Poetry and the Arts Hangover

Skier 2I know very little about poetry. Except for the smattering of T. S. Elliot and Edgar Allan Poe in high school, the limericks I read as a kid on the elementary school restroom stalls, and the occasional forays into bad haiku, I really don’t know much about it.

There is a young lady at our church, a poet.  In fact, she is such a good poet, she can actually call herself a poet and nobody seems to think that is odd in any way.

I asked her to explain poetry to me once, and her response was a little mind blowing.  She patiently explained that the intent of the arts is to express ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed using words.  The thing about poetry is that you have to use words to express that which cannot be expressed using words.  So the poet employs forms and devices like rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, simile, and other stylistic elements to achieve their art.

In our discussion, our senior pastor, who is a fan of poetry (can you call people who enjoy poetry “fans”?), introduced me to Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate and one of the more accessible poets today.  In fact, I encourage you to hit the link here to some fascinating videos of Billy Collins reading his poetry.

I share this because I was at another worship conference recently, teaching a workshop on faith and the arts.   In my introductory remarks, I asked a question, “Are the arts an important value in your churches?”  Sadly, there were just a handful of people who raised their hands.

During the workshop, I was trying to find an analogy for the church without the arts—and without the artist—and I came up with this one.  Imagine the Bible without the book of Psalms, the Song of Solomon, most of the book of Isaiah, Revelation, all of Jesus’ parables, and a bunch of other stuff.  The stuff that is poetic and picturesque and metaphorical and beautiful.  The stuff that is…art.

The remaining Bible would be informative and factual.  But it would lack soul.  And much more, I think.

Here is the thing.  The protestant church is still suffering from an arts hangover that can be traced all the way back to the Reformation.  In our post-Gutenberg era, there is an unspoken suspicion—or maybe even a distrust—of the arts in the church.  Even in this current age of drums, drama, and digital video, Sunday morning still centers around the idea that God primarily speaks to us through a person standing behind a pulpit, meticulously dissecting the Bible, like a surgeon looking for a tumor.

In one of his poems, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins explains his motive: he wants the readers of his poetry to “water ski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.” But he laments that people only want to deconstruct his poetry, analyze it, and pull the soul out of it.  “But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.”

Why are poetry and other artistic literary elements such a large part of the Bible?  Maybe because the message of the Bible is a mystery, something larger than mere words can explain.  Maybe poetry and other prose can better express the Truth of the Bible, and the heart of God.  Maybe it is through our artistic expressions that the fullness of the Gospel can be more fully expressed.  And maybe because, I am led to believe, God is a big fan of poetry.

Of course, I’m still thinking this one through.  Your dialogue is appreciated.

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