In The Bible and Poetry, published last year, Michael Edwards warned against the temptation to paraphrase the Bible.

An English-born French poet and scholar, Edwards noted that much of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were written as poetry or as poetic prose — which is to say, written with words, phrases and constructions that were unusual and unexpected, startling and cryptic.

And all of the Bible, he said, was written by the people of a certain time and place, a time and place that had nothing to do with the structures and pathways of European thought as it evolved over the past two thousand years.

Many translators, though, try to make the Scripture less weird by paraphrasing rather sticking to its oddness, a tendency that Edwards called “diabolical speech” and a “devil’s trick” because it “veils the divine language and aims to stifle its authority and power.”

Edwards goes more deeply into the words of Scripture in his new book On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible.  The first three chapters, dealing with St. Paul and other aspects of Scripture, were presented as the Richard E. Myers Lectures at the University Baptist Church in Charlottesville in March, 2022.  The last three focus on the Book of Revelation were added to examine the quintessence of biblical strangeness.


“Always out of our depth”

As the title of the book suggests, Edwards used his invitation to the Myers Lectures “to descend into certain depths of Christianity that I was aware of not understanding.”  To go deep into the strangeness of the Bible where he gazed “on the borderlands of several mysteries.”

In taking on this task, he refers to The Bible and Poetry and summarizes his approach in that work as well as in the new one:

Its writing confirmed, at least to myself, what I had long realized, that if the Bible is the word of God, our reading it ought to be guided by two obvious but neglected facts.

What counts is what is written; as with our reading of poetry, we should attend closely and exclusively to what we are given and not assume that a “meaning” or “message” is discoverable by paraphrasing, by translating what is said into our own words.

Above all, we can only understand God and his world through what he chooses to tell us, all that we add being driftwood, and since it is God who speaks, we are always more, or less, out of our depth.


A reviewer’s aside

This, I note, is how poetry is read — with the recognition that the poet may have woven in the lines some element of meaning but also that, more, the poet has woven in mystery.

Attempts to reduce Homer’s Odyssey to a statement of meaning, or Ginberg’s Howl or Shakespeare’s King Lear or anything by Emily Dickinson is, to my mind, wrong-headed.  These works of poetry, like other works of art, simply are.

If they resonate with us as readers, it is not because they have a “meaning” but because, in some way, they seem to capture human life in a way that is profound with mystery — as is human life.

If they resonate deeply, we return to them because, each time, we encounter and dance with their mystery in a new way.

Edwards says none of this directly in On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible.  Yet, it seems to me that it is the foundation of his encounter with the biblical mysteries before which he stands in his book.

Art, to my mind, is a kind of word of God. Even so, as great as Howl and King Lear are, they can’t hold a candle to the Bible.  And if the works of Dickinson and Homer are knee-deep in mystery, how much more the works of God the Great Poet?

“The otherness of the heavenly vision”

Edwards writes that On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible takes up the task of looking, “as if in the sun,” at biblical passages that “overwhelm our intellect, that shed a divine light so strong that human eyes see it partly as darkness.”

His goal in the book is to show “that Christianity is forever unseasonable,” and “to show that the Bible is forever strange, forever leading us beyond its offerings that we understand to further mystery that sustains them.”

As he ends his book with the three added chapters on the Book of Revelation, Edwards repeats that he began his journey with “the acknowledgement of my lack of understanding.”

Revelation, he writes, is “the work that most decisively confronts and proves that incomprehension.”  Indeed, he finds at the end of his journey that he is “happy to be left wondering, in both senses of that deep-searching word.”

Over the past two thousand years, however, many readers have not felt “happy,” not felt comfortable with the book’s mysteries. It is, without question, a work unlike anything else in Scripture, a cascade of extravagant, obscure and often violent imagery including a book of seven seals, a pale horse, the Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and four living creatures around a throne set in heaven: a lion, an ox, a man and an eagle, with six wings each and “eyes all over, front and back.”

The centuries are replete with the efforts of theologians and others to decode Revelation into a set of intellectual ideas as if they had a Rosetta Stone from God.  That, argues Edwards, is the wrong approach.

Yet, like so many biblical authors, John writes as a poet, and specifically as a visionary poet in prose, while God’s way of approaching him may well suggest that not only are God’s thoughts not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8) but that his way of thinking also differs from ours.

If the revelation of the present and the future does not arrive in the form of statements, is this not in part to show the otherness of the heavenly vision?


“The long, humbling, exhilarating journey”

Anyone reading Revelation, writes Edwards, needs to “recognize that we have entered a way of seeing and understanding that is not ours. To translate it into our way is to miss the point.” He continues: “Revelation also moves by degrees into the strangeness which is perhaps its fundamental ‘message.’ ”

By chapter 6, when the seals on the scroll are opened, Revelation becomes an avalanche that buries the reader in images upon images, strangenesses upon strangenesses.  With chapter 6, Edward writes, “we begin the long, humbling, exhilarating journey into not knowing where we are, nor even when.”

After moving step by step through Revelation, examining all that is weird, odd and amazing, Edwards sums up his experience:

All the images in John’s prophetic vision are at once revelation and mystery.  He sees things beyond ideas, and what is revealed is what he sees.

Edwards stands before the Book of Revelation, trying to take in as much as he is able and also holding himself open to its mystery, to his own inability to understand.  He is standing before the mystery that is the book, and the mystery that is God.

The life of any human being is filled with mystery, even if we often choose not to look closely at what we don’t understand in the evolution of our individual existence.

The strangeness of the Bible — and the strangeness of Revelation — seems to echo, it seems to me, the strangeness in the life of every human.

The Bible, as Edwards reads it, is not a place to go for answers.  But for questions — for unanswerable questions.


Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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