Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Necessity of Poetry in the Praise of God

Growing up, I didn't like poetry. I thought that a person should just say what he meant in a simple sentence that anyone could understand. "Get to your point," I felt. When in college, I minored in speech and took two semesters of oral interpretation. The first semester was all poetry. We memorized and performed poems. I couldn't wait until it was over. The teacher tried to persuade us of the importance of poetry, but I resisted. The college required two semesters of literature, English and American, a great deal of which was poetry. We called them English and American "monsterpieces." I think you get the picture. I disliked poetry.

I knew that if you were a Christian, you had to like poetry. I want to help you with that, to explain to you the necessity of poetry in the praise of God. We were created for the praise of God and poetry is indispensable to that. Why is poetry necessary?

1. The Psalms Are Poetry and Inspired by God

This is the most obvious reason. If you don't like poetry, you don't like the Psalms, because they are poetry. If God inspired poetry, then He too likes poetry. That would mean that if you didn't like poetry, you don't like something that God does like. None of us should expect God to change His taste, but we should alter ours to conform to His. We could stop here, but we will go on.

There are reasons, I believe, that God inspired poetry and likes poetry. We know He does because of the Psalms, but now I want us to think about why He inspired and likes poetry.

2. God Deserves Greatness and Skill

Four times Scripture says "great is the Lord and greatly to be praised" (1 Chron 16:25, Ps 48:1, 96:4, 145:3). God is great so deserves great praise. God wants skillful praise (1 Chron 15:22, Ps 33:3).

Psalm-like poetry requires skill. It requires great and skillful word choice and meter and metaphor. Poetry asks for more time and thought to put the words together. God is given that effort and He is worth it. We can write non-poetry and spend far less time to put the words together. Poetry makes us stop to get the word order and adjectives and verbs and nouns right. This pause is the essence of waiting on God, not moving ahead to get done, but slowing down to make sure that all the words work together.

3. To Understand Poetry about God, We Must Love God More with Our Minds

God should captivate the thoughts of those created in His image. To comprehend all of what a poem says, we must think over the words again and again. We must mull them over, regurgitate them in our minds, meditate upon them. Our flesh is repulsed by that kind of mental labor, but it will be the discipline of those who love God. We are to cast down imaginations that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5). On the other hand, we should embrace the imaginations that exalt the Lord God. With the exercise of poetry, we are afforded the opportunity to love God with our minds. The thoughts required to ascertain even one line of poetry will yield more and more truth about Him.

4. The Form of Poetry Mirrors Attributes of God

The symmetry and structure of poetry fits the character of God. God is a God of order. A certain mathematical precision exists in poetry that aligns itself with the nature of God. Since God's Word was settled in heaven before the foundation of the world, God invented poetry. Poetry exists because God exists, and poetry as a form reveals something about God that no other form can.

Poetry and Good Poetry

As I talk about poetry, I hesitate to call all poetry, well, poetry. It reminds me of the debate about culture---does it reflect reality or cause it? We should start with the form and content of what God calls poetry. That would reveal to us something about God and, therefore, about beauty. What is lovely is defined by God (Philippians 4:8). With objective truth, which comes from God, comes objective beauty. Psalm 96:9 says that it is the beauty of His holiness. True beauty is separated unto God, affiliated with His majesty. We would find that represented in His creation and in His Word, God's revelation of Himself.

In biblical poetry, the psalms, we see creation and biblical history used as figures of speech, the descriptors that reflect the symmetry and substance of God. Good poetry will contain those same reflectors of God's majesty. God defines beauty.

In the history of English literature, both British and American, good poetry has strong similarities with the poetry of the poetic books of scripture. They provide the elements of good poetry. We can judge the quality of the poems by their parallel with God's Word.

Poetry that is offered as praise to God should be good poetry. The best English poetry was written previous to the 20th century. Today we might not identify with that poetry. We might not even like it. However, for praise we should change our taste to what reflects what we know God wants to hear. These poems are being offered to God as worship. They should be the best. Perhaps some poems today are like those poems. We do well to consider this.

We shouldn't care what people like. Worship is what God wants. What He wants is the best, and the older English poetry in content and form is superior to almost all of the modern. For this reason among others, our church sings out of the Trinity Hymnal, Baptist edition, and the Comprehensive Psalter. The former has the best English poetry in a hymnal and the latter are the best versification of the Hebrew Psalms.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.


David J. Warner said...

If Christians came to understand
The wall between the prose too free
And words of poetry so grand,
O how better would God's worship be!

Gary Webb said...

Good, sanctified thoughts brother Brandenburg. Enjoyed it.
Here is a question for you. A major part of poetry is the beauty of the way words sound when put together. One element of that in English poetry is rhyme. I know that the Hebrew Scriptures give attention to the beauty of words put together in sentences, particularly in the poetic books (I had to memorize some portions of the psalms in my Hebrew class), but does Hebrew use rhyme like English does?
I realize that rhyme is perhaps not a great literary element (even the rappers use rhyme), but it is a nice and also effective element when used well.

d4v34x said...

Well, I simply can't amen this enough. Especially the part about poetry being a better avenue to love God with all our minds. I don't think Christians and their educational institutions consider the proper development (or even defining) of the imagination nearly enough.

As far as Hebrew poetry, it doesn't rhyme like the English, nor is it strictly metrical. My understanding is that it may be closer to what we call syllabics today. But I'd be open to correction on that.

Your comments here indicate I'd probably appreciate a wider scope of poetry
styles than you might even call poetry, but for worship, I think we have to continue in the tradition of our forbears--meaning dealing in meter and some form of rhyme--although those two alone do not poetry make, nor are they necessary to poetry.

I'm pleased to see conservative Christians (yourself, Chris Anderson, some of the Religious Affections guys) taking up the poetry/hymnwriting cause.

d4v34x said...

Also, do you know is the Trinity Hymnal out of print? Amazon only seems to have used copies.

philipians2511 said...

D4, I believe this the hymnal:

I may be wrong although.

Very well written post Mr. B. Thanks for sharing.

Respectfully Submitted,

Br. Steve

Gal. 2.20