Why Students of the Bible Should Read Poetry

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Reposted with permission from Dispensational Pubishing House.

The following is an exert from A Christian’s Guide to Kipling, co-authored by Randy White and published by Trust House Publishers, a division of Dispensational Publishing.

I’m not the first to suggest that poetry is the supreme art. Philosophers and common-folk alike have come to this simple conclusion. While one may prefer the art of the canvas, created by paintbrush or camera, or the art of sculpture, created by clay, wood, or stone, I’m not talking about preference. I’m talking about the art that reigns supreme.

Setting aside all art save those related to words, I still believe that poetry is supreme. There are other word-based arts, of course. I regularly practice the art of oratory through preaching.  It is a combination of the spoken word and (hopefully) sound logic. I also frequently make use of the art of rhetoric in the written word, which is somewhat more limited in persuasion from oratory. The sights, sounds, and immediate feedback from oratory outshines the written word on almost every occasion. All of us love drama, in varying degrees, and drama is certainly a word-based art. But drama takes a stage, an actor, a script, and, more often than not, a cast.

Poetry, on the other hand, has the power of the spoken word though it is written on paper. Poetry can capture the imagination like drama, but, unlike drama, is portable. Poetry guides the mind, skillfully and painlessly, to a new vista of thinking. It can capture in words what we thought words couldn’t capture. Unlike the novel, it doesn’t take hundreds of pages. Poetry gets to the point, and never lingers too long. Poetry is like an invisible hand that guides you to the “ah ha!” moment, and then is mysteriously gone, but never forgotten.

I haven’t always liked poetry, and I still don’t like all poetry. Too many poems are just syrupy sweetness. Other poems are just a series of rhyming words with no real depth. But, now and then, a poet comes along who has the power to see it, say it, and indelibly print it in our mind.

Anyone who remembers the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy also remembers the words of President Reagan, spoken to the nation on the evening of the disaster. He spoke of the astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth, and touched the face of God,” using the words of John Magee, Jr.’s poem, “High Flight.” I have no doubt that the President’s words would have long been forgotten had he not captured the heart in these few, short, bright, vivid words.

Years ago, traveling to Eastern Europe to engage witnessing opportunities by teaching English for two weeks, I was surprised when our host told us that we would have a poetry night. I thought, “How insane! We can’t allow adults to stand in front of a group of other adults and recite poetry. They will think we’re crazy!”  What I quickly learned is that I was in a society that valued the art of poetry. When the poetry night came, all their friends and family came out, packed the room, and listened with delight as the students recited poetry, in English.

But our American society has outgrown poetry, it seems. We have become too masculine for a poem (though we’ve been sissified in almost every other aspect of life). As a Christian, a pastor, and a thinker, I think Christians need to revive the love for poetry. I think it would make us better Christians, and here’s why:

We are people of “the Book”

The Book, of course, is the Bible. The Bible is a book of words which we call the Word of God. Not only is the Bible itself filled with large portions of poetry (there is even a section we call “the poetic books”), but if we read poetry we will become better readers of words themselves. We will learn to savor the words, to feast on them. And this is what we are to do with the Word of God. Good poetry readers are more quick to understand the Bible than non-poetry readers.

We are witnessing people

Christians have Good News and want to share it. But we’re not always good at sharing it. And, many of the sharing opportunities that we have come in short bursts, not 30-minute time-slots. We have a few seconds here and a minute or two there in which a conversation is open to a witnessing opportunity. I believe that Christians will be far better equipped to capture the essence of our faith in a few, short, meaningful phrases if they are regular readers of poetry.

We are logic people

Much of the Christian world has left logic behind and fallen headlong into what I unpretentiously call the “stupid-trap.” This is a trap that ignores facts and follows feelings. It is the trap that gets us worked into a trance or stirred into a frenzy, but has no caloric value.  Good poetry is the art of mixing feeling with fact. Good poetry insists on sound logic, well-stated—which is exactly what the church needs more of today.

I hope you’ll become a poetry reader. You may, like me, fall in love with the words and thoughts of Kipling. He was no saint nor theologian, and I’m certain I wouldn’t invite him to teach a Sunday School class. But he was insightful and a master of words, which is why he remains the youngest Nobel Laureate in history. Whoever your favorite poet becomes, I hope you’ll gain a favorite. I hope you’ll find one who challenges the mind, and helps liberate it from dangerous ideas you didn’t even know were there. I hope poetry helps you read better, interpret better, and even understand and communicate the truths of God better.

Kipling’s Explorer heard the words of the collective “they” that stop most of us from following our heart, but the explorer ignored those words and pressed on to brave new worlds. May poetry take you on such an expedition.

“THERE’S no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”    

  So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—    

Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station    

  Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop.

It’s just the beginning of the tale, written in poetic form. And I hope you’ll find the rest (it’s in this book) and press on. Even if you don’t keep any of the findings (barring samples), you’ll have the contentment of knowing that your mind (if not your body) went on the journey.

Randy White bio

Randy White Ministries began in 2011 as an online and radio Bible teaching ministry. Today, the ministry is focused on producing verse-by-verse Bible teaching resources for individuals. White has 25 years of pastoral experience—including 12 years at First Baptist Church of Katy, Texas, where he ministered to a large congregation and preached numerous times each week.

Amen

The main thing I can add at this point is to note that (see 5th paragraph) it's not some poetry that Randy White dislikes. It's doggerel, words put together using poetic devices, but without any real depth of meaning or significance.


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