I have a love/hate relationship with poetry. My appreciation for the literary form swings on a pendulum between “Is there anything more beautiful than the crafting of words?” and “What in the world does this even mean and why did I waste my time reading it?” This is not necessarily due to a deficiency on the part of the poet but is oftentimes occasioned by my own limitations to appreciate the genre. In recent years, however, I have become more and more convinced of the need for believers to digest good poetry. If you object, I understand. I myself confess to have been more often asleep than awake in an introduction to English poetry course back in my sophomore year of college. But Christians don’t have the liberty to ignore the poetic form. Former poet laureate of California, Dana Gioia, puts it bluntly:
Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice. The fact that most Christians would consider that assertion absurd does not invalidate it. Their disagreement only demonstrates how remote the contemporary Church has become from its own origins. It also suggests that sacred poetry is so interwoven into the fabric of Scripture and worship as to become invisible. At the risk of offending most believers, it is necessary to state a simple but unacknowledged truth: It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry.
Following Gioia, I suggest four reasons why Christians need poetry. More than discovering a need for good poetry, I hope to awaken in you a love for it as well!
Our Book Is Poetic
The first reason is that the Bible is poetic. By this, I mean more than to say that the Bible contains poetry, which it does. It contains a lot, actually: one-third of the Scriptures could be classified as poetry. This includes books like Psalms and the Song of Songs, which are filled with remarkable Hebraic verse, but it extends into the New Testament as well with some of Christ’s teaching (think the Beatitudes), the canticles in Luke’s Gospel, and the Christ hymns of Philippians and Colossians. The biblical authors intentionally filled their pages with images, symbolism, metaphor, motifs, parallelism, alliteration, and assonance.
But we can widen our scope when we say that the Bible is poetic. Here we must affirm and admire the beauty, artistry, and sensitivity of expression with which the Bible is composed. Taken as a whole, Scripture is the premier work of literature, utilizing the greatest conventions of human language (the Westminster divines would speak of “the majesty of the style,” WCF 1.5) to capture our hearts and affections and draw us in love toward the Author. Consider how the Bible opens with the first Adam failing to attain for himself and all humanity the fruit of the tree of life. Thousands of years later, the apostle John closes out the canon with the second Adam granting access to the nations at long last to eat of that same tree. What is this but a Holy Spirit-inspired inclusio? Sometimes we see the theology but miss the poetry. We correctly call the pattern “typology” but forget to see that it is also artistry. The two are not mutually exclusive: the divine and human authors present to us soul-saving truth and do so in a beautiful way.
Our book is a poetic book, and we grow in our faith by reading it. So, we must come ready to read, and even love, poetry.
The Devotional Power of Poetry
The second reason we need poetry—and here particularly I think of sacred poetry, at times called devotional poetry—is because of the unique way in which it can unlock our minds to the things of God and elevate our souls nearer to him. “Poetic Expression . . . [has] a way of penetrating and detonating in the soul,” said Pastor Kent Hughes. How poetry does that is something of a mystery. Much could be said about the techniques of meter, rhyme, assonance, and so on. But when it comes to Christian devotional poetry—which aims to “awaken a greater love of God and desire to be like him”—some have simply concluded that it is a work of the Holy Spirit. For example, theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes that Christians do not need to be suspicious of the arts, particularly poetry, as a means of being drawn closer to God. “Distinctively literary devices need not be spurned: the Spirit can employ them and with them move the reader or hearer.” I would hasten to add that when we speak of the Spirit using something like poetry, it is not to suggest that our poems can give us new revelation. On the contrary, they can open our eyes to understand old revelation in a new way. For example, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Saying nothing more than this fundamental truth, Jacob Revius (1586–1658) is able to help us grasp it in a personal and affective way that we might not have otherwise:
No, it was not the Jews who crucified,
Nor who, Lord Jesus, spat into your face,
Nor who betrayed you in the judgment place,
Nor who with buffets struck you as you died.
No, it was not the soldiers fisted bold
Who lifted up the hammer and the nail,
Or raised the cross on Calvary’s curséd hill,
Or cast the dice to win your seamless robe.
I am the one, O Lord, who brought you there,
I am the heavy cross you had to bear,
I am the rope that bound you to the tree,
The whip, the nail, the hammer, and the spear,
The bloody, thorny crown you had to wear:
It was my sin, O Lord, it was for me.
Poetry can also help us reflect on truths we might not have fully considered before. John Donne makes the profound and punchy observation in Holy Sonnet 11 that “kings pardon, but He bore our punishment.” Even this single line provides ample food for sanctifying thought. Jesus: a king who goes above and beyond by going down to death below. Or consider how Emily Dickinson captures the themes of assurance and faith:
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
There is a reason engaging preachers often quote good hymns in their sermons: they recognize that verse has a way of connecting with the affections of those who are listening. George Herbert, the great British poet (and preacher himself!) of the sixteenth century, acknowledged this:
Poetry and Prayer
If devotional poetry is to draw us closer to God, then a third reason is similar to the second: Sacred poetry helps us speak to God. We often struggle to articulate our love for the Lord and all that he has done for us. The best place to turn when words fail us are God’s words in Holy Scripture, but great devotional poems can also shape our prayers. Retired Wheaton English professor Leland Ryken writes, “Acting as our representatives, poets say what we too wish to say, only they say it better.” Consider the personal language in these lines from the hymn “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” by Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed
With joy shall I lift up my head.
When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
Even then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.
Jesus, be endless praise to thee,
Whose boundless mercy hath for me—
For me a full atonement made,
An everlasting ransom paid.
While I did not write these words, I can say them. In fact, I would not have been able to say them unless someone else had written them. Yet, like the best of devotional poetry and hymnody, Zinzendorf’s words are so biblically solid and universally true of the Christian experience that any believer can bring them to God in prayer and truly say, “For me—for me!” We can “absorb” the language of devotional poetry “as expressions of what is in our own hearts.”
The Humbling Hand of Poetry
Finally, we need poetry because it humbles us—a most needed Christian virtue. It does so in at least two ways. First, it slows us down. One would think that the brevity of poetry would endear the art form to our twenty-first-century culture that likes everything fast and in bite size. But while poetry can at times be short, it’s rarely simple. It requires reflection and meditation. Our frustration with poetry is that, unlike most prose, it doesn’t make sense at first read and we don’t want to take the time to figure it out. I wonder if that is not the same reason so many of us struggle to read our Bibles, or to read them well? We are no longer accustomed to sitting and thinking over texts. The mind wired for Twitter—filled with pithy and punchy one-liners—needs to be retrained. Gioia puts it like this: “All that is necessary to revive Christian poetry is a change in attitude—a conviction that perfunctory and platitudinous language will not suffice.” Poetry slows us down and reminds us that wisdom requires time and reflection (Ps. 37:7–9; Prov. 21:5b).
Besides slowing us down, poetry also shrinks us down. It humbles us by revealing how small we really are before a massive world and an immense, eternal God. Without poetry, we might ignore the fact that some experiences in life are actually beyond our comprehension or understanding or articulation. Human nature flees from admitting its finitude; poetry embraces it. Devotional poetry can situate us in the sea of unspeakable sorrows, or in the pastures of God’s undeserved blessings. It helps us ask, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4). John Piper, a poet himself, says,
Paradoxically, poetry is an expression of the fact that there are great things that are inexpressible. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the depths of human experience and the capacities of language to capture that experience. There are experiences that go beyond the ability of language to express them. For the poet, this limitation of language does not produce silence; it produces poetry.
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
The Christian knows there is no language known to humanity that is sufficient to express the great things of God and the glories of the gospel. But poetry does the next best thing: it takes the poor language we have and enhances it. Through rhythm and rhyme, layers of meaning and shades of beauty are drawn out that bare words do not hold themselves. The skillful artist takes sounds and syntax and produces something remarkable for the believer: something that opens our eyes to God’s world and word, something that draws us closer to him in prayer, something that speaks to us at the deepest level.
Poetry makes our language better—and it makes us better, too.
Dana Gioia, “Christianity and Poetry,” First Things (August 2022), https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/08/christianity-and-poetry.Back
R. Kent Hughes, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 234.Back
Leland Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 14.Back
Jeremy S. Begbie, A Peculiar Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 122.Back
Jacob Revius, “He Bore Our Griefs,” trans. Henrietta ten Harmsel (1630).Back
Emily Dickinson, “I Never Saw a Moor” (1862).Back
George Herbert, “The Church-porch” in The Temple (1633).Back
It’s worth noting that this is the primary reason we at MR happily devote several pages each issue to poetry—some of which is written by readers just like you.Back
Leland Ryken, The Poetry of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2022), 94.Back
Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness,” trans. John Wesley (1739).Back
Ryken, The Poetry of Redemption, 94.Back
Gioia, “Christianity and Poetry.”Back
John Piper, “God Filled Your Bible with Poems,” Desiring God (blog), August 2016, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/god-filled-your-bible-with-poems.Back
Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) first translated the text from Latin into German, followed by Anglican vicar John Gambold into English in 1752, and then again by American Presbyterian minister James Waddel Alexander (1804–1859).Back