Is it not significant that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets?Eugene Peterson
It has been estimated that over half of the Bible is poetry. This means that anyone who spends any time with God’s word is inevitably going to spend time reading poetry. Learning to read poetry, then, is essential for learning to better read God’s word. It took me a while to learn this simple truth, and to be convinced of it. But I am now. I am convinced that learning to read and appreciate poetry is essential to learning to read and treasure God’s word. And, for me, learning to read poetry outside the Bible has been invaluable to my learning to read the poetry found in the Bible. But spending time with poetry outside the Bible has helped to deepen my reading of the Bible in other ways, too. I thought I would share a few of those ways here.
First, reading poetry has taught me to slow down. You can’t read poetry fast. Or you shouldn’t. It would be like driving the scenic blue ridge parkway as fast as you can – it misses the point. You might as well choose a route that is more direct and with a higher speed limit. When you drive along the blue ridge parkway, you focus as much on the journey as the destination. You might pull over at some of the scenic overlooks. You might slow down when you spot a deer or a bear. You pay attention to the drive itself, and you don’t worry about when you will arrive at your destination. The same applies to reading a poem, or a passage from scripture. Something important happens when you learn to slow down, and pay attention to what you are experiencing as you read God’s word. If a particular word or phrase speaks to you, to continue the analogy, you pull over. (Or, to put it in scriptural terms, you “turn aside”). You spend a little time with it. You keep your eyes open for those happy, holy surprises. Just like the deer or bear at the edge of the road, you only see them if you are paying attention. Reading poetry has taught me to pay attention. And this has helped deepen my reading of scripture.
Second, poetry has taught me to be patient with passages of the Bible that I don’t immediately understand. And, to be honest, there are a lot of them! But I have found that to be true with poetry, too! So, what I have learned is that if I don’t immediately understand something that I am reading, I shouldn’t give up. One of my favorite Christian writers, Eugene Peterson, who was a strong advocate of poetry, makes the point that “you have to read the poem three times before you start getting the hang of it.” And I have found that to be true. And it is true of a psalm, too. And of the parables that Jesus teaches. And of almost any passage in scripture that I can think of – you have to read it three times before you start getting the hang of it. So, I’ve learned to spend time with whatever passage of scripture I am reading. I’ll read it out loud, or I’ll write it out. I’ll take breaks from it, and go back to it often. I’ll study it, too, but not to “finish” reading it (as if we can ever “finish” reading God’s word!) I do all of these things to deepen my experience of reading it, and maybe even – hopefully? – to be changed by it.
And this brings me to my third point: poetry, like scripture, does not simply offer us information – it offers to transform us. To quote Eugene Peterson once more: “We do not have more information after we read a poem. We have more experience.” And I have found this to be true with scripture, too. I don’t necessarily have more information after I have read a passage of scripture. The truth is that whatever passage of scripture I am reading, I am probably re-reading, so how can it give me more information? But, just like re-reading a favorite book, or watching again a favorite movie or tv show, or coming back to a favorite poem, every time I open the Bible I am opening myself to a transformative encounter, to an experience that just might change me. “Be transformed,” scripture reminds us, “by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) Spending time with poetry has helped me to be more open to this possibility whenever I approach God’s word.
I could share other ways that reading poetry has helped me to deepen my reading of the Bible, but I think that these are enough for now. And I could share other spiritual practices that have helped me to be transformed by God’s word, but that would be better in another post. The purpose of this post is simply to offer a few ways that reading poetry has helped me in my life as a Christians, and to commend this practice to you.
And it seems only right that I conclude this reflection with a poem, so here is one to share with you. It is a poem by Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” This poem can be interpreted as being a poem about poetry, but it could just as easily be thought of as a poem about God’s word. And it can be read it as a wonderful explanation of why God’s word contains so much poetry. This poem can be interpreted in these ways, but doing that would make the reading of it more about information. So, instead of interpreting it, I simply invite you to read it, to spend some time with it, and to experience it for yourself – to discover for yourself its slanted truth, and maybe even to be changed by it. And then? Take that same approach to the Bible, and be changed by it, too. Here is Emily Dickinson’s poem:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind —