Poetry and the Redemption Story

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
1 Peter 1:19-25

Nearly two-thousand years have passed since the death of Christ and the earliest beginnings of the Christian church, creating a chasm between contemporary Christians and their ancient counterparts. Not only are we temporally displaced from the characters depicted in Scripture, but we are culturally removed as well. As a result, we feel estranged from the events and people of the Bible. Through a purely historical lens, the Christian Bible is a story of God’s people that is impossibly distant from any notion of what we consider to be our reality as God’s people. And through a purely philosophical lens, the Christian Bible becomes a handbook of metaphysics unavoidably interpreted from a modern approach, with basic assumptions entirely different from those of two millennia ago. Essentially, by choosing to understand it through either a historical or philosophical lens, we will inevitably find the Bible difficult to decipher. But I do not think God intended for us to see Scripture in this way. Rather, it is through the poeticism of the Biblical narrative that God communicates to us in a way that we can understand, the only way we can understand.

Precisely what do I mean by poetry? First, let us put aside the conventional idea of poetry as sets of stanzas fitting neatly into some ABAB or AABB rhyming scheme. Poetry is, to borrow the words of Sir Philip Sidney, an art of imitation intended to “delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand… and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved”(1). In short, the essence of poetry cannot be limited by the structure of its verses. Rather, the breadth of poetry extends to all corners of fiction, and its power lies both in its ability to instruct us towards virtue and goodness and in its ability to do so in a way that we delight in the instruction.

Sidney wrote his essay Defense of Poesy, from which the quote was borrowed, in an era of skepticism surrounding the value of poetry. Responding to critics, he maintains that because of its power to delighttowards goodness, poetry is not less than history or philosophy, genres typically well esteemed, but rather more. This delightfulness of poetry, he argues, with force sufficient to move men towards goodness, is what allows it to surpass the two. The philosopher, on one hand, is limited to an audience already educated in its logic; Sidney laments that only with “attentive, studious painfulness” may a reader decipher any sort of truth from philosophy. At its best, assuming the author is fully understood, philosophy offers precepts that lack examples of application in modern life. And if we choose an entirely historical approach instead, we quickly realize the problem with historicism lies in itself. A priori, a purely historical approach is self-limiting because history is a practice in which we define, contain, and separate events into periods of history, a process that culminates in our alienation to the status of observer. In its most basic sense, pure history demands objectivity and leaves no room for participation; it can offer examples of great virtue but without truths that are pertinent to us, the lonely outsider.

Therefore, if we seek a Biblical interpretation intimately relevant to our lives, attempting to understand Scripture by reducing it to a list of metaphysical truths or to a series of historical accounts is incredibly frustrating. In doing so, we read the Bible as something less than what it really is. To interpret Biblical Scripture as entirely philosophy, would we not have to be educated in the logic of God? And can we claim to be educated in the ways of God, who created the heavens and the earth, the light and the darkness? If we cannot, then for all our “attentive, studious painfulness” what grand metaphysical truths can we expect God to teach us? Instead, if Scripture is merely history, then we become the lonely observer disenfranchised from God’s love. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells His people whom He led out of Egypt, “For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (2). If this is only history, then certainly God cannot be speaking to us.

The beauty of the Bible is precisely that the story it captures is more than philosophy or history: it is the story of God’s people captured by poetry. And it extends beyond the mere presence of poetic heroes; for indeed the Bible has many, like Abraham who was counted righteous for his faith, David whom God blessed with wisdom, and Paul who was a humble servant of the early church. The poeticism of the Bible is much more than the appearance of a few poetic heroes or a collection of poetic moments. It is the Biblical narrative—the story that is undeniably the backbone of the entire text and continues today—that delights us towards goodness and, like poetry, moves us.

Time and time again, God offers us examples of His poeticism. His poetry begins with the poetry of creation and how He brought organization to a world that was without form and void. Perhaps the most-read chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1 reads, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (3). As I gaze into the night sky, I cannot but delight in the grandeur of Him who scatters stars across time and space and calls them by name. And in moments of self-importance, the stars themselves reveal my littleness and God’s omniscience. It is He who “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (4). It is He who imbues me consciousness, with reality. Of what then will I be proud when I meditate on the One who authored space and time and penned my very reality into existence?

Here is where Biblical poetry moves past Sidney’s conception of poetry as fictional art which delights us and moves us towards virtue and goodness. The Christian Bible is more than this because it is a poem of truth rather than of fiction. It is the story of God’s steady redemption of humanity: though cursed by sin, beloved by a Father to the extreme that He would send His Son so that we might know Him, the grand poet of the universe. Biblical poetry is one of sonship, climaxing in the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of His Son through whom we are made heirs in the Spirit (5). In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (6).

In this way, God’s poetry makes real to us the declaration that we are not alone. We are not strangers peeking in on the history of His people, because as our lives unfurl, so does another chapter of His story. We are not academics searching to excavate truth from a divine treatise. Instead we are beings intimately woven into a poem in which God tenderly shows us what to love, how to love, and why we love. Our intellect is finite, yet God, in the guise of a poet, communicates to us in ways we can understand.

So let us not mistake Biblical poetry for the fantastical epics of Homer, the love sonnets of Shakespeare, or the historical epics of Neruda. Because the Bible is divine poetry, we cannot study it as we do any ordinary work. The poetry of Scripture is not smaller than we are (7), but rather much greater, one that has been authored by an unfathomable Creator. In it, the roles of poet and poem are reversed and we are no longer the creators but the created. This story began in the beginning, continues today and requires sincere effort to understand. And it challenges each of us to understand our individual stories in light of the story.

Notes:

  1. Defense of Poesy
  2. Deuteronomy 2:7
  3. Genesis 1:1-3
  4. Genesis 2:7
  5. Galatians 4:3-6
  6. Romans 8:22
  7. Lesslie Newbigin from Daniel Taylor

 

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