Two poets and a professor on the place of poetry in the Church
John Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet whose work has won the CBC Radio Literary Competition, among numerous others, and been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
D.S. Martin is poet-in-residence at McMaster Divinity College, author of four poetry collections and series editor for the Poiema Poetry Series. He has been posting weekly samples of Christian poetry from the past and present at www.KingdomPoets.Blogspot.com since 2010.
Deborah Bowen is professor emerita of English at Redeemer University and codirector of a national Christianity and Literature Study Group.
MARIANNE JONES: Does poetry have a place in the Church? Many Christians would perceive it as a specialized interest, of no relevance to the Great Commission. How would you respond to those opinions?
JOHN TERPSTRA: Poetry has a place in the Church. A big place. It’s always had a big place. There is poetry in the hymns and songs that are sung. There is poetry in the Scripture that is read. It’s too obvious to mention the Psalms, but there is also poetry in the letters of Paul. Think of his "Love is…" passage. There is poetry in the creeds and doctrines. Think of the Apostles’ Creed. If we’re lucky, there will be poetry in the words that come from the liturgist and the preacher too.
D.S. MARTIN: When God chose how He was going to communicate with humanity, He chose the spoken word and the written word – and a large proportion of that communication was in the form of poetry. Are we so naive as to think we can read Scripture effectively if we’ve never learned how to read poetry? I know I read the Bible differently because I am a reader of poetry than I otherwise would. Christ’s enigmatic, seemingly contradictory statements in the New Testament make no sense if you only read things literally.
If God wanted to simply give us an answer book, He would have. He gave us a book of poetry and story so we would have to work out its meaning in the context of our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Poetry causes us to slow down. People in our society don’t often have patience for either poetry or for true spirituality.
DEBORAH BOWEN: I think when Christians see poetry as elitist or irrelevant, they forget how much poetry is wordsin Scripture! The psalms, for instance, but also the canticles and songs of the New Testament, as well as large chunks of other books like Isaiah and a number of the other prophetic books.
We need to remember that poetry is a genre of literature with a particular part to play in bringing richness and clarity to deep imaginative understandings of the Christian way and the Christian God. These days I think non-Christians, and especially young people, will often be touched by the poetry in songs and stories, even before they quite realize Who might be speaking there.
JONES: Traditionally the evangelical church has been suspicious of the arts and artists. Why do you think that is?
TERPSTRA: The Church has been suspicious of poets and poets have been suspicious of the Church. They both have every right to be. It’s a leap of faith asking a poet to write something for Sunday morning. It stretches both the poet and the people. It’s asking the poet to respect the liturgy, the work going on at that time and in that place, and yet feel free to let the writing go where the words, and Word, say to go. It’s asking that the people allow that freedom and trust.
MARTIN: The distrust might have arisen because good poetry does not tell you what to think, but draws you into experiences, and some church leaders in the past wanted to control the dialogue. Some might have considered the arts to be superfluous and some might have been intimidated by language they didn’t quickly comprehend. It is important that people think for themselves and become at home wrestling with mystery. That’s where a deeper Christian life arises from and that’s where the arts come in to serve the Church.
BOWEN: I actually always found this rather odd, perhaps because I didn’t grow up in a Christian home.
I did, however, go to an Anglican high school in the U.K. where I quickly met the richness of imagery, stained glass, poetry, music and rhetoric in liturgy and in gorgeous old churches. This meant that the arts seemed to me, almost by definition, to speak to and about God.
Why have Evangelicals been fearful of the arts? I suspect because with the Reformation there was such a strong emphasis on doctrinal and propositional truth, and an anxiety about mystery and the imagination as potentially misleading.
I think that in the present day almost the opposite is the case! People are more willing to recognize that Rational Man has been proven to be far from being the measure of all things. Indeed, it may be that human beings are more able to accept their littleness, and their partiality, and their relativity, and therefore to accept mystery as truth. When that is the case, the arts can become a key means of enlightenment.
JONES: Do poets serve a type of prophetic function?
MARTIN: Yes, I do see a prophetic function for poets, although primarily as forthtellers rather than foretellers. Poets can tell stories, or paint pictures, or ask questions that cause readers to stop and think. Where preachers usually tell people what to think, Christian poets are asking people to think for themselves under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word.
BOWEN: Yes, absolutely. Insofar as prophecy requires clear-sightedness, some recognition of layers of meaning that may not be as apparent to people with less vision, I think poets are one of God’s agencies for speaking truth, and wisdom and insight to our culture. This is true not only of avowedly Christian poets, moreover, but also of any poet who sees truly both what is beautiful and what is terrible in the world.
JONES: What do you consider good poetry?
TERPSTRA: Poetry in one definition is simply words said or written in a memorable way. They speak to the heart, mind and spirit. They enjoy their work, which is a form of play. They dance before the Lord and in the ears of God’s people.
MARTIN: I believe that good poetry is finely crafted precise language that speaks of things that matter. Sometimes this is done through interesting imagery, sometimes using a traditional form, and sometimes through free verse that might play with musical language. I love so many different poets for different reasons. I love the complexity of a poet like the great Canadian Margaret Avison. I love the simplicity of a poet like Mary Oliver. I love poets such as R. S. Thomas who are always wrestling with God, and poets such as Luci Shaw who seem to be sitting at Jesus’ feet and soaking up the joy of His presence.
BOWEN: Fresh imagery. Powerful use of the resources of language to rhyme, to echo, to create sound patterns that emphasize the thought behind them. Spareness of language that is rich because it’s so astute and acute. Resonant play with shape and sound. Good poetry makes me see in new ways, and remember what I’ve heard and seen.
JONES: What are some practical ways in which the Church can embrace poetry?
TERPSTRA: Give a poet a job. Ask them to write something in response to, or based on, a passage of scripture. For a particular Sunday. Then let them read it, aloud, on that Sunday. Perhaps accompanied by piano. And go from there.
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MARTIN: I think poetry and other art forms should be acknowledged as valuable wherever possible. A poem could be included in the bulletin, or sent out electronically prior to a sermon as something to reflect on. If people feel they are expected to read it, and it is something that challenges their thinking, this can be really valuable. The church library could include poetry anthologies and collections by some of the most overtly Christian contemporary poets – such as Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw or Nathaniel Lee Hansen. Poetry can be presented in services or pastors can refer to poems in the course of their sermons. This requires pastors to read beyond commentaries and theology. Pastors who are open to broadening their thinking, and desire to encourage themselves and their congregations to go deeper, will find that poetry is an enriching and enjoyable way to make this happen.
BOWEN: Perhaps making people aware of poetry in the Bible, and of poetry in the hymns and songs, would be a gentle start. Why does the Bible use poetry? What difference would it make if the Psalms were in prose? Could they be?
And then get anyone interested in poetry in a local church to introduce snippets of favourite poems here and there, in prayers, in talks, in items for the church newspaper, etc.
And then find out who the local poets are who are either writing overtly as Christians, or writing about an important local or global issue that the Church wants to consider (environmental issues, refugee issues, issues around [Indigenous Peoples] – and get these poets to come and share their work.
JONES: Thank you, all.
Marianne Jones is a writer and award-winning poet in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Dipping a toe into poetry
BY D. S. MARTIN
Want to invite a little poetry into your life? Check out one of these anthologies:
- The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Poets Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry (Cascade, 2016)
- Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse: 39 Contemporary Poets on the Characters of the Bible (Cascade, 2017).
- Poetry as Liturgy: An Anthology by Canadian Poets (St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2007)
Or purchase one of these collections which are brief and not intimidating:
Or seek out a recording of a Christian poet, for example on SoundCloud.com or YouTube.com: