a, as a chance just to talk about poetry? You know, what’s your own connection to poetry? Do you like it? Do you, do you not like it? Why, why not?

Pete Enns: You know, I’ve, I’ve struggled with poetry. I mean, I like when people are poetic and there are probably different ways of being poetic, but writing and reading poetry. It has just never been my thing. And I’ve, I’ve tried to sort of keep that quiet lest people say, what business do you have teaching Psalms or wisdom literature, but, but yeah, that’s a different thing.

That’s learning about poetry. That’s not being a poet. Right. I guess without trying to make this sound defensive or something, I, I think there’s, there’s a poeticness to narrative sometimes too, you know, and how you express yourself and things like that. But still the whole poetic idea and the writing of poetry and the reading of poetry is something that I just, my brain has never been attached to that way of existing. And I say this without pandering. I feel like sometimes I miss things that other people see. 

Jared Byas: Yeah, and kind of in that vein of kind of vulnerability, I’ll expose myself here. And I’m going to say it more strongly than is probably the case, and I’m curious if you relate to this. In some ways, poetry is an affront to my sensibilities in that I like to be efficient.

Like, I read to gain information. And I’ve always been that way. That’s why I have a hard time with fiction. Some people get lost in the narrative and they love a good story. And for me, it’s, it’s a way, it’s a channel for getting information. And so, poetry forces me to slow down and to see how words can evoke feeling. And that is on the opposite side of the spectrum of what I usually use words for.

Pete Enns: Right, right, like, you know, when you’re reading, I mean, just Lord of the Rings or something and Tolkien breaks out into like a two page poem. I’m like, [shudders while breathing in] I take a deep breath and go, Oh, Lord. Okay. And I try. I try so hard. I get like half a page in and I go, I got the gist. Okay. Keep going. [Laughing]

Jared Byas: Exactly what I’m talking about. 

Pete Enns: That’s exactly—I’m like, you’re not even a human being. Like, okay, I, I, I’ll accept that. I’m just being honest with you. It just doesn’t hit me. And, and I, I agree with you. I mean, I think you and I are wired similarly that I, I read for information actually that can burrow deep down into me. It’s not just like I can pass a test or I know something more than somebody else. I just want to understand the nature of reality. 

And for me, part of that is processing information. For other people, it’s a poetic expression. And I don’t think it has to be either/or, but I think, you know, people might lean more towards one towards the other. And what’s so interesting about Pádraig is that he has a theological background. He has an education and he’s also a poet. And that’s why you know, one reason why I think a lot of people respect him and like him and why we wanted him on the podcast in the first place, because it’s like, this is, this is a person who probably processes things very differently.

Jared Byas: And two things I will just say with that, is I deeply respect poets because I think they have access to this emotional layer of the world that I don’t often figure out how to access, and so I really respect it and appreciate it. And then secondly, I would say, I don’t think that means either one of us are devoid of good writing. Like I definitely, once you get into say, like academic writing and reading, you definitely pick up on people who are good writers and I can definitely appreciate and respect good writing where there is a type of poetry or a type of art to good writing that I really do appreciate. So.

Pete Enns: Yeah.

Jared Byas: So okay, let’s, let’s move on because I wanted to talk about, I loved this idea that Pádraig had of viewing art or biblical language through three lenses or functions. And I’m going to replay these here: as a window into the culture from which it came, so it’s a window into that historical moment; you can look at it like a painting by an artist who wants to show us something through their own lens; and then it’s like a mirror in which you see your own self. I thought that was a really helpful hermeneutical filter, if you will. So say more about that for you. What did you think about that? 

Pete Enns: Well, yeah, I, when, um, he mentioned it and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite this way before. And I think it’s a really helpful way of recognizing the various lenses through which we can read the Bible, and that is concurrent with the entire history of Christianity and Judaism doing that very same thing. Fourfold meaning in the medieval period. It’s, it’s, it’s literal, historical, but it’s also, there’s a moral meaning.

And there are other ways of accessing what this text is doing. I think, you know, when I reflected a little bit on what Pádraig said, I probably need some, maybe you can help Jared, I need some clarification between the difference between the first two—a window into the historical moment, but it’s like a painting by an artist who wants to show us something. And it’s hard for me to detach that painter idea from the historical cultural moment. And maybe Pádraig means something else by the painter, maybe not thinking of a painter historically, but just sort of taking it from a literarily, just taking the text as is without thinking about the history too much. If he means that, okay, that’s, that’s a different thing than entirely. So I’m on board with that.

Jared Byas: I think the way I read this, which I think was the helpful nuance to it was when we look into the window of the culture, I think of, I forget what we call it in, in biblical criticism, but where you’re really looking past the text itself and only looking for the context clues that it’s giving you.

And so what it is, is I’m, I’m reading the text, but what I’m really looking for is that window into the culture. What does it tell me about the first and second centuries in the ancient Near East? Like that’s that’s kind of what I’m looking for, so I’m looking past the painting if you will and only looking at the artist. I’m really only looking at the painting as a window into the artist. That’s different than now let’s look at as an art critic and look at the text itself or look at the painting itself, and see how that blends the influence of how is this a van Gogh, but also how do we appreciate that piece on its own through the lens of it being a van Gogh, right?

And so there is, for me, the painting piece is seeing what the artist wanted me to see through the lens of that, right? And so there may be a landscape, but it’s not like a photograph. I’m not looking at the photograph of the landscape. I’m looking at what did the artist see about that landscape and, and what do they emphasize and what do they not emphasize? I think it’s of it as the literary, I think of it a little bit as, uh, Brevard, uh, Childs.

Pete Enns: Right. Yeah. I was about to say that. Yeah. Like a literary approach to the Bible, which, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, to me, there’s always this triangle of, you know, the historical context and then the literary nature of it. And then the purpose of it, which we might call theology. Those three things are sort of in conversation for me. And to me, that maps onto what Pádraig is saying a little bit, not completely, but he has a different angle. And the mirror, you know, I think the history, again, of Judaism and Christianity would very much concur with this notion that it’s about seeing yourself in the story and not always in the best light, but maybe interrogating yourself—a mirror in that sense. It really, that really shows you what you truly are, that kind of thing. 

So you asked Pádraig about how he’s been able to view biblical literature as an opening up instead of a closing down. And I think that could be a very liberating concept for people who are used to having the Bible weaponized, you know, or something like that. So, so, I mean, what kind of experiences have you had with the Bible, either shutting down or opening up?

Jared Byas: I would say in a real sense, although it’s an oversimplification, you could probably map my entire journey with the Bible in these two ways, where I grew up in a tradition of it was, it was a closing down of options. And that sounds negative from where we sit now, but when I was young, that was the secure, safe thing for it to do. It gave us the right way, which in giving us the right way of doing things, it shut down all the other options. It wasn’t about creativity or fuel for imagination or living life in a particular way. It wasn’t embodied in that sense. It was a rule book that shut down other possibilities. And that felt safe. I liked that. 

But my personality was one where I kept bumping up against that box and eventually that broke down. And I would say kind of that quote “deconstruction” period for me was really figuring out that I wanted this to be an opening up, but to do that, it had to stop being all these other things. And so, now, for me, that’s the, that’s why I would read the Bible, is it’s fuel for other things. It is an opening up of possibility, of reading, of community, of connection, of conversation. That’s the purpose of it, instead of a shutting down of conversation to give me the right way.

But I just want to be clear: the shutting down also gave me something. It gave me a sense of rightness and safety and security. But again, yeah, in general, I think those are good categories for kind of the history of my relationship with the Bible. What about you?

Pete Enns: Yeah, it’s navigating, let’s say, the boundaries of the biblical story, which is something that can be debated what those even are, but also then a freeing, life-giving more experience—And yeah, I mean, I think our lives do parallel very much because, you know, I can think throughout seminary thinking that there were right answers to certain kinds of big questions and the Bible will provide those and it shuts down other options. 

And I think for me, the opening up was really a matter of, you know, if I can say, just getting older and having to reflect on some difficult things, uh, one of which is my presence in that community that I just mentioned. And how to think through things a little bit differently. And then hanging out with people who thought differently than I did, and graduate school for me was, was that was a big part of it. There were very few people in my department, in fact, there were probably—there was probably no one in my department with my background, very different backgrounds than I did and, and I really had to start being honest with myself about whether my way of shutting down is actually right or even helpful or useful or if I can learn things from people who have a different view. And that’s an opening up of another sort, I think. 

Jared Byas: Mhmm. All right. Well, again, thank you, Pádraig, for introducing us to this whole new world.

Pete Enns: I will turn my life over to becoming a poet.

Jared Byas: [Laughing] See ya.

[Outro music plays signaling end of episode]

Jared Byas: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you wanna support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just wanna give a little money, go to the Bible for normal And if you 

Pete Enns: And if you want to support us and want a community, classes, and other great resources, go to 

Jared Byas: Lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show. In addition, you can let us know what you thought about the episode by emailing us at 

Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of Faith for Normal People.

Don’t forget, you can also catch our other show, the Bible for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Jessica Shao, and Lauren O’Connell.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.