February 17, 2018

Classic iMonk: The Poetry of the Bible

Light Snow. Photo by David Cornwell

I have a Sunday off this week! While we’re in Valparaiso, enjoying our grandkids, here is an excerpt for you from a post by Michael Spencer that was originally published in February 2007.

• • •

The Bible not only contains poetry, but it is poetic in its entire vision of reality. Poetic language is frequently Biblical language. The Psalms, Proverbs and prophets are all poetic expressions. Many of the teachings of Jesus, and even some of Paul’s most sublime theological passages, are poetic in form and intent.

The church needs poets to interpret the scripture. Sorry theologians, but most of you have a depressingly poor eye for poetry, poetic meaning and the poet’s worldview. Turning the whole scripture into systematics is fine, but if someone took Shakespeare’s sonnets and turned them into a systematics text, I’d feel like a crime was being committed.

I listen to a lot of uneducated preachers, and some educated ones, that can’t be trusted around any metaphor or simple example of poetic parallelism. When a different word appears, they believe a different doctrine is taught. It’s not a failure of theology or of knowledge of the meaning of words. It’s a failure of poetic appreciation.

A second reason that we need poets is to keep the poetic imagination of God’s people alive. Eugene Peterson has written extensively on this, and I recommend any of his works of Biblical exposition as good examples of the holy and helpful use of the poetic imagination.

The word “imagination” has an impoverished life among today’s evangelicals. “Imagination” seems to mean “lie of the devil,” and “danger to your eternal soul” to many regular believers. Poets, of course, work in the imagination like painters work with color or farmers work with soil. They are not simply “rhymers.” They encourage us to see with the imagination; to live with the intensity of poetic insight and the awareness of poetic reality.

Contemporary evangelicalism tends toward the twin poles of a lecture hall and an entertainment venue. If imagination can find a place in keeping church from being boring, there may be some welcome for the poet, but the true influence and power of the imagination in finding the depth, beauty and holiness of life is rarely part of contemporary evangelicalism. Our poetics must fit into the card section of the local Christian bookstore.

An impoverished imagination manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Evangelicals don’t see the world as poets see it. They tend toward pessimism, materialism and the unquestioning acceptance of the values of the corporation and the capitalist. Imagination is a “troubler of Israel,” asking Christians to see the world as charged with the glory and significance of God.

In his book, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Peterson points to the book of Revelation, in particular, as a casualty of a failed imagination, leaving us with a very ugly literalism and the notion that God is more of a Hollywood producer than the Triune Lord of all history and creation. Studying Revelation with evangelicals these days is like examining a schematic with engineers. We need the poets to rescue us.

Of course, we need the poets to enhance our worship. Not just with more lyrics to more contemporary choruses, but with more words that encourage serious, God-centered, heart-stirring musical and artistic expression. Our churches are devoid of great poetry, and the reason is not only because we have become a banal, shallow generation that cannot appreciate. It is because we seldom, if ever, give the poets any place at all. We are, as Ed Stetzer recently said, quite efficient at convincing many creatives–especially non-musical ones–that we have little use for their offerings and gifts.

I wonder what it would take for the average church to allow a poet regular access to the congregation, in order to write, read, share and facilitate reflection on life via poetry? What kind of church would invite the poets to come and tell us what they see and feel? Could we ever be open enough to the spirit to let the words of the poets come into our communities to describe what our tired rhetoric can no longer communicate? What kind of generous, expectant mindset does it take to realize that the language of the traditional Protestant sermon isn’t always the music of our lives? That sometimes, the poet is the one who has the word or the Word?

We need poets because of their honesty. Evangelicalism isn’t known for authenticity, and that may be a large reason poets haven’t had much of a life in the church. Their voices are often the voices of doubt and pain. They don’t promise us answers in the last stanza. I’m sure many Christians who have the poetic voice would be afraid to let some of their best work be read by their Christian friends. The judgments would be quick and plentiful. We have little mercy on those who break our unwritten “codes” of “what Christians are supposed to say.”

Mostly, I’d like to see the church value and encourage the poet because we suffer from a failure of pastorally, missionally useful language in evangelicalism. Our ambiguity about reading scripture in worship, our preference for the dialect of preachers (from dogmaticians to comedians), our need to put the outline on Powerpoint: all of it betrays a paucity of language.

Poetic language is intense and compact; it is full of experience and comes to us differently than the “heard it all before again and again” language of the typical evangelical sermon.

The church needs its poetry. It needs its Psalms and Song of Solomon. It needs its Donne and Hopkins. It needs to invite the Dickinsons and Frosts to come in out of the cold and into the warm light of faith’s sun. It needs the words of the unknown poets waiting to be heard. But this means confessing that the language of science and exegesis and theological precision are not the language of lament, experience, solitude, celebration or even worship. We may have to confess that the poets, and not the pundits and culture warriors, are the ones with the most power to speak.

Comments

  1. This post doesn’t seem complete without a poem…if only we knew someone who was a master of haiku 😉

    • I’ve been wondering about the whereabouts of Susan Dumbrell myself. I hope she’s okay.

      Susan, are you out there? Could you grace us with one of your haiku?

      • Susan Dumbrell says:

        I lost my dear 17 year old cat today. I grieve. We had a pact, we would grow old together.

        She asked to be relieved from the pact. My tears buried her today. More later. I am so in sadness.

        I have a haiku ready for tomorrow.
        Thanks Robert.
        Susan

  2. Totally off topic, but take the grandkids to Shu’s! It is a mysterious spot of upstate NY style pizza in a foreign land. *grins*

  3. Poetry was more accessible to people before radio, TV and the internet. I’ve been reading poetry lately and well know that I do not get a lot of it. Recently read through “100 Best Loved Poems”, a compilation of poems in English, and was often clueless. Am 1/3 of the way through Leaves of Grass. Have attempted to tackle some other works too. It is gonna take some effort and work to make progress.

    • Pick up some Billy Collins. Love his stuff.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Reading the poetry out loud, observing the punctuation and not the line endings, is the best way for me to “get” poetry. If you haven’t done it, try. I have a hard time with it but know it’s necessary.

      Dana

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Rudyard Kipling is more my speed.

      I’ve got a 1919 compilation of his verse. Reason I know it’s authentic is it has Kipling’s pre-1933 swastika sigil.

  4. On topic, I think the tendency to poetic logic at work in Eastern Orthodoxy is why sometimes people raised in the evangelical mindset don’t immediately recognize it as christian. I come from that place myself, and I think if you showed the canon of Holy Saturday, with its ahistorical, totally unbiblical conversation between the still dead Lord and the the mourning Theotokos to teenage me, I’d have been just as quick to yell about people adding stuff to the Bible.

    Instead of… you know, actually seeing it for what it IS, which is an amazing poem expressing the tension of the day, of the Lord’s victory over death which is still not visible, yet accomplishing and accomplished.

    Poetry is a kind of scary way to navigate places, though. It gives you landmarks and context instead of a path, it leaves time for getting a little lost and a little found, it leaves room for potentially heretical thoughts to arise. Most of the lament psalms get back to at least begrudgingly trusting God by the end, but they some pretty hard things we secretly think along the way, but feel we shouldn’t.

    It is almost like giving up the sturdy finite set of arithmetic for something much more full of human frailty and potential.

    • “Poetry is a kind of scary way to navigate places, though. It gives you landmarks and context instead of a path, it leaves time for getting a little lost and a little found, it leaves room for potentially heretical thoughts to arise. Most of the lament psalms get back to at least begrudgingly trusting God by the end, but they some pretty hard things we secretly think along the way, but feel we shouldn’t.

      It is almost like giving up the sturdy finite set of arithmetic for something much more full of human frailty and potential.”

      insightful …

    • –> “Poetry is a kind of scary way to navigate places, though. It gives you landmarks and context instead of a path, it leaves time for getting a little lost and a little found, it leaves room for potentially heretical thoughts to arise.”

      Yep. Been there, done that.

  5. The mountain slopes crawl with lumberjacks
    axing everything in sight —
    yet crimson flowers
    burn along the stream

    -Chin-doba

    The wind blows hard among the pines
    toward the beginning
    of an endless past.
    Listen: you’ve heard everything.

    -Shinkichi Takahashi

    In the rain I wash my muddy hands.

    –Hasai Ozak

    The mountain slopes crawl with lumberjacks
    axing everything in sight —
    yet crimson flowers
    burn along the stream

    -Chin-doba

  6. Michael Bell says:

    The grass is always greener
    Over on the other side
    Damn the electric fence
    Damn the electric fence
    Damn the electric fence

    – Anonymous Bovine

  7. Much of what is said of the Evangelical view of poetry could also be said of their view of fine art as well.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      As a Creative myself, I have only one thing to say:
      GET AWAY FROM EVANGELICALISM. GET FAR AWAY. NOW!

      Even now in a church with a history of patronage of the Arts, the distrust still lingers.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    The word “imagination” has an impoverished life among today’s evangelicals. “Imagination” seems to mean “lie of the devil,” and “danger to your eternal soul” to many regular believers.

    And if you’re a Creative with an always-bubbling hyperactive imagination, you’re Witchcraft incarnate.

    An impoverished imagination manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Evangelicals don’t see the world as poets see it. They tend toward pessimism, materialism and the unquestioning acceptance of the values of the corporation and the capitalist.

    Which partially explains the “Donald Trump is LORD” reaction.

    Imagination is a “troubler of Israel,” asking Christians to see the world as charged with the glory and significance of God.

    And thus Must Be Stamped Out By Any Means Necessary.

    As a Creative myself, the damage is still there. To this day, ensconced in a liturgical church with a history of patronage of the Arts, I keep that part of me well-separated.

    In his book, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Peterson points to the book of Revelation, in particular, as a casualty of a failed imagination, leaving us with a very ugly literalism and the notion that God is more of a Hollywood producer…

    If not a Cosmic Monster on the scale of Great Cthulhu, awakening in R’lyeh to Destroy the World.

    P.S. Literalism as in ALL the plagues of Revelation being the effects of Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War? The plague of Demon Locusts being helicopter gunships armed with chemical weapons and piloted by long-haired bearded Hippies?