The Preacher and the Poets: Some Thoughts

Roger Wagner

Ordained Servant: April 2007

The Importance of Reading Poetry

Also in this issue

Editorial: Preaching and Poetry: Learning the Power of Speech

Short Notices

Presbyterian Prayer Book

When we hear a reference to "preachers and poets," our thoughts are taken almost immediately to the message of Paul to the Areopagus recorded in Acts 17. The apostle declared,

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

     "In him we live and move and have our being;"

as even some of your own poets have said,

     "For we are indeed his offspring."

Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (vs. 24-29).

Here Paul quotes from Aratus and (probably) from Epimenides of Crete, whom he also cites as authority for his low view of Cretans in Titus 1:12 ("Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.").

Most scholars assume that Paul was well-versed (!) in the learning of the Greeks (though F. W. Farrar thinks that Paul's citations would have been so generally known in his day that Paul might have picked up the quotations without specific literary studies). In any case, Paul here makes use of the formal parallels between the quotation from Aratus and the pervasive teaching of Scripture regarding the immanence of God: " 'Am I only a God nearby,' declares the LORD, 'and not a God far away?' " (Jer. 23:23 NIV; cf. Isa. 57:15).

Building Bridges to the Audience

But why quote the poets? The apostle uses the words of the Greek poets to express the truth of the biblical revelation in order to build a bridge to his audience. Paul uses the poets because they are familiar to his audience. Their mention will evoke a response of recognition and assent. Further, the poets had an acknowledged authority for the Greeks—they were considered by many to be prophets. In earlier days the poets claimed divine inspiration. Though the intellectuals to whom Paul was speaking would have been skeptical about such claims, the poets nevertheless enjoyed the authority of tradition. When they aphoristically set forth what was taken to be self-evidently true, as in the case of these two citations, they would have elicited a knowing nod from the audience.

Every age has its "poets"—cultural spokesmen who are acknowledged authorities and familiar voices. In some ages and cultures these poets are considered authorities in and of themselves. More often they bear the authority of tradition or consensus. It behooves the preacher to be able to make use of these "voices" (where appropriate) just as Paul used his knowledge of pagan Greek and Roman literature to build bridges to his audience.

Given the general state of American education, contemporary audiences cannot be expected to possess much knowledge of the rich tradition of poetry in their own language (not to mention poetry in translation). The illustrative quotations and allusions to the great poetic expressions of bygone days—evident, for example, in the sermons of the nineteenth and early twentieth century—can no longer be assumed to strike a familiar, assenting note from our hearers. (Sprinkling our sermons with unfamiliar or hard to follow quotations simply to display our erudition defeats the purpose of effective communication.)

Yet there are "poetic" voices within our contemporary culture whose familiarity prompts recognition. If the preacher is aware of them, he can speak with their voice to connect with his audience and to convey the biblical message in fresh ways, allowing his audience to understand the truth and assent to it. Appeal to them has the force of confirming the preacher's words in the experience of the hearers.

Most of these contemporary poets are singer-songwriters—Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, et. al. Their music is everywhere, and people (especially young people) memorize their lyrics without even trying. (I once observed to a Christian rock singer that he had the advantage over me as a preacher in that his audience knew his sermons by heart!) A biblical truth which can be paralleled by a statement from a popular poet, does not thereby gain authority (or explication), but rather is made to strike a familiar, responsive chord in the mind of the hearers.

When Paul Simon sang, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all" (not very elegant, but it communicates) tens of thousands of students knew (or thought they knew) exactly what he was talking about. Could one better express the futility of worldly wisdom—"always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7)?

Springsteen expresses the broken promises of teenage sexual sin:

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress. ("The River")

Lines like these put the warnings of Proverbs (e.g., 5:5) into contemporary dress, and they communicate powerfully to today's audiences.

Or how about Bob Dylan's chilling portrait of autonomous man?

Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies....

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play,
He wants it all and he wants it his way. ("Jokerman")

When we move outside the doors of our church buildings (do we do that?), use of the poets of the age is also a means of building credibility with a skeptical audience. It helps persuade the audience that the preacher is willing to listen honestly to, and consider, the ideas that are held by the audience. Too often preachers come across to an unbelieving audience as ignorant or facilely dismissive of their own ideas. As a matter of fact, that is what many object to when they complain of being "preached at." To be sure, false ideas about God, man, society, sin, and redemption must ultimately be rejected in favor of the Bible's teaching, but it is important in speaking to "the children of this age" that we let them know that we understand their position, have considered carefully their view, and have been compelled to turn from it to Christ, not out of prejudice but for good and sufficient reasons.

Paul's understanding of Athenian idolatry was clear (v. 16), but he did not lay himself open to the criticism of being an ignorant, prejudiced opponent of Greek ideas. He had done his homework—"as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship" (Acts 17:23). His later use of the quotations from the Greek poets had the same effect. It built credibility. Our understanding and judicious use of the cultural expressions of today can have the same effect when we address a secularized audience.

Distilling the Truth into Striking, Memorable Expression

Is the tradition of English verse then lost to us in our illiterate society? No. Reading poetry has much value beyond the citation of poems as sermon illustrations.

Exposure to poetry can help us learn to think and experience life differently. It can help us develop an eye for the telling, affective detail. What reader of Wordsworth will ever look at a field of daffodils again without seeing them "tossing their heads in sprightly dance" and smiling at their "jocund company?"

Poetry can also help us cultivate what we might call an "aphoristic appetite"—the satisfaction we find in being able to comprehend a world of experience in a brief, resonant statement. The authors of the biblical wisdom literature were as concerned with their form of expression as they were the content. In the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes, we read of its author:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. (Eccl. 12:9-10)

Or, as Alexander Pope put it,

True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed. ("Essay on Criticism")

Poetry has as one of its basic devices this kind of "compression." What a wealth of human experience and emotion—love, loss, patriotism, and futility—is expressed in the lines of Rupert Brooke, who perished during "the Great War."

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. ("The Soldier")

Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein uses the famous line from Shakespeare "Juliet is the sun" to illustrate how this compression works to create metaphor (and poetic resonance and affect).

What if we were to construct a logical progression that would "normalize" Shakespeare's metaphor? We could say:

There is a human being called Juliet
There is a star called the sun
The human being called Juliet is radiant
A star called the sun is radiant
[hence: ]
The human being called Juliet is like a star called the sun in respect to radiance.

Perfectly logical. Now come the transformations, which are all deletions, as you might have known; we delete all those logical but unnecessary steps that are built into the deep structure of any comparison, and wind up with our conclusive simile, Juliet is like the sun, which is true in one respect only, that they are both radiant. We then make the final, supreme deletion of the word like, and behold, our simile is transformed into a metaphor. Juliet is the sun. This is that. (The Unanswered Question, 124)

The biblical "sayings of the wise" often have this aphoristic character. The sage has thought long and hard (from the perspective of "special revelation," the truth revealed in Scripture) about a wealth of experience ("general revelation") and then tries to convey to his student ("my son") the distillation of that reflection in the form of a wise saying.

Under three things the earth trembles;
under four it cannot bear up:
a slave when he becomes king,
and a fool when he is filled with food;
an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress. (Prov. 30:21-23)

As preachers we ought to be in search of such "words of delight" in which to express biblical truth to our congregations.

Much of our labor as preachers is expository—unpacking and explaining the meaning of the statements of Scripture. But there is much value in being able also to repackage complex truths in simple, memorable sayings. For example, Philipp Nicolai has compressed the content of many a sermon on John 15 into three memorable and moving lines:

In thy blest body let me be,
E'en as the branch is in the tree,
Thy life my life supplying. ("How Lovely Shines the Morning Star!" Trinity Hymnal Revised #515)

Even if we believe we have little aptitude for such "compression," reading poetry can help us condition our thinking in that direction. Our sermons will be enriched if, at points of summary especially, we can succinctly express what we've just explained in such delightful words of truth.

Poetry Will Change You

All this sounds more utilitarian than I want it to be. In the end, I would commend the reading of poetry to the preacher, not because you are a preacher, but because you are a man—and a man being transformed in the likeness of Jesus, the new Man. Poetry is a humane art. It is a uniquely human expression, and it makes its readers more human. As such it will also make us better Christians, since Christianity is the true humanism.

But for many of us such reading may be a lot like eating our vegetables—we must be forced to eat them because "they are good for us" long before we develop a taste that will take pleasure in them. Poetry is an acquired taste. (Some of you may have had your first exposure from teachers that guaranteed that you would hate poetry evermore!) Appreciation only comes with exposure, and usually concentrated exposure, to accustom the reader to poetry's pleasures.

Let me whet your appetite. Consider the religious poetry of George Herbert (1593-1633). His "Love (III)" speaks affectingly of the soul's simple devotion to Christ, who is Love personified.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Here's another especially for preachers, whom Herbert compares to the stained-glass windows of the church building:

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preachers; then the light and glorie
More rev'rend grows, & more doth win:
Which else shows watrish, bleak, & thin.
Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the eare, not conscience ring. ("The Windows")

"Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one"—how often at my prayers, or in the pulpit, has that line come to mind to remind me of my high and holy calling as a minister of the Word. And I am humbled.

Here's one more, just for fun, from Herbert's older contemporary, John Donne (1572-1631)—the conclusion of a poem about dying, with its fears and the consolation of the gospel.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down." ("Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness")

For Further Reading

Last month you were encouraged to read some good fiction. Now I'm asking you to add some poetry to your reading list. You may never read theology again!

You can't beat The Oxford Book of English Verse to get started. You should be able to pick up a copy of the 1919 edition, edited by A. T. Quiller-Couch, in a used book store for $10 or so. A great investment! (You can even find it online at www.bartleby.com/101/, but reading poetry on the computer screen, except in an emergency, is no fun.) This anthology includes selections from 1250-1918 (and includes a few English-speaking Americans!). It's great for "dipping into" as Quiller-Couch expressed his preference for the shorter forms in his collection (if you want Paradise Lost, you can find it elsewhere). There is also an Oxford Book of American Verse, and there are "New" Oxford books of verse, but they cost $50+ and are not so readily available second-hand).

Alfred A. Knopf has published the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. These are wonderful little hardback books (they will fit in your pocket, if you wish) on individual poets (Donne, Herbert, Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, etc.) or interesting collections (Christmas Poems, Garden Poems, Love Poems, Poems of Mourning, etc.) and list for only $12.50 new.

I would also recommend A Sacrifice of Praise (Nashville: Cumberland House, 1999), edited by James H. Trott (with an introduction by Larry Woiwode). This is an "Anthology of Christian Poetry from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century" arranged chronologically by period with some introductory notes on each section.

Roger Wagner is the pastor of Bayview OPC in Chula Vista, California. Ordained Servant, April 2007.

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Ordained Servant: April 2007

The Importance of Reading Poetry

Also in this issue

Editorial: Preaching and Poetry: Learning the Power of Speech

Short Notices

Presbyterian Prayer Book

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