The Bible is a Smelly, Gross, Pile of Rotting Garbage.

The Bible is like a compost pile.

I like this image and I wish I had thought of it. But this idea comes from Walter Brueggemann’s Texts Under Negotiation. I came across this many years ago, and it’s helped me see the Bible in a more realistic and spiritually constructive way.

The Bible is the compost pile that provides material for new life. I do not use this figure as an irreverent metaphor to suggest that the Bible is “garbage.” Rather, I use it to suggest that the Bible itself is not the actual place of new growth. Our present life, when we undertake new growth, is often inadequate, arid, or even barren. It needs to be enriched, and for that enrichment, we go back to the deposits of old growth that have been discarded, but that continue to ferment and may contain resources for a way to new life. (Texts Under Negotiation, pp. 61-62)

Like Brueggemann, I don’t take the compost pile as a disrespectful metaphor, but a metaphor that explains what the Bible is suited to do–and how people typically, instinctively, approach it anyway.

By contrast, an unhelpful metaphor is a cookbook.

Read the Bible carefully, being sure to follow the directions, and out will pop a good, orthodox Christian with his or her act together. If something went wrong–if you have wrong doctrine or do bad things–you’re not following the directions carefully enough. Go back and try it again

I’ve found the Bible doesn’t work very well as a cookbook. Sooner or later you wind up sifting through the Bible to pick the ingredients that strike you and ignore other ingredients that don’t taste very well what you are trying to cook up. Plus the Bible is long, complicated, and a most of it looks like you’re reading a novel, not a cookbook.

The compost pile works better for me. It syncs with my study of Scripture, with my experience over the years as someone trying to figure out this following Jesus business, and with what I have learned from the wisdom of others, living or dead.

The compost pile analogy reminds me that focusing our gaze on the Bible is like looking expectantly at the compost pile rather than the fragrant rose or luscious watermelon that is waiting to grow up out of the ground. But nothing grows when our days are spent guarding the compost pile, defending it, covering it up with a tarp of manicured sod to make it look more civil.

Maybe this is a paradox: The Bible is not the end, but a means to an end. Yet, without the nutrients the Bible contains, the soil remains arid.

“Applying the Bible” doesn’t quite get at it. That comes across to me as a bit quiet and clean. Gardening is full of grunting, sweat, dirt–and sometimes holding your nose. Read the Bible with a pitch fork, garden rake, and shovel in your hands–not with rubber gloves and tongs delicately turning over crackling pages of an ancient book.




  • Matthew James Hamilton

    This just made my day. I’ve not read enough Brueggemann, so I was not familiar with the quote. I’ll have to look that one up.

  • Cameron

    To be fair, a properly maintained compost heap shouldn’t smell of anything except beautiful, fragrant moist dirt. Great analogy though.

  • eric kunkel

    Well you still have to apply the compost to bring about growth. Neither compost nor the Bible are ends in themselves, like you say the Bible is not just some crackly old texts meant for the shelf.

    (BTW, I have some old books on my shelf that are so old that I dare not open them anymore, talk about crackling.)


  • rvs

    I like the idea of the Bible as an ecology, as an environment in which to live (vs a mountain to strip mine, etc.). The compost pile metaphor seems similar… sort of.

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  • Christian

    Hey Dr. Enns, first post on this site here. I appreciate all your work. Anyways, based on the posts I’ve read on your blog, I think you would fit into the mood in Evangelicalism known as Post-conservatism (ex. Grenz, Franke, Olson, Pinnock, etc.). Is that an accurate assessment? Anyways, keep up the good work; I appreciate it.

    • peteenns

      Labels are inevitable but I am trying to work without using them more than I have to.

      • Dave

        Agree, Pete. Taxonomy is for the birds.

      • Christian

        I respect that answer. It reminds me of something NT Wright said. He didn’t like labels either, but then he read Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming. If I remember correctly, he basically said that Olson’s book described his outlook nicely (I think he mentions this in his book Justification). Labels aren’t needed, but I like to know where various authors are coming from in order to get an idea of their various presuppositions that go into their works. Nonetheless, I appreciate you works, and I’m grateful for Evangelicals like yourself that are willing to challenge the status quo, even when it lands you in hot evangelical water.

        • peteenns

          Thanks, Christian…though I think my presuppositions change bi-monthly :-)

        • Beau Quilter

          I doubt that Olson (or for that matter, Wright) would go for the compost heap analogy. Olson more often writes himself into a tight little theological box. And he loves to apply labels, not only to himself, but to others who don’t care for the way he labels them.

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  • Bev Mitchell

    I like the slant taken by rvs. To a biologist this analogy speaks of life, because life is just like that. It’s complicated, sometimes smelly, impossible to fully control but by far and away the best game in town. We can paraphrase “Let there be light” as “Let there be life”, and this too fits this lovely, living analogy.

  • Brian

    how much of the “discoveries” in evangelicalism have been status quo in the ancient churches (RC, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church) for a millennium and a half or more? comments about the Bible by evangelicals on this and other sites remind me that at least some if not all of the ancient churches treat the Bible as the creation of the church, and it’s interpretation as requiring input from Church Fathers. would, for example, the creation wars in America have ever happened had the Bible been interpreted by American church leaders thru the lens of the early Church? might evangelicals be in the process of reinventing wheels?

    • peteenns

      I think much of the theological problems and handwringing with evangelicalism and its close cousin fundamentalism is a lack of and even contempt for historical perspective.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Yes, and we could include the scientific perspective as well as some Orthodox Jewish perspectives as needed voices in our attempt to have ears that hear. I wonder, for example, how many evangelicals are reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent books – one on science and faith and two others which are collections of essays focusing on Genesis and Exodus, respectively. Of course, reading Sacks, Christians should always want to go beyond, to the next chapter, so to speak. But lingering on what he says can be very informative. You could, with not too much imagination, see Sacks as John Wesley’s Rabbi.

    • Mark Chenoweth

      Brian, I think you’re right. I do indeed think that a lot of the eccentricities of Evangelicalism and its reaction, liberalism and some strands of the emergent church (though guys like Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright seem to balance things out nicely) can be corrected by the understanding of the ancient church.

      “Revelation necessarily occurs within the domain of what we call ‘history,’ and it does so through the medium of historical realities: events, persons, places, institutions, rituals. Those realities may not be objectively verifiable; they may even be essentially symbolic or parabolic (e.g. the etiological myths of Gen 1-11; the story of Jonah). They are not for that reason any less “real” than events of our immediate experience. Insofar as they exist in the divinely inspired religious consciousness of the people of God, they convey revealed truth and serve God’s purposes for their salvation, even if the stories that convey them can be properly labeled myth, legend, or even metaphor.” John Breck’s Scripture in Tradition: The Bible in the Orthodox Church

      Also, this passage from Breck surprised me a whole lot: “Both the apostolic author and the later interpreter, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, speak out of their respective historical, cultural and linguistic contexts. The scriptures reflect this human aspect by the different perspectives represented by each of the four gospels, by the irreconcilable differences in chronology, AND BY THE FACT THAT THEY CONTAIN AT LEAST ONE MAJOR TEACHING THAT THE CHURCH LATER REJECTED, NAMELY THE AFFIRMATION IN HEB 6:4-6 THAT THERE IS NO FORGIVENESS FOR SINS COMMITTED AFTER BAPTISM.”

      I am aware that both Luke Timothy Johnson and as far as I can tell, Walter Bruggeman believe that although the scriptures do indeed condemn homosexual activity, it shouldn’t be the last word of Christians on the subject, and spurred on by the SPIRIT OF LOVE IN THE NT, we need to go BEYOND the bible regarding this issue. I’m not sure I can say that their approach is completely wrong in this regard. It is possible that the church, through consensus, might later reject a theological statement in the NT, but Church tradition confirms to us that the teaching against homosexual behavior is NOT one of those teachings.

      Suppose we found an epistle of Peter saying that gentiles need to be circumcised! Suppose it’s apostolic! Doesn’t this create a problem for evangelical inerrantists? It meets all the qualifications to be CORRECT and canonical, except that it’s WRONG, and a position the church later rejected. I’m not sure many evangelicals could give a cogent answer for HOW Peter could be wrong when he wrote a letter.

      It seems to me that the life of the church is a better way to deal with these issues than just scripture by itself. I think Bruggeman and Luke Timothy Johnson are grasping at some truth here, but haven’t got ahold of a truly satisfying solution.

      • Mark Chenoweth

        all that being said, I didn’t want to make it sounds like homosexuality is a CLOSED issue in Orthodoxy. There are only like 2 books on the subject from an Orthodox perspective. Much, much more needs to be done and explored with regard to gender, etc. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem likely the Church will overturn its current stance on the issue given that the bishops in the Orthodox Church are against homosexual behavior across the board. There’s a tonsured reader in my parish that believes the Church needs to change its position regarding homosexuality and his voice shouldn’t be silenced, and he’s certainly not a heretic.

  • Randy

    I thank God my Bible is NOT a smelly gross pile of rotting garbage. It is my guide, my help, and my source of strength. This article shows your lack of knowledge in the precious Word of God and where it came from, and those who died so we could have a copy of the King James Bible, the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God.

    • peteenns

      God is your guide and source of strength.

      • Randy

        True, but God speaks through His Word.

      • Percival

        I heard this from Dr. Victor Hamilton and I have never been able to prove him wrong. He claims that the Bible itself never claims to be a guide. Numerous times it is written that God will be our guide, but there are no texts that claim that the written word is to be a guide.

        • peteenns

          I agree unreservedly with Hamilton, esp. when we think of what “guide” tends to mean in our culture, i.e., a moral or doctrinal guide. In those respects the Bible “guides” but in a different sense I think.

        • Randy

          It may not say the exact words, but it is implied. Psalm 119: 105 “Thy word is a lamp is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Hmmmm….sounds like a guide to me.

          • peteenns

            “Thy Word” means the law, not “the Bible.” There was no Bible at the time.

          • Percival

            That verse occurred to me too, but I realized your feet can be lit up so that you do not stumble but you might not be on the right path. This indicates a walking aid (Law) and not an orientation aid like a compass or a map. In contrast is the verse Is. 30:21, “Whether you turn to the left or the right, you will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’.” This points to the personal and spiritual nature of God’s guidance for the believer. And in this verse, it seems to not matter whether you turn left or right — you still hear the affirming voice.

          • Randy

            That argument actually make no sense. I do realize that the whole Bible was not at that time, when that particular verse was penned down, completed. However, Jesus equated His very words with the law and prophets of the Old Testament. And, correct me if I am wrong, but Jesus’ words are in the New Testament, namely the Gospels. And the N.T. tells us that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth, and would bring Jesus’ words to our remembrance, which would include Acts, and the Epistles. Peter also told us that Paul’s epistles are scripture. The Holy Spirit would also show us the things to come according to the book of Revelation, so that would include Revelation, would it not? How can you separate the O.T from the N.T.? It all is the Word of God! I know all the Word is not written to us, but all of it is written for us. According to Psalm 12: 6-7, “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.”

      • David Miller

        This reminds me of Merold Westphal, in his _Whose Community? Which Interpretation?_, quoting Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones’s _Reading in Communion_ by saying that Christians’ “vocation is to _embody_ Scripture.” I wrote in the margins, “No, we are to embody Christ.”

        • peteenns

          Saying Scripture when we should be saying Christ is a recurring problem in some circles.

    • David M

      Merry Christmas to you, as well. :)

  • Rebecca Trotter

    If anyone takes offense at the idea of the bible as a compost heap, send them my way – I once wrote a post comparing how we interact with scripture to digestion and pooping. lol But really, a compost heap is a beautiful thing. When we reject this world that God made – one with predator and prey and the process of death and new life and decay and nourishment and all the rest – we are rejecting the very world that God made us for, made is from and made for us. Unfortunately, some Christians remind me of nothing so much as a cruel child telling their father, “you’re not my real father – my real father wouldn’t give me such crappy presents – my real father’s going to show up one day and fix everything for me!”

    • Derek

      I certainly don’t reject this world with a sort of Gnostic-abhorrance, however, if we believe what the Bible says, then we must conclude that the earth in its present form is fallen, and subject to death, and decay as a result of sin. In other words, the world in its present form is not how God originally created it (pre-fall).

      Furthermore, the Bible pretty much does teach that Jesus will one day return and make all things new – a new heaven and a new earth.

      • Rebecca Trotter

        See, I was always taught this, but the scriptural evidence is thin at best. Practically non-existant, imo. And the evidence is that God did in fact create this amazing world where even death and decay naturally give way to new life. It’s total genuis, really. The idea of a world which is “perfect” from a human’s idea of perfect is sterile, cheap and immature. What sin has done is throw all of our relationships – with God, with each other, with our environment – completely off kilter in a way which damages all of creation. But the idea that before sin there was not physical death and that rot and decay is anything less than a miraculous wonder is uber-silly, imo. The fact that we would look at this genius system of basically recycling and renewing the resources of life and see it as a sign of sin is in and of itself a work of our sinful mindsets.

  • Jim

    Your post reminded me of an old saying one of my mentors would sometimes mutter under his breath (usually after coming out of a thesis defense) – “bullshit baffles brains” – not that I’m trying to say that this totally applies to the Bible. I guess the mention of fertilizer just brought on some old memories.

  • Louis Colbert

    Though you state you are not meaning to be irreverent, you are doing just that. God’s word is holy and alive. You have offended me and have likened the living, breathing, holy word of God to garbage in an attempt to share some sort of spiritual revelation you think you’ve gotten. The word of God is sacred and should be looked at at such. You need to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for offending Him.

    • Monimonika

      I dislike the Bible and think that a significant amount of its teachings and implications are harmful (*). But even I found the analogy to a compost pile (after reading the explanation) to be quite flattering to how the Bible can be viewed, especially when I add in a bit of my own interpretation to it.

      The Bible isn’t garbage, according to the analogy. It’s a collection of knowledge passed down through generations and various cultures that have each added their own bits of knowledge/interpretation to the ever-growing (and sometimes partly shoveled out) pile. As time has passed, changes have occurred so that a lot of that knowledge has decayed beyond easy recognition for the current generation/culture. For example, the story about Jesus cursing the fig tree makes no sense at all to us. But even with such decay, there nevertheless springs forth ways of interpreting and utilizing the knowledge that is there, and another thin layer of knowledge/interpretation is added to the compost pile and it is enriched even more.

      Many ideas (new and old) can grow out of such a compost pile, and the future can bring forth unexpected developments in how Christianity will be practiced and passed on. I very much believe that earlier Christians would be bewildered and confused over the present-day interpretations and practices of today’s Christians, but the commitment to faith and the struggle to figure out the Christian God’s Truth would still be the same.

      As for “living, breathing, holy word of God,” the fact is that a compost pile is not just a pile of dead/dying stuff that just sits there, it also “breathes” and changes are always occurring from within and without it that it never stays exactly the same. Do living things stay exactly the same through all time? Of course not. And this Biblical compost pile, while it may be a stretch to call it “living”, is ever-changing and ever-influencing. Quite honestly, this analogy made me appreciate the Bible a bit more, although you may have something against the view of the Bible having changed with its interaction with human beings over the millennium. Also, why do you hate earth so much?

      (*) I once tried reading through a Gideon Bible (it was free) in an attempt to expand my paltry knowledge of the Bible. I started from page 1 and tried to read everything other than skimming the “begat” parts. I only made it up to the story of Jacob and Essau. It felt like I was reading FSTDT. All I could think was, “Wait, what!? God, why are you letting Jacob get away with this? You KNOW he doesn’t deserve the blessing from his father. His own father didn’t want to give it Jacob! If You (God) don’t think hardworking Essau deserves the blessing because he sold it Jacob, fine, but why does Jacob the lazy a–hole get to keep it!? And be praised for it!?!?” Ugh, that was bad for my heart…

    • AHH

      It can be difficult on this blog to distinguish some of the serious comments from parody comments meant to illustrate the mindless Bibliolatry typically opposed by the posts and by most commenters.
      My initial guess was that this one was serious, but then I noticed the last name which might imply parody …
      Just an observation that may not have any deep meaning.

      • Monimonika

        Ahh, the comment I replied to may have been a Poe. Didn’t think of that. The lack of over-the-top righteousness and no mention of burning in Hell makes it difficult to categorize the comment as a parody. Of course, if it was easy to tell it was a parody, then it wouldn’t be Poe (by definition a Poe must be difficult to tell apart from the real thing).

  • Wesley Wilson

    The Bible is dead? You err, not knowing the Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation.

    “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Hebrews 4:12-13

    • peteenns

      It’s usually best to read the post before commenting.

  • Hanan

    Ok. The bible is a compost. It needs nutrients. So what sort of nutrients do I need to understand God permitting slaughter of children. Or the slaughter of people based on the actions of their ancestors (Amalek). Or God’s thumbs up to permanent slavery of anyone but an Israelite?

  • bwsmith

    I love gardening — and I love what you have provoked me to consider –esp. when [apparent] news of diminishing numbers of Christians is on the rise.


  • Xiao Jiang

    If American dogs are making fun of JESUS CHRIST, then will PAY THE ULTIMATE PRICE.

    • peteenns

      IF you read the post, THEN you will see no one is making fun of anything. It’s always a good idea to read a post and not judge it by it’s title.

  • Frank James

    Pete: My tale of woe became a tale of Wow.

    It was with great reluctance that I obeyed my beloved wife Carolyn Custis and graciously put aside my feelings to see a movie musical. There is an unwritten law (it may very well be written somewhere in Austin): Texans don’t do musicals. But it was the Christmas season and I do love my wife, so I agreed to “sacrifice” an evening just for Carolyn.

    And then I cried like a baby! I mean sob out loud–in front of strangers! One might say that I was deeply moved by Les Miserables. Yes the acting was superb (except for Russel Crowe who seemed a little constipated, but Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway deserve Oscar nominations). But what really got to me was the GOSPEL message at every turn and every subplot. This movie did indeed proclaim the good news. It was so good, I never noticed they were singing.

    I have only one question Pete: did you cry too?


    • peteenns

      No, but I had something in my eye once or twice. (Germans don’t cry :-) )

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  • Amy Pemberton

    While I think that the compost metaphor is very interesting and worth more reflection, I have to take issue with Dr. Enns understanding of cookbooks. A good cookbooks should help you understand the recipes and ingredients (maybe even offer substitutes) so that you can treat the recipes as starting points. And an good cook won’t need to be invited to improvise–they’ll do it automatically. Maybe the first time you make a certain recipe you will need to follow the recipe mechanically, but eventually you are almost certainly going to modify the recipes, because you don’t like one of the ingredients (or you’re allergic or the ingredient’s not available or you just want to be creative). There will be things that you need to keep, but there is a lot in any given recipe that can be changed. If you don’t believe me pass out a recipe to a dozen friends and ask them to bring you the results. Come to think of it, it might be interesting to ask an experienced cook to read the Bible like one of their favorite cookbooks.

    • peteenns

      Oops. I stand corrected :-)

  • David

    All I have to point out is that Jesus faulted the Pharisees for being so engrossed in scripture that they missed the ultimate goal towards which scripture was trying to point (i.e., Jesus). It’s very easy to completely miss the point of scripture, and perhaps the ultimate way to do that is to begin to see scripture as the point. The scriptures are a very helpful fertilizer for a healthy spiritual life in the hands of someone who understands what they are for and how to use them. The people who don’t are like people who, rather than planting seeds and harvesting the fruit, just end up eating dirt.

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  • John Shakespeare

    ‘…Plus the Bible is long, complicated, and a most of it looks like you’re reading a novel, not a cookbook…’ Actually, large parts of it read more like a telephone directory.

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