Poetry is none of those things.
Oh, we like the hymns and are quite pleased to hear our pastors quote them in their sermons, but do we embrace those hymns as aesthetic works of human imagination aided by divine inspiration—or as versified doctrine? Somewhere in the middle, I suppose. We love them because we have heard and felt their music in our ears and our hearts since we were children, but we approve of them because they praise God or set forth our beliefs or present the gospel in a manner that is both pretty (good) and unambiguous (better).
What is it we don't like about poetry? Why does it make us so uneasy? The simplest answer is that poetry is difficult, and no one likes to admit that he can't understand something. But there is a deeper reason. We are (whether we like it or not) heirs of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on fact over fiction, logic over intuition, external over internal, public over private, history over myth. We ascribe far more validity to scientific, rational discourse than we do to the ambiguous, irony-rich language of the arts.
Although our faith is grounded in a book that is jam-packed with literary genres, that expresses most of its wisdom in the form of poetry, and that is narrative rather than didactic in its essential focus and scope, we still prefer to hear truth in logical, noncontradictory statements. We seek in our truth claims a kind of balance, but not the more aesthetic balance on which all Hebrew poetry and most of Jesus' sayings rest (that is, parallelism). We seek a language that behaves, one in which there is a strict, one-to-one correspondence between each word and the meaning that word is meant to convey. As for irony, metaphor, symbolism, paradox, ambiguity (the very lifeblood of poetry)—such things are to be swept away as so many ancient relics of medieval Catholic mystery, ritual, and superstition, or as the fuzzy language of liberals who want to fudge truth with vague language.
Fast-forward the Enlightenment to the second half of the 20th century and to the rise of a battery of modern and postmodern literary theories. They dismiss out of hand any possibility of a clear, one-to-one correspondence between words (signifiers) and the object or idea those words are meant to point back to (signified). For these foes of both traditional and Enlightenment thought, language is inherently slippery. No essential link exists between signifiers and signifieds; indeed, the relationship between the two is completely arbitrary.
On the one side, then, we have conservatives who argue that language is meaningful because it is not slippery; on the other we have liberals who claim that it is slippery and therefore meaningless. In the center, I would suggest, we have poetry (and that means most of the Bible) that cries out that language is more meaningful precisely because it is "slippery."
As Christians, we worship a God who at a specific time in history became a man, a spiritual Creator who became a physical creature. The greatest miracle of our faith, I would argue, is not the Resurrection but the Incarnation. And the amazing thing about the Incarnation is (to put it in linguistic terms) that it means that the ultimate Signified (God) can enter into the life of (indeed, become) a lowly signifier (a carpenter from Nazareth) without ceasing to be the ultimate Signified. Pretty slippery—in fact, a paradox which has taxed the minds of great theologians. Poetry, with its desire to incarnate transcendent truths in material images while maintaining (via metaphors, symbols, allusions, etc.) a vital sense of play and interchange between the two, comes much closer than science, logic, or systematic theology to capturing the mystery inherent in the Incarnation.
Jesus Christ (the Word made flesh) is the nexus, the way station, the middle ground where God and man, spiritual and physical, Signified and signifier, meet and join hands across a divide that was built by sin and that too often is maintained by a rationalistic view of reality. Christ has broken down the dividing wall, and every great poem seconds him in his mighty work of spiritual, metaphysical, and linguistic reconciliation.
Louis A. Markos is associate professor of English at Houston Baptist University.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.
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Last year, Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture looked at reading for "soul-culture" in "Poetry: Why Bother?".
A Sacrifice of Praise, an anthology of Christian poetry from Caedmon to the mid-twentieth century, is available at Christianbook.com.
Earlier this year, Markos also wrote for Christianity Today, "Myth Matters: C. S. Lewis bequeathed us a method and a language for sharing the gospel with the modern and postmodern world."
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