Theology and Poetry
Poetry has always been the means by which human beings have creatively expressed that which is outside ordinary everyday speech. ‘Poetry’ in this sense encompasses poetry as we know it, but also plays, songs, and even some forms of prose; anything which seeks to use metaphors and similes, symbolism and imagery, hyperbole, creative contrast, rhyme, rhythm/metre, and probably some other things – those elements of premeditated language that don’t typically roll off the tongue in your regular chin wag (unless you’re an exceptionally talented spontaneous rap artist – but few of us are).
The tools of poetry
Poetry and theology, I realise, have much in common. Perhaps more accurately put, theological language requires the tools of poetry, almost without question. It would be difficult to conceive of Paul’s doctrine of the church without recourse to the language of the body or the temple, or of Jesus’ understanding of his vocation without the Old Testament symbols and images of the manna in the wilderness, the Good Shepherd, or the vine. As those who live in an often hyper-rationalist, post-Enlightenment society, which seeks to understand reality purely through observable, fact-based scientific data, it’s too easy to succumb to the fundamentalist argument that theological truth can be discovered directly from the pages of the Bible, without need for philosophers or exegetes or teachers. “The Bible says it, I believe it,” is the mantra.
The problem is that no one, not even the most fundamentalist evangelical Bible basher, believes this. You will find that at some level everyone eventually ends up interpreting some Scripture or other; it is simply impossible to take everything from Genesis to Revelation and say “it’s all true” without some working out how it all fits together. There’s a reason why many think the Bible is laced with contradictions; it’s because the lie that we don’t have to interpret it has somehow been perpetuated.
I digress; I actually didn’t want to say anything about fundamentalism. To get myself back on track then, Scripture is the best place to start in terms of understanding how theology and poetry work together, as seen in the examples above. The Psalms, ancient Hebrew poetry, are riddled with it of course – in Psalm 18 alone we have flames going up from God’s nostrils like a dragon, God coming riding on the cherub, upon the ‘wings of the wind’ (the wind, scientists would point out, doesn’t actually have wings), God being the psalmist’s lamp, and much more image-based, symbolic, hyperbolic language besides.
Hyperbole and symbolism are the mainstay of biblical apocalyptic language. NT Wright, in writing about apocalyptic language (Jesus and the Victory of God, p321) , wrote “Metaphors have teeth,” – itself a metaphor which, appropriately, has teeth. I am hopelessly drawn once again to comment on literalistic interpretations of (say) the book of Revelation which can’t ultimately but fail to be entirely literal. Read Richard Bauckham’s monumental collection of studies on Revelation, ‘The Climax of Prophecy’, and you will begin to get a sense of the intricacy with which the symbolism, drawn so heavily as it is from the Old Testament and other apocalyptic literature, is woven into the fabric of the book, and ultimately delivers its true meaning.
Is it any wonder then that 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is not only a renowned theologian but also a published poet? That C.S. Lewis, best known for his work on Christian apologetics, was a scholar of English literature and a writer of fiction himself? That his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, fellow literary genius, helped him to find in Christianity ‘the true myth’ – myth meaning probably for Tolkien, a cultural story bearing meaning and identity for that culture? Wonder we might, if we have been caught into fundamentalist arguments that eschew talk of interpretation, symbolism and so on. But wonder we must no more. Theology, if Scripture and history have anything to teach us, must borrow the tools of poetry – almost on permanent loan perhaps – if it is to get the job done.
I want my fellow songwriters out there to grasp this. I think we often feel ourselves too beholden to the same set of narratives in songwriting, especially for the church, that get us caught in loops between ‘thank you for the cross’ and ‘worthy is the Lamb’. Before you lambast me for suggesting we move away from cross songs, I am going to suggest the opposite: when was the last time you sang a lament song in church – so frequent in Scripture, and so anticipatory of the narrative of Calvary? When was the last time you sang a song that asked the question “My God, why have you forsaken me?” When was the last time you sang a song about how Christ the crucified was God identified with all the suffering and persecuted in the world? Do the nonbelievers among us know why we think the cross is such good news when we sing about it? Do we know?
We need to break the buckets over our lights and let them burst out into the world, holding up the crystals of our lives, letting colours of God’s beauty and multifaceted nature refract out and cast long lines into the earth.
Michael Gungor and crew are writing songs that are both creative and theologically deep, saying something true and profound that we might not hear every day in other songs by Christian artists out there. They’re not the only ones; others are; others might be writing things which are more singable by congregations, and that’s fine too. Even if we do feel it is our job to write more conservatively for congregations, let’s think clearly and carefully about our craft; it’s ever so important we not only bring good theology into our songs, but introduce fresh ways of seeing things through deep symbolism and imagery which may take us initially by surprise. We don’t have to reach far; I think it would surprise some of us to try and sing Psalm 18 in church these days. We have to ask ourselves why that would be a surprise, and work back towards integrating all the depth and breadth of the language of God into our songs and our worship.
Theologians, keep writing poetry. Poets, keep writing theology. I know I want to.