I have quite a few friends who don’t like musicals. Their reason? “They are unrealistic – people don’t just break into song.” My friends can’t understand the need for such out-of-the-ordinary behavior; they find it off-putting and weird.
Song – and, by extension, poetry in general – is weird, with its rhymes, meter, metaphors, and flowery language. Why can’t authors simply write what they want to say in a straightforward manner? What’s wrong with neatly organized sentences in logically arranged paragraphs? Honestly, nothing. And everything. Sometimes, prose is just not enough.
If you don’t believe me, open your Bible to Psalms. There are 150 of them, 150 individual poems detailing the speaker’s relationship with his God. Even if we stopped there and did not include all the other poems sung by prophets or new mothers, we can make a strong case for the need for God’s people to speak to him and about him in poetic form, to utilize the weirdness of poetry to express that which goes far beyond the normal or mundane. If poetry elevates its subject, we could also say the reverse: the subject, in this case, the Most High God, elevates the language.
When my son was very little, he heard the opening of Genesis in church: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He turned to me and said, “That sounds like a song, like God wrote a song.” Indeed, God’s great creative act, through his word, was a supreme form of poetry in which the Creator turns his own language into reality. C. S. Lewis plays with this idea in The Magician’s Nephew, where the Lion sings Narnia into existence. Thus, as God’s only creatures gifted with language, we should find it quite natural to follow his lead.
Take, for example, the poem that Simeon sings when the infant Christ is presented in the temple in Luke 2:28-32:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Simeon paints a wonderful picture that points not only toward his own relationship with God but also prophesies the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation for all peoples. Where others might see merely a little baby, Simeon sees “salvation,” “a light for revelation . . . and for glory.” The impact of Simeon’s epiphany – for himself and for the world – cannot be properly communicated in prose; it needs a higher form of language.
The sheer number of poems in the Bible should clue us into its extraordinary power as a conveyer of truth about our Father and our Savior. Believers have continued for hundreds of years to use poetry and song to respond to their Lord, in short lyrics such as the medieval “Ye That Passen by the Way,” where the crucified Christ asks the passersby to look at “a spear all thru my side / To mine heart is made a wound,” to the epic Paradise Lost. Short or long, these poems were widely read by the Christians of their day.
Our problem today is that readers often have difficulty navigating poems without a GPS, or Great Poetry System, leaving them lost in some seemingly weird worlds. Fearful of poetry, they simply veer away from it, but, in so doing, they miss out on so many truly beautiful expressions of faith and gratitude. Believe it or not, poetry follows the same grammar rules that regulate prose; with time and patience, readers can experience for themselves what the poets so generously share with them when they suddenly burst into song.