Why We Need Bible Poetry

William Blake-Psalms

Illustration by William Blake; Edited to include Psalms cover page

In my last post, I made the case that by His own choice, God needs Man. You may want to read that if you haven’t already. In any case, I will briefly explain what that had to do with Bible poetry, and how it led to this post.

Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all focused mainly on the literal teachings of the Bible. However, the non-literal parts are equally, if not more important. While explaining how God needs Christians, I had to rely heavily on a parable and a paradox. Since paradoxes are neither literal nor logical, literalists generally try to avoid them. Thus, my study of why God needs us indirectly supported the idea that we need not only the literal teachings, but also the literature of the Bible.

If you’ve been reading other posts on this blog, you may have noticed that I’m against biblical literalism. My purpose is not to be argumentative or divisive, but quite the opposite. I want to help unite Christians in terms of how we understand the Bible. Unity in doctrines and beliefs will eventually lead to real unity.

In this post, I’ll use words like “stories,” “literature,” and “poetry” somewhat interchangeably. Each is a form of literature, and each stands in contrast to literal statements. In addition, we often find that stories and narrative accounts in the Bible are structured in a poetic fashion.

Are the Bible’s Literal Words More Important Than the Stories?

More specifically, I will respond to the this question:

Since Scripture passages containing stories, poems, and figures of speech seldom make a direct, literal point, are they less important than the literal passages?

My position, as stated earlier, is that regardless of whether the Bible expresses an idea literally or in figurative language, truth is truth.

Here are some reasons why we should pay close attention to the Bible’s literature, not only to the literal statements:

  1. The Bible mainly consists of stories and poetry, not propositional truth statements.
  2. God communicates to us through His Word in non-literal ways, especially through typology in the Law, imagery in the psalms, symbolism in the prophets, and parables in the gospels.
  3. Like most people in ancient times, the Hebrews saw poetry as the language of the Universe, not merely as a quaint pastime. This point is substantiated not only in Return to Genesis, but also in James Jordan’s book, Through New Eyes.

The authors of the Bible would have had no problem expressing ideas in literal terms. Instead, God inspired them to create figurative and poetic language.

Even the physical Universe takes shape in patterns as matter and energy obey the laws of physics. The Bible also contains patterns and symbols that we describe as poetry, though it’s not like western poetry.

As you probably know, the Bible contains great literature. Even the historical accounts don’t only recount facts, but trigger our imaginations in deliberate ways. The Bible’s authors wove experiences and ideas into lively tapestries that subtly reveal the underlying providence and wisdom of God. In the process, they made use of creative elements such as paradox, poetry, parallelism, personification, metaphor, analogy, anthropomorphism, irony, hyperbole, and symbolism.

I intentionally listed “paradox” first because God expects every Christian to understand that reality is often paradoxical. Our need to accept that two seemingly contradictory truths can both be true begins with our faith in the unity and trinity of God, and in the humanity and divinity of Christ.

Jesus intended for us to take His every word seriously, without devaluing His use of parables and other non-literal communication methods. Jesus also recognized and appreciated Old Testament metaphors and allegories, such as the symbolism behind the three days and nights that Jonah spent in the belly of a whale (Matt. 12:40).

In written form, this all comes under the rubric of literature. Since God, in the person of Jesus Christ, appreciated inspired literature, you may be wondering…

Why Literalists Don’t Appreciate the Bible as Literature

Poetry-Marcantonio Raimondi 251x300

Again, Christians with a literalist mindset generally neglect the Bible’s literary forms and expressions. They ascribe more value to the intellectual content than to that which appeals to their imagination. They do so despite the fact that the Bible’s literature can and should contribute immensely to our understanding of biblical theology.

 

Poetry by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534)

Christian literalists dislike the very term, “Bible literature.” They seem to think that this term somehow makes the Bible comparable to, say, Shakespearean literature.

If they were to apply the same faulty reasoning to their belief that the Bible presents mainly propositional truths, that must make the Bible like other nonfiction books!

In fact, that’s their objective, isn’t it?… To present the Bible as a book that contains no errors of any kind, and that is in full conformity with our modern sense of reason and logic. I believe the atheist movement today is, in large part, an understandable reaction to these absurd ideas.

Since literalistic Christians understand God to be a supremely rational Being, they feel that the Bible must be reducible to an academic textbook. From this perspective, the poetry and literature can only be there to accommodate readers by appealing to our baser instincts, which are more emotional than rational.

Literalists devalue creative, emotive, and aesthetic elements of the Bible because they perceive them to be carnal, sensual, fictional, and/or mystical. However, none of this is necessarily true. Obviously, literature—especially that of the Bible—is not inherently sinful.

Fundamentalist or literalist Christians don’t like to bring creativity to their theological studies. They see themselves as “rational” people who isolate and analyze the literal truths of the Bible.

Literalists can’t deny that Jesus and other biblical figures came up with creative insights based on allegorical interpretations. They attribute this to divine inspiration, but insist that we not do theology that way today. However, if we’re beyond that, shouldn’t Jesus have also been beyond it?

Biblical literalism is a modern phenomenon that, without a doubt, was influenced by the rise of the scientific method. The question is…

Does God Want Us to Always Study the Bible in a Literalistic Way?

Biblical literalists seek to discover the mind of God in the Bible. In the process, however, they have substantially missed out on the heart of God. The mind of God is conveyed primarily through the literal and intellectual content, and the heart of God through the imaginative content, which we find in the poetry and other literary expressions.

We may also think of the literal and non-literal passages of the Bible as being comparable to latitude and longitude. Navigators need both measures to plot their location on the earth. In like manner, we need to understand both the literal and literary elements of the Bible to know our place in the world, in relation to Heaven.

In my experience, I’ve found the Bible’s literal statements to be like trees, and the literary-poetic language to be like the forest. Poetry gives structure to the text, and thereby helps us see the big picture. In fact, the Bible’ many “word pictures” convey much more information than what we might have gained from literal explanations.

The phenomenon of biblical literalism reminds me of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. When given the choice to receive either knowledge or life with God, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Given the connection between knowledge and power, this was a choice between grasping for power and an immediate reward, or choosing to grow through their relationship with God, in His time.

I can explain in only two sentences how biblical literalism is related to the Fall. Biblical literalists bring an Enlightenment perspective to the Bible. The Enlightenment is comparable to Adam and Eve’s Fall because it enshrined the falsehood that Man no longer needed God, whether it be for knowledge, power, wealth, or anything else.

I’m not pointing a finger only at biblical literalists. We’ve all been indoctrinated into Enlightenment views of knowledge and reality. To one degree or another, we’ve all been literalists.

Biblical literalism has turned out to be little more than a fig leaf covering serious doctrinal errors. Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist Christians have used it to selectively choose what they want to believe in the Bible. They freely criticize Christians who find analogies, allegories, and metaphors in the Bible, yet they themselves find such language where they will!

Biblical literalists often present themselves as sole defenders of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. In practice, however, that isn’t their foremost concern. They selectively comb the Bible for literal passages that appeal to their intellects and square with their presuppositions. These, they distill into assertions or propositions. Such statements may be included in doctrinal statements and systematic theologies, and may also be highly flammable fuel for arguments and divisions within the body of Christ.

Summary of My Views

As I had mentioned, I’m opposed to biblical literalism because I’m both for a more complete understanding of the Bible, and for Christian unity. I am (and we all should be) particularly sensitive to sources of strife and division. Biblical literalists tend to be dividers. However, by no means are they as doctrinally correct as they imagine themselves to be.

Any statement of belief that is not fully true can easily become a source of strife and division. As one example, the statement, “God doesn’t need anyone,” seems to be undeniable. Nonetheless, as we learned from the earlier post, it isn’t fully true.

I do believe in taking the literal words of the Bible literally, and in affirming essential beliefs through doctrines and confessions. Therefore, to make my position explicit: Anyone who begins to minimize the Bible’s literature has gone too far.

We all need to better appreciate the Bible’s literary and poetic elements. They help us understand that God doesn’t only issue decrees and judgments, but fully identifies with humanity, even in such mundane activities as wordplay and storytelling.

God became fully incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, but He has always manifested Himself through people, especially the writers who labored to give us the literature of the Bible. What better way to find true inspiration than in knowing how God inspired them!

Far from being mundane or expendable, Bible poetry and symbolism is heavenly, powerful, and needful. It is, after all, the language of creation, and of prophecy.

We can’t be good theologians (and we’re all theologians) if we continue to neglect the Bible’s literature. The more I research the phenomenon of biblical literalism, the more convinced I’ve become of this. You can read more of my thoughts about biblical literalism in the free download that you can receive by signing up to my newsletter.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts below, and to share this post with others.

  • Justin Foster

    Wow, powerful insights yet again. Thanks again for your diligent study!!

    What resources would you recommend in getting deeper into the Scriptures in a more rounded manner?

    • Martin

      Thank you, Justin. The first resource that I can sincerely recommend is my book, Return to Genesis. It’s not entirely about Bible poetry, but you’ll see a lot of poetry from Matthew 24 and Genesis outlined and explained in chapters 8 and 14-21. My book will also will teach you about some of the Bible’s symbolism, and the practical implications of understanding the Bible this way. You may have received chapter 17 as a free download from this website.

      I also like almost everything that James B. Jordan has produced, though we disagree in some areas. You can find J.J.’s book, Through New Eyes at http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/pdf/jjne.pdf

      I think the primary benefit of learning about the Bible’s poetry and symbolism is that we gain a better understanding of prophecy. I’ve collected some articles on that topic at http://www.scoop.it/t/bible-prophecy

      If you want, you can also read some proverbs and psalms to find out how they created the poetry. Two popular forms are parallelisms and chiasms.