I will admit upfront I’m biased. I was an English Literature major and Creative Writing minor in college. I love literature. I’ve tried my hand at poetry at times (not sure how successfully). But we live and breath poetry. Therefore, why not read poetry? I’ll give you five reasons why Christians especially should read poetry.
1. God speaks through poetry.
God’s very words were spoken through poetry. And if God loves to to share his word through this format then why not learn to love and understand it? God creates us in his image and provides us with the innate desire to imitate him in his creation and providence. Therefore, when we read God’s Scripture especially the sections of poetry, our hearts are moved to imitate him. Many of us do this in different ways but I would urge you to read poetry so that when God speaks in verse you can better appreciate the art. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to pastors preach and completely miss the point of a passage because although they have a vast knowledge of Scripture they don’t understand literature. They don’t understand poetry--which leads me to my second point.
2. Poetry develops your skills at understanding and interpreting Scripture.
Reading poetry develops your skills at understanding and interpreting Scripture. If you aren’t reading other literature and especially poetry, chances are you’re missing the point of much of what you’re reading in Scripture. Just search and listen to a sermon series on the Song of Solomon and you will see what I mean. If you can, why not take a literature class at your local community college? Or better yet get onto iTunes U and find a class for FREE! Seriously. Go under iTunes U and search for poetry. You can find classes on poetry from Yale, Emery, Liberty, Stanford, or Oxford. Or just pick up a poetry anthology. I would recommend The Best American Poetry series. They put an anthology out every year with the best of the best.
3. Poetry assists in seeing the world through a Christian worldview.
As christians we should see everything through the lens of Jesus Christ. He is our portion and our hope. We must learn to see how the gospel translates into every day living. Poetry asks important and penetrating questions about life. If you can read poetry and apply the gospel to the questions being asked and answered in it then you will succeed in doing the same in your own life and relationships. Herman Bavinck writes,
It is not the sparkling firmament, nor mighty nature, nor any prince or genius of the earth, nor any philosopher or artist, but the Son of man that is the highest revelation of God. Christ is the Word become flesh, which in the beginning was with God and which was God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Image of God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person; who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In that faith the Christian stands. He has learned to know God in the person of Jesus Christ whom God has sent. God Himself, who said that the light should shine out of the darkness, is the One who has shined in His heart in order to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
But from this high vantage point the Christian looks around him, forwards, backwards,and to all sides. And if, in doing so, in the light of the knowledge of God, which he owes to Christ, he lets his eyes linger on nature and on history, on heaven and on earth, then he discovers traces everywhere of that same God whom he has learned to know and to worship in Christ as his Father. The Sun of righteousness opens up a wonderful vista to him which stretches out to the ends of the earth. By its light he sees backwards into the night of past times, and by it he penetrates through to the future of all things. Ahead of him and behind the horizon is clear, even though the sky is often obscured by clouds.
The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind. He looks over the whole earth and reckons it all his own, because he is Christ's and Christ is God's (1 Corinthians 3:21–23). He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.
Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans, 1956), 36–38.
4. Poetry connects with the gospel story.
In the history of this world, the storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are central. Unbeknownst to many secular poets, these same categories are used within their poems. Read a poem and ask yourself whether it’s addressing:
- The value of humanity and creation (creation)
- The brokenness, suffering, and pain of this world (fall)
- The transformation of sinners (redemption)
- The big questions of life (consummation)
I wonder if you could find a poem that doesn’t touch down on one of these gospel themes.
5. Poetry creates human solidarity.
Poetry mirrors humanity in way which help you empathize, love, and care for your neighbors. It creates solidarity. For instance, James Weldon Johnson was an African American who wrote from the perspective of his culture. He wrote about the suffering and discrimination he and others experience. One collection of poems God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse is written in the style of African American preaching, yet you can hardly read through these poetical sermons without getting caught up in the “preaching”--because Johnson hits notes of humanity that we can all relate too. In one of these poems “The Prodigal Son,” Johnson writes,
Your arm’s too short to box with God.
But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn’t give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,
But ev’ry young man,
Is one of these two sons. . . .
When you’re mingling with the crowd in Babylon—
Drinking the wine of Babylon—
Running with the women of Babylon—
You forget about God, and you laugh at Death.
Today you’ve got the strength of a bull in your neck
And the strength of a bear in your arms,
But some o’ these days, some o’ these days,
You’ll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,
And Death is bound to win.
Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father.
Aren’t we all prodigals in one way or another? Doesn’t that sense of lostness resonate with everyone at some point in life? Because poetry mirrors humanity in these ways, it creates solidarity. One more example. Look at the Christian tradition of hymnody. The best and most lasting of these verses survive because although the verse itself may have been written many centuries before, the themes which they touch on are themes at the very heart of humanity.
Poetry is the air we breath. God made creation and it moves in rhythm. It was made with excellence. It was made beautifully. You can say I love you. Or you can write a sonnet. A well crafted poem to say I love you rings true of beauty and affection in a way mere words cannot. They plumb the depth of what love is. Poetry is words on fire. For this reason, poetry can be part of our daily gospel liturgy. It reminds us of truths that are expressed best with poetic words (think of “Amazing Grace” and they way it resonates with people). It unites us with others in joy and suffering. Jesus commands us to teach the world to obey everything he commanded. When the gospel brings people from death to life, some of those new creatures will take up pens and proclaim the greatness of God through poetry.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and offers freelance editing and book formatting services. His family is covenant members at Downtown Presbyterian Church.