Monday, February 26, 2007

Who Needs Poetry?

Who needs poetry? Well, the short answer is everyone, but let me get specific. My focus here relates to Christ-followers. Anyone who wants to understand scripture needs an awareness of how poetry works, and needs an experience of the non-linear way poetry communicates, simply because so much of scripture is poetry. Since becoming an avid reader of poetry, and a poet myself, I have become a better reader of scripture.

When you study the beatitudes in Matthew, for example, you’ll get a different impression about what Jesus is saying, than if you study Luke’s version. Preachers, because they have a point to make, don’t usually like such ambiguity; they want the scripture to be clear, and so focus on the verses that better make their point. There’s nothing wrong with this, because often the Bible is saying what the preacher wants it to. Poets, however, embrace ambiguity, revelling in multiple possibilities, and divergent meanings.

Often a phrase or image in a poem carries several meanings and serves multiple purposes. This is often true of scripture. Consider David’s cry in Psalm 22 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is it a prophetic passage, or is it reflective of what David felt? Poetry doesn’t limit itself to “either/or” interpretations, but is open to “both/and”. What did Jesus mean by quoting it? Do parts of it refer to David, and parts to Christ? Does all of it refer both to David and to Jesus as well? Is it significant that Jesus is David’s descendant? Could it be some of both intertwined? A non-poetic interpretation is far too limited to appreciate what God had in mind here. Since so much of scripture is written as poetry, doesn’t it seem important for us to understand how poetry conveys meaning? Those who first encountered David’s psalm would have been satisfied that they knew what it was about, because they already had a meaningful way to interpret it. Being open to the poetic, opens readers to the possibility of more.

Poets resist the human impulse to form systematic theologies — to try to fit God into a box. Poets delight in mystery, in pushing beyond preconceived ideas, in wrapping in words what keeps slipping out of its wrapping.

Is it any wonder that those who have no time for poetry have trouble understanding the books of Daniel and Revelation — or, worse, claim to have them all figured out?

This is just a beginning of why I believe that believers need to embrace poetry. Let me know your thoughts on the subject, and I just might share some more myself.



violet said...

Preach it brother! (then go here to read some of the fresh Christian poetry that's being written these days)

N. J. Lindquist said...

Great thoughts! I think far too many Christians devalue both poetry and fiction, and even boast about only reading things that are "practical." Truth doesn't have to be put into a few to-do points to make it valuable.

But it isn't God in the box - it's anyone who tries to contain him.

N. J.

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