“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet
When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.
Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.
In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.
Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.
I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.
In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?
What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!
I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,
What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
I am making a way in the
and streams in the wasteland.