An important reflection, readers:
Christianity and Poetry
by Dana Gioia
When I became a man, I put away childish things.
—St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13
Most Christians misunderstand the relationship of poetry to their faith. They consider it an admirable but minor aspect of religious practice—elegant verbal decoration in honor of the divine. They recognize poetry’s place in worship. Congregations need hymns, and the Psalms should be recited. A few cultured believers even advocate the spiritual benefits of reading religious verse. But most Christians have a more practical and morally urgent sense of their faith. Who has time for poetry when so many important things need to be done? Art is a luxury, perhaps even a distraction, not a necessity. Gird up thy loins like a grown-up and put away childish things, including the charming frippery of verse. Such attitudes misconstrue both poetry and worship. Christianity may be many things, but it is not prosaic.
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.
Why should anyone believe such a claim? Let’s start with Scripture, the universal foundation of Christianity. 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.