November 20, 2022


CHRISTIANITY AND POETRY (Dana Gioia, August 2022, First Things)

Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice. The fact that most Christians would consider that assertion absurd does not invalidate it. Their disagreement only demonstrates how remote the contemporary Church has become from its own origins. It also suggests that sacred poetry is so interwoven into the fabric of Scripture and worship as to become invisible. At the risk of offending most believers, it is necessary to state a simple but ­unacknowledged truth: It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry. [...]

No believer can ignore the curious fact that one-third of the Bible is written in verse. Sacred poetry is not confined to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations. The prophetic books are written mostly in verse. The wisdom books--­Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes--are all poems, each in a different genre. There are also poetic passages in the five books of Moses and the later histories. Prose passages suddenly break into lyric celebrations or lamentations to mark important events.

When David, triumphant in battle, learns that Saul and Jonathan have perished, he mourns his beloved opponents and cries out, "The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: How are the mighty fallen!" His lament unfolds into one of the great elegies in the Western canon. The Old Testament is full of such lyric moments, often spoken by women who use poetry to voice their deepest feelings. When the widowed Ruth begs to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi, she expresses herself in words that transform the emotional nature of the narrative. Until now the two women have just been figures in an old story; suddenly they come alive as loving and suffering human beings:

For whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be ­buried:
The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

These ancient Hebrew and Aramaic poems remain vividly present in English--and not only for Christians--because the King James Bible had the good fortune to be translated in the age of Shakespeare. Commissioned by James I for the Church of England, the so-called "Authorized Version" was published in 1611. The translators took special care to convey the poetic power of the verse passages. The English Renaissance was not an age of prose. No book has had a more profound effect on English-language poetry, and it still shapes the Christian liturgy, even for Catholics, though they tried to deny it.

Posted by at November 20, 2022 12:00 AM