If you are like most Christians, you have probably been led to believe two things about yourself when it comes to poetry:
- You don’t get it.
- You don’t like it.
In all likelihood, neither of these things is actually true. But believing them to be true hinders both your willingness to read and your capacity to understand and enjoy poetry.
This might not matter to you. Given the decidedly unpoetical inclination of our age, you probably do not see how learning to read, enjoy (and possibly even write) poetry could be of any practical value to you. But, surprising as it may seem right now, if you are a Christian, your spiritual development depends in large part on your growing capacity to appreciate poetry. If you don’t know how to read poetry, you simply don’t know how to read the Bible. Because the Bible is centrally and thoroughly poetic.
The Bible is Sacred Poetry
The majority of Christians once accepted as an obvious truism the now contested idea that poetry and poetic language lie at the very heart of the Bible. George Gilfillan’s woefully out of print “Bards of the Bible,” published in 1851, hardly considers the topic an arena for debate:
The language of poetry has, therefore, become the language of the inspired volume. The Bible is a mass of beautiful figures—its words and its thoughts are alike poetical—it has gathered around its central truths all natural beauty and interest—it is a temple with one altar and one God, but illuminated by a thousand varied lights, and studded with a thousand ornaments.
These days, one almost never hears Gilfillan’s once widely accepted axiom that poetry thoroughly suffuses and composes biblical language. To some, the notion even has a ring of controversy or the heretical. This is in spite of the fact that the premise can, with very little effort, be proven true (Gilfillan does it almost incidentally in the course of his excellent book).
How Christians Lost Poetry
Our antipathy toward and dismissal of poetry has become so crippling that many Christians don’t recognize the Bible’s poetry even when it is explicitly formatted and presented as poetry—much less when it permeates the logic, prose, and narratives of the Bible. Once, in a conversation with an earnest Christian friend, I mentioned in passing (in a rush to move on to a related point) that the major and minor Prophets wrote almost exclusively in poetry. My friend said, “Wait. Really? I don’t think that’s true. Why do you think it’s poetry? I’ve never heard that.”
It’s no surprise that laypeople have this view. Most pastors have no idea how to understand the Bible as literature or poetry either.
Do a little investigation and you’ll find that few seminaries offer extensive courses in poetry or literature, and most of those are elective. Most seminaries stuff their curricula with systematic/grammatical/historical/biblical/ad nauseam theology courses, Greek and Hebrew, and/or the art of preaching (homiletics). The few preachers I have met who know how to read and enjoy poetry learned that love from undergraduate core classes (often in secular universities) or undirected personal study. Of those already few preachers, fewer still know how to apply this poetic appreciation to their teaching ministry.
I’m not saying Greek and Hebrew classes or theology classes aren’t very necessary to a well-rounded seminary education. But one must wonder, though: if the Bible is more a literary and poetic work than a theology book (which can hardly be denied), and most of our teachers have only learned to read the Bible for and as theology, how can these preachers be expected to read the Bible insightfully or apply the Bible with discernment?
And if even our teachers don’t know how to read poetry, which pervades the Bible and creation, how can we expect them to lead their congregations in this discipline? How can preachers or lay Christians hope to properly handle the “inspired volume” whose “words and . . . thoughts are alike poetical” when, for the most part, they don’t understand how to read, understand, or enjoy poetry?
This severe shortcoming needs to be remedied. And, thanks be to God, anyone can begin the remedy immediately and immediately begin to see positive results.
How Sacred Poetry Stands Alone
Unlike merely human poetry, all sacred poetry possesses an exceptional marriage of beneficial qualities:
- It is so simple that a child can understand it on at least one level even on the first reading.
- It is so profound that even the most sophisticated inquirers cannot plumb its depths, no matter how many times they read it.
Consider for a moment how very rare these dual qualities are in merely human literature. Most merely human poetry (and art) is either simple enough to be understood on first exposure or so “deep” as to be inaccessible to any but experienced auditors. Most human poetry is either/or. The Bible stands alone in literature for possessing, from start to finish, both qualities—simplicity and profundity—in equally great measure. Why does this matter? Let’s backtrack a little bit.
Merely Simple Poetry
Remember that would-be readers of poetry in our day encounter two major obstacles: we think we don’t get poetry and we think we don’t like it either. Streamlining this thought: most of us think we don’t like poetry because we think we don’t get it.
But, as I said earlier, neither of these are true. We get and like lots of poetry: merely simple poetry, that is. We like poetry that is simple (sometimes nonsensical) because we can get it (and/or like it) on our first reading. This is why pop music, most praise and worship songs, children’s poetry, advertisements, and clickbait headlines draw us in so consistently. These are all simple poetry: they can be understood or enjoyed on at least one level by anyone during the very first exposure.
But merely simple poetry doesn’t generally yield greater returns with continued investment. Whatever you get out of merely simple poetry the first time, you’re likely to get the exact same thing, more or less diminished, the second time. Every subsequent exposure gives you further diminished returns. It’s why popular music mostly all sounds the same, yet more of it is always needing to be made.
We want pop music to be immediately accessible, catchy, and familiar. Yet it is also immediately exhaustible because we don’t require it to, like biblical poetry, also be profound. Merely simple poetry is not designed to stand the test of time. It doesn’t need to. We design merely simple poetry to be consumed and then replaced by something similar. Merely simple poetry is like a Snow Cone: initially pleasant and satisfying, but one-dimensional, ultimately unnecessary, imminently perishable, nearly impossible to get wrong, and, in any but moderate quantities, unhealthful.
Merely Profound Poetry
On the other extreme of humanity’s poetic spectrum lie merely profound poems—Poetry with a capital P. These poems yield almost nothing to most first-time readers and allow eventual access to only the most persistent inquirers.
When most people think of “Poetry,” they are thinking of merely profound poems. To most readers, these poems represent locked black boxes which might contain some hidden treasure of meaning (if various, and sometimes dubious, reports are to be believed). Since a reader can’t possibly know how many labored attempts at picking a poem’s lock will be required to finally get it, and the reported payoff inside may not be worth all the effort anyway, most readers give up on a merely profound poem after a single failed attempt, considering themselves unequal to the “Poetic” task and annoyed over “wasted time.” Every new failed attempt with Poetry serves to reinforce this impression for would-be readers, and frustration and feelings of inadequacy can hardly support a fan base. Most people, thinking merely profound poems are the only ones which can truly be called “poetry,” end up believing they just don’t get or like poetry at all.
How We’ve Become Single-Use Readers
What no one seems to notice is that we’ve been trained by both the more common forms of poetry—both merely simple and merely profound—to be single-use readers and listeners.
Even the best merely simple poems rarely return anything more to us than exactly what we invest in them. Always in the same kind and measure. For instance, the pleasure of reading Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” or Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham may remain undiminished over time—because these are good merely simple poems. At the same time, this pleasure also remains unaltered and unaltering. These poems do not have the power to transform the reader with multiple exposures or to reveal hidden depths from within their own unexplored parts. So we tend to dismiss and forget merely simple poems (especially the truly insipid ones), leaving only the best of them to our children for our mutual pleasure in their early development.
On the other hand, we don’t give profound poems more than one reading because the first reading usually returns exactly nothing and we don’t know either how many zero-return readings it will take to finally get into the locked black box or whether or not the reported treasure within is even worth the effort.
Moreover, some of us have grown accustomed to taking “shortcuts” to the treasured meaning within a merely profound poem (with skeleton keys provided by Cliff’s Notes or well-meaning teachers), robbing from us the pleasure of discovery with which our own efforts might have eventually been rewarded had we persevered.
Many of us leave merely profound poems, once “explained,” with the idea: “Well, if that is what the poet meant all along, why didn’t he just say it that way in the first place?” So we view merely profound poetry (which we think alone deserves the label “Poetry”) with either indifference or contempt, blind to its possible pleasures.
Misunderstanding the Nature of Sacred Poetry
This shallow training in poetry, due to the general pride of our profound writers and the general avarice of our simple ones, has rendered all of us more or less anemic in our appreciation of biblical poetry. We find it hard to believe that the profound could be humble. We find it hard to believe that the simple could be full of glory. We bring our frustration with the merely profound and our complacency with the merely simple to our reading of Scriptures, impressing on God’s name our own vanities.
The so-called wise do it when they hear the Bible’s simplicity. Erudite dismissals of sacred poetry abound, since, like God, it suffers children to come unto it and mixes with the lowly for their benefit. If one is not compelled by faith and trust in God, one could allow one’s initial reading of the Bible to account for one’s entire view of it.
Even Christian readers sometimes fall into this. Once they have received an initial “meaning” from a text, they cease to wrestle with it, believing its returns to have been mainly exhausted at first blush. It’s as if we think the Psalms as perishable as our jingles.
Just one reading of sacred poetry, or only one kind of reading, will not, even cannot, belie a difference between mere simplicity and divine condescension. Only further inquiry aided by a trust in God’s wisdom (which looks foolish to the “wise”) will uncover a richness and depth in sacred poetry that cannot be found anywhere else.
On the other hand, the self-labelled non-academics often believe sacred poetry to be merely profound, so they submit themselves to complex and ungainly interpretations that actually obscure the power and simplicity inherent in the text. Many errors of exegesis can be traced to this mistaken notion—that you need a seminary degree to “unlock” the Bible’s meaning (as if it had only one to offer) and that its deeper truths hide in the academic ether like specially-earned Gnostic insights into esoteric mysteries.
This is simply not true. Most children, for instance, can understand and enjoy Revelation without the aid of any vaunted scholarly system of interpretation. And, for the most part, children will get it right in the main—children will feel the thrill of its images and the awe of its God, even while academics quibble over the number of the Beast and their favored millennialism.
So—and this should give us all pause—sacred poetry has been criticized as both crude and childish and impossibly obscure and unsearchable. These are the defamations the fleshly mind uses to draw the blinds on the Bible’s glorious condescension to our needs and benefit. And, quite important for our purposes, both criticisms labor under and perpetuate an unbiblical, even anti-biblical, understanding of poetry. Consequently, many readers of the Bible fail to discover its insights and enjoyments.
In contrast to all other poetry, the Bible’s poetry is simple and profound. It is neither a Snow Cone or a locked black box. Rather, it’s a foot path regularly marked with necessary nourishments and gratuitous delights. It doesn’t have a lock you need to undo first before you can start getting it. That seal has already been broken for you.
Unlike merely profound poetry, the Scriptures will yield returns to even the most unsophisticated initial inquiry even from the outset. But unlike merely simple poetry, the Scriptures will never stop yielding returns, no matter how many times you return to it.
By submitting to God’s superior wisdom and trusting in his unfailing goodness, anyone can learn to appreciate sacred poetry, and through this appreciation, we can be trained to discern good poetry anywhere else it can be found. Rather than impressing on the Scriptures the pride and vanity of human letters, we can learn to adapt our tastes to God’s, so that we can detect those lines of humble prowess we would have overlooked had they not resonated in sincerity with the divine poetry we had learned to love first.
This is part one of a series on how to read the Bible as poetry. Next time, I’ll talk about one of the central tools of sacred poetry (metaphor), and how it challenges the two prevailing views on religion: materialism and mysticism.