Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What Could Be More Useless Than A Poem?

In the tradition in which I was raised the arts were not seen as important. Not only did they not have value in themselves, but they were frivolous pursuits that distracted us from following God. Whatever you did was primarily measured in terms of its utility for evangelism. If you could preach through your ability — such as when a ventriloquist, illusionist, or gospel singer concluded a performance with an altar call — it was worthwhile. Of secondary importance was whatever was needed to earn a living. If your work was artistic, that would be permissible, but in the end it would just be wood, hay and stubble.

Poetry, if it was thought of at all, would have been seen as dangerous. Poetry’s meanings are frequently subjective and keep raising questions, like a wind storm fluttering shingles when everyone would rather pretend they’re nailed down. Those who don’t understand may want poems that promote a message, but that’s not what good poetry does. Poetry is unnervingly honest; it respects its hearers too much to ever tell them what to think. Since poetry doesn’t preach it also scores very poorly on the utility scale. So, why bother with poetry?

Reading poetry is a discipline — an exercise in discernment. Poetry teaches us how to question what we are reading; it teaches us to unravel what a written text is saying, and to ask ourselves if we understand it, and if we agree with it. I’ve read that Martin Luther believed that nothing better equips people for the skilful study of scripture than literary study.

Evangelicalism has had it’s approved preachers, publishers and bookstores for many years, in order to control the ideas coming to its people. Unfortunately in this “safe” environment, evangelicals have learned to accept what they hear or read without thinking. I’ve encountered far too many questionable, foolish, and even heretical statements from such sanctioned sources to ever consider them to be so safe that we needn’t question what we are reading. Thinking Christians need this skill.

In my new poetry chapbook, So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed, I chronicle the years my grandparents spent in China as missionaries. I do not seek to demonstrate that the gospel is true, but simply show what they went through: their faith, their dedication, their sacrifice. God doesn’t need our business models and marketing techniques. He sent Gideon into battle with 300 men after trimming more than 22,000 from his army. In my small way, through my poetry I seek to bring glory to God. This is simply what Christian artists do. What could be more useless?


1 comment:

SUZANNE said...

There's no way we can redeem the culture without poetry. Poetry in a broader sense is about metaphor, and we lack life-affirming, truth-affirming metaphors in our culture. This is why we have so much trouble. If the soul is filled with references that affirm the culture of death, is it any wonder our legislation reflects this?

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