On October 3 and 10 Relief poetry editor Tania Runyan visited EIC Brad Fruhauff’s intro to poetry class. After some great discussion, the students had more questions, which Tania agreed to respond to in blog form here. Today's topic is actually the reverse of our title, into which I hope you will obligingly add a "should." Q: Why do you think Christians don't read poetry?
During the average American's life, poetry makes a sporadic appearance at best: the third-grade haiku assignment, the friend's awkward open mic, the epic inauguration poem on TV. And that's about it. But the Christian, who follows a book composed of ninety percent narrative and poetry and only ten percent direct instruction, loves to read poetry and finds daily sustenance in imaginative, metaphorically rich language—the very kind of writing God used over thousands of years to tell his story of redemption.
In today's evangelical church, poetry, if thought about at all, is often seen as the enemy: a stuffy, confusing, even threatening distraction from the mission. When there are souls to save, why mess with a string of flowery words that just make people feel dumb? Why risk a poet saying something controversial or non-family friendly? Get to the point—the gospel—before it's too late, and get people on track to Jesus.
I get this. I've read some poems in church, have gotten a few smiles and nods. But even I don't really push to "get the arts back into the church" anymore. We've got people dealing with addictions and job loss, marriages hanging by a thread, teen moms worried about winter coats for their toddlers. We've got people who have never been to a church in their lives walking through the doors. Poetry seems impractical for such a time as this.
The problem is that God himself is impractical. What other deity became a zygote, slid through a birth canal among animals, and lived a vagabond life with outcasts hanging on his robe? He could have just laid down a salvation plan and given us a few life tips, like what we find in that instructive ten percent of the Bible that many of us have allowed to rule our faith. But our hearts, our spiritual imaginations, wither for lack of the other ninety. Even the more literary parts of the Bible are often taught as law with little room for personal connection or interpretation.
It's not Christians' fault that Christians don't read poetry. We have not been provided with models for using poetry for spiritual formation. Instead of merely presenting poetry as a novelty to make church more edgy or relevant, we should consider how we can teach our brothers and sisters to dig into the poems of the Bible for the richness they offer. What does it really feel like to lie down in a green pasture? Do you remember the tickle of grass on your back, the drone of nearby bees? What does a cup running over sound like, feel like on your tired skin? For a time, don't worry about answering questions, "applying it to your life" or closing the book with three "takeaway" points. Breathe in the incarnation of God's word and allow the images to teach what they will.
With time and practice, all poetry--whether in the Bible or not--can become important to Christians, as it once was for hundreds of years. Living, playing, and praying in its spaces can strengthen our emotional attachment to God. It can light our imagination with the Spirit's wind-blown ways. And, perhaps above all, it can draw nonbelievers to the mystery and beauty of our most impractical Jesus.
Tania Runyan is poetry for Relief. She is also an editor for Everyday Poems and the author of two books of poetry.