How can we apply the poetry of Scripture to the Christian life? Dr. Scott Redd explains how poetry in Scripture applies to the Christian life and helps us have a more complete view of God.
How can we apply the poetry of Scripture to the Christian life? That’s a really good question, because I think in the Christian life, we often ignore the fact that God has revealed himself in this art form that is called poetry. We talk a lot about the teachings of Paul’s letters—particularly the Reformed tradition—the propositional truths of Scripture. And yet, I think we often miss the fact that the vast majority of the prophetic writings of the wisdom literature that we have in Scripture, it’s all in poetry. The worship of the Psalter, it’s all in the form of poetry. And that says something about our God who reveals himself to us in a way that’s intelligible and compelling to humans and to the human reader. And that he does it in this art form way. So what is poetry? Why is it of value to us? How does it speak to a different aspect of our faith than maybe the propositional truths do?
Poetry Involves the Whole Person
Poetry engages the body. And why is that important? Because we are embodied people.One thing that’s commonly acknowledged about poetry is that poetry involves the whole of the person. As soon as you introduce a meter of some kind, whether it’s iambic pentameter in English verse or some other meter, we have some kind of beat—you have some kind of beat. What happens? It’s more than just ideas now that are on display, but you’re having a bodily response on display. We see the same thing with rhyme or with consonants. We have similar words. The first Psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 1:1 begins with the word ashrei-ha’ish asher: “Blessed is the man who.” You can hear the sounds—the “ah,” the “sh,” the “r”—good poetry plays with sounds so that you’re not just articulating ideas, but that those ideas are being articulated in a way that is memorable. As a matter of fact, once you hear good poetry, it’s hard to unhear good poetry. This isn’t just an art, either. This is also in all of our favorite advertising slogans, too. People use sounds like “Built Ford tough.” Look at all the plays on the “b,” the “f,” the “t” sound, the “d” sound that you see come out of that kind of slogan. So poetry engages the body. And why is that important? Because we are embodied people. God’s Word is not just intellectual, right? God’s Word comes to us in a written form. It comes to us linguistically. We can even say comes to us artfully.
Poetry in the Christian Life
Now, how is that important for the Christian life? I think it reminds us that God does care about the whole of the person, that articulating our theology, articulating our beliefs merely in the form of indicative statements may not go as far as Scripture is willing to go on talking about the truth of God’s Word. So art—an artful expression—whether that’s in the preached Word, whether that’s in Christian poetry or Christian art, that’s an expression of our faith that goes all the way back to the foundation of our faith, that is, the Scriptures themselves. God engages with us in ways that are artful. And poetry can do things that other kinds of speech forms can’t. Poetry has vivid pictures and imagery and metaphor—has this kind of way of what literary critics call “defamiliarizing ideas,” so that an idea that may seem obvious is said in a slightly different way so that we see it anew.
Poetry and Our View of God
You know, it’s not poetry, but I think of that story where the prophet comes to convict David of his sin. And he doesn’t just come in and tell David, “Listen, you’ve committed this sin,” but what does he do? He tells him a story about a man who had just one lamb, one new lamb, and that lamb was stolen by an exploitative and abusive rich lamb owner, you know, rich shepherd. And it’s an abuse on this other man. God engages with us in ways that are artful.And suddenly, David, through seeing the story of his own life, told in a slightly estranged or defamiliarized way, he suddenly could see it afresh and he could see what he’s done. It’s similar to how we don’t just say that God is great, but we talk about how the creation sings his praises. We talk about how he comes in the thundercloud and his glory can be seen in the glory of the sun. See, this kind of poetic language heightens and lifts our experience of God’s Word and of our own worship.
So I’d say, what does poetry do? What is it? What’s the implication that it has for the Christian life? It tells us that our God cares about the whole of the human. Not just the ideas, but actually the beauty, the dignity, the emotional response that we have to him in worship. And not only that. He reveals himself in such a way that gives us a deep, vivid picture of who he is: not merely a kind of logical syllogism. It’s good for us to remember that, that God calls us not only to acknowledging the truth about him, but also calls us to recognizing the beauty and the glory of him.