“Whoever has ears let him hear,” Jesus says. But what if God is speaking a language that’s imperceptible to us, and what if we have made ourselves deaf to his voice?
It’s frightening to imagine that we’d be unable to understand God speaking to us. Yet Jesus warns his disciples that unless they can interpret parables—unless they can interpret figurative speech—they will not hear the revelation of God. In his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination, David Lyle Jeffrey—distinguished professor of literature and the humanities at Baylor University—offers a key to understanding God’s words. Jeffrey argues, “Jesus implies that his purpose in using fictive, figural, and enigmatic discourse is to conceal as well as reveal, so that only one who truly seeks his meaning will find it.” To hear God speak, we must attune our ears to poetry.
“God is a poet,” Jeffrey reminds us. “How he speaks, not just what he says, becomes an important measure of who he is.” The content of the message may be lost if a listener doesn’t attend to the form. In the case of God’s Word, Jeffrey explains, “Very often . . . [God] speaks like a poet.” Turn to your Bible and test Jeffrey’s claim: When you read the Scriptures aloud, how often do you hear figurative language? Think of the Hebraic patterns in the narratives found in Genesis, the poetry of the Psalms, most obviously, come to mind and the Proverbs, the lover in Song of Solomon, God speaking to Isaiah and Ezekiel in poetry, the parables of Jesus and so forth. Because of the primacy of poetry in Scripture, knowledge of God partially rests on our ability to read and understand poetry.
High and Holy
Jeffrey recognizes that the majority of his readers don’t spend much time listening to or enjoying poetry. More than 30 years ago, the renowned poet Dana Gioia asked, “Can Poetry Matter?” noting that Americans tend to assume poetry’s irrelevance. “Even if poetry continues to be written,” Gioia writes, “it has retreated from the center of literary life.” Reading poetry seems like a distant and elite pastime, one observed by New Yorkers in berets or hipsters in East Austin. Jeffrey acknowledges the temptation to regard poetry as inaccessible to the masses.
Poetry reinvests us in the significance of and reverence due to words, especially the Word.
However, the highness of poetry should be one of the reasons we commit to reading it. From Jeffrey’s vantage point, the elevated style of poetry reinforces the holiness of its content. In this way, poetry may be set apart from daily speech; it may grapple with mystery, and the listener may grasp the weightiness of its substance. “In the kingdom of God and for the sake above all of our worship of God,” Jeffrey advises, “we need poetic art: art allows us a special access to the holy; it is a handmaiden to faith.” Like Sunday set apart from the rest of the week as a holy time that reminds observers of their eternal nature, so poetry reinvests us in the significance of and reverence due to words, especially the Word.
Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination charts a course through the history of English poetry, reacquainting readers with poets from Caedmon to Anthony Hecht who have been influenced by Scripture and who wrote in response to God’s poetry. It shows us many past goods and beauties that shouldn’t be lost. In this way, Jeffrey’s book acts as a piece of translation, passing on cultural memory, showing us where, in our tradition, we’ve stepped off the path—and thus, how to return to ourselves. Jeffrey claims:
If we are to enable a future for imaginative life after our collective addiction to the internet has exhausted its power to anesthetize, we will need somehow to remember “what things were like before“—before poetry withered under the pressure of so many cheap substitutes for its rich nourishment of heart and mind.
Poetry after the Reformation
Jeffrey spends the second half of the book discussing “After Reformation” and the trends among Reformation humanists to uplift the “self as authority and arbiter of moral obligation.” These, of course, were “unintended consequences” of the Reformation, yet they profoundly affect the output from Romantic and Enlightenment writers up until modernity. If we read John Donne and George Herbert in early Reformation England, we will experience faithful Christian writing, but the poetry has turned toward the personal. Donne writes poetry of confession, penitence, and desire for salvation, whereas Herbert writes prayers and reads these poems to congregants in his home as a method of pastoral care. The poetic epics of Dante or Chaucer—which grapple with theology, politics, and church as institution—have been gradually replaced with the more introspective uses of poetry.
Rather than spend any time on the heresies of Romantic poetry (my sentiment, not necessarily his), Jeffrey jumps from the 17th century to the moderns who inherit the false vision of self-referential poetry. He quotes John MacMurray’s caution from his 1953–1954 Gifford Lectures:
Firstly modern philosophy takes the Self as its starting point . . . and that secondly the Self is an individual in isolation. . . . The Self so premised is a thinker in search of knowledge, namely instrumental useful information.
With such assumptions about the Self, why would anyone read poetry? Worse yet, those who produce poetry with these presuppositions about the isolated nature of the individual will inevitably write obscure, expressive nonsense. Jeffrey simplifies the modern motto: “The meaning for you—is up to you.”
Perhaps this explains why poetry has fallen so out of fashion. As Jeffrey notes, “A modern poet feels necessarily outside any viable public vision.” If we’re alienated makers of meaning, we have no responsibility to our reader, no passion for anything above or outside our frame of reference, no authority governing our moral judgments. Jeffrey laments, “One of the few dilemmas for modern poets is that their audience knows fewer and fewer words. It has, moreover, cut itself off from conversations with the past.”
Yet, there is hope, even among the modern poets, and now in contemporary English poetry. Those poems that seek to express “a form for the personal as relationship” and that provoke “not merely private experience but also shared memory” will thus give us back “some portion of common vision. Such poetry becomes a road home.”
Urgency of Poetry
In a piece in Image: Journal of Religion and the Arts, Katherine Willis Pershey argues that “in this world of war crimes and car commercials, poems quietly but firmly insist on drawing our attention to matters of ordinary beauty and ultimate importance.”
Poetry gives name to ineffable mysteries. When the ordinary word feels like the dull hum of an overheated monitor, poetry breaks through, like divine intervention, so that we can hear again who God is and who we are. Without poetry, we may be fated to talk like computers in code, like advertisers in meaningless slogans, or like animals in barks and growls. Poetry elevates us to our place as creative creatures in a created order.
If, as Jeffrey reminds us, God is the “originary Poet—the One who writes the world,” then we must learn to hear poetry. Else we risk being those who, Jesus warned, will have eyes but see not and have ears but hear not.