Over the years I’ve heard countless ministers, ministers-in-training, and even divinity-school professors tell me, often quite cheerfully, that they just don’t “get” poetry. Ancient theology, modern novels, academic philosophy so fanged and rebarbative it would make a layman’s brain bleed—no problem. But slip a sonnet into the mix and the gears grind to a stop.
On one hand, this makes sense. Poetry is a particular way of thinking. It enacts and enables meanings rather than (or often in addition to) expressing them. It requires a kind of non-utilitarian intelligence, a “willingness to exist among doubts and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats famously put it. This can be confusing to anyone combing Scripture for a “message” and an actual impediment to religious scholars systematically supporting some thesis.
On the other hand, roughly one third of the Old Testament is poetry, at times as bristly and semantically layered as any high-modernist text; and much of the New Testament, including some of its crucial moments (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), consists of quotations or references to these ancient poems. It would seem, then, that if you can’t read poetry, a great part of the Bible is going to remain closed to you.
And indeed this is just what Michael Edwards says in The Bible and Poetry, a short but hugely ambitious book whose aim is essentially to correct the course of Christianity. (Edwards, the only Englishman ever elected to the Académie Francaise, is a winningly candid Christian and interprets Scripture in that context.) Poetic illiteracy, according to Edwards, is not simply an individual problem but an institutional one. Christianity has developed as a religion of precepts and articles of faith. It has been defined and determined by systematic theology, an enterprise that Edwards believes—from Aquinas to Calvin and right through the present day—is simply an “error.” There is, he thinks, a reason that God chooses poetry to speak to us. Understanding this reason might not only lead to spiritual consolation and clarity for the individual believer but might even begin to heal some of our deep divisions.
Take Communion, for instance, to which Edwards devotes a full chapter. He knows and quickly dismisses all the well-known historical and theological disputes, homing in on Jesus’ words “This is my body.” Protestants, he says, have diminished the strength of the verb in Jesus’ pronouncement, whereas Catholics have overinterpreted the phrase and allowed customs (the prayer of consecration, the insistence that communion require a presiding priest, etc.) to restrict and occlude the original significance, and both misunderstandings are the result of not reading the text poetically.
Neither Jesus in the gospels nor Paul in Corinthians elucidates “This is my body” at all, Edwards points out, and this “gives us an astonishing and salutary hermeneutical lesson.” We don’t have to literalize the act in ways that demean both it and us (exactly what part of Jesus’ body are we munching on?), and we don’t have to diminish the mystery by turning the act into a merely mental experience. “The words of Jesus are clear and secret, clear about the unheard-of gift that is given to us—hear him say to us, ‘This is my body… This is my blood’—and secret because of the transcendence of his divinity.” We are meant to inhabit the act without fully understanding it.
Or consider these lines from the Book of Job, when Job is cursing the night of his conception: “Let the stars of its twilight be dark; / let it look for light, but have none; / nor gaze on the eyelids of the dawn.” Edwards points out that Job, “in looking on the abyss of his sufferings,” experiences a nostalgic sense of wonder at creation that sends a kind of lightning flash through that total darkness. Is this a moment of faith, perhaps, even hope? Might it change how we read Job’s whole stance to God—and God’s to Job, as God presumably enables this relief—and thus our theological sense of the whole story?