One night after reading Psalm 119, I felt like telling David, “Okay, I get the point!” I realized, though, that I did not, in fact, get the point. David wrote this long of a Psalm because he truly loved God and His Word not because it was the ‘right thing to do,’ and yet, in my own worship, I so often acted and still act just out of a sense of duty. This often carries through into poetry and encourages me, and other Christian poets, to think I should make it look like I have it all together, but in my opinion, such thinking comes out of pride and selfishness and misses the whole point of Christian poetry. Before we decide if my opinion is correct, we must understand what Christian poetry really is. How should Christians attempt to write poems? What examples do we find in the Bible? I would like to make the argument that true Christian poetry is first vulnerable, then other-focused, and finally exhibits an attitude of prayer.
Though all good poetry shares the characteristic of vulnerability, this attribute becomes especially important in Christian poetics. We, as Christians, must obey the command in Colossians 3:9 to “. . .not lie to one another,” and this includes not trying to put on a front. Even in Psalm 119 itself, David admits he has not reached perfection. He begins verse nine by asking, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” and earlier, in verse five, prays, “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” A lack of vulnerability does not only break God’s command to not lie but also His instruction to love your neighbor as yourself. In his article “How To Think Like A Poet,” Ryan Wilson speaks on the topic of “xenia, or ‘hospitality.’” He writes that, “Our minds are, in a sense, hosts, and the world outside the mind is a stranger.” If this is true, it should change how we think about loving our neighbor through poetry. Using the language of hospitality, when we write as though our lives are better than they really are, it is as if we are asking our guests to make themselves at home, without feeling at home ourselves. Instead of making them comfortable, we make our guests feel as if they too have to pretend to be at a level of perfection they have not reached. Unless we let our ugliness show, our readers will not let us reach their own ugliness and we will dishonor God by both lying to our neighbors and not loving them as He has commanded.
Along with vulnerability, Christian poets should exhibit a self-forgetful focus on others in their writing. This is not to say that Christian poets should forget about themselves entirely, for as Dorothy Sayers writes in “Towards a Christian Aesthetics,” true poetry comes from a poet’s experiences, events from the poet’s life that he has seized and integrated “into himself.” I mean that the poet should not write about how he reacts to these experiences, which would cause his audience to feel sorry, happy, or some other emotion for him. Rather, he should write about these experiences themselves, which would cause the readers to feel these emotions and, “recognise that experience as” their “own” (Sayers). For example, one might write an entire poem in second person about how happy ‘you’ feel when seeing a puppy and at the same time write in a much more self-focused way than he would if he wrote in first person about this puppy’s wagging tail and warm tongue. An other-focused style actually reflects Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve” (from Mark 10:45). Steven R. Guthrie directly connects God’s gifts to us and our artistic gifts to others throughout his article “Created for Creativity.” Once, he says, “The Spirit is the Gift who gives gifts, in order to make us givers.” If this is true, then the experiences Sayers speaks of are really gifts from the Holy Spirit, and our self-focus in writing poetry not only steals an experience from our readers but also robs the glory of that experience from God Himself.
Any poem can show both vulnerability and a focus on others, but only Christian poems can and must be prayerful. I do not mean that every poem written by a Christian must address God or even say anything remotely religious. I mean that every Christian poet should build in himself and in his writing an attitude of prayer. Our lack of vulnerability and self-focus come out of the much larger problem of prayerlessness. When we try to make ourselves look better than we are, we show a lack of trust in God. When we become self-focused, regardless of weather we are vulnerable or not, we continue showing this lack of trust. Both the poem that affirms that everything is wonderful when everything is not and the poem that makes a reader feel sorry for the writer or for himself come from an attitude that says, “I must reach perfection on my own,” and this is the main reason why no true Christian poem can fall into either of these ditches. The Psalmist wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Christian poetry should always have God in view and should show trust in God in the situations the poet experiences on a daily basis. This does not only honor God but also encourages the reader. As Paul said, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
So now we return to my first statement that making our lives seem perfect in our writing when they are not loses the whole point of Christian poetry. Like trying to put on a front when hosting a guest, so this type of writing is dishonest and unfriendly. It cannot cause the audience to feel anything, since we ourselves do not feel it. God does not want us to put on our shiny masks and pretend like everything is perfect. He shows us through His Word that He desires honesty, however painful, and that poetry, in its purest form, can serve as prayer. Only by starting with an attitude facing Christ and trusting Him, can we write true Christian poetry and live a true Christian life. Shall we always love God and His Word enough to write a poem as long as Psalm 119? No, but Christ does not require this of us. He requires us to come to Him with a broken-heart and ask Him to give us that kind of love. What is more, He promises us in His Word, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6B).
The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments. ESV Text ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. Print.
Guthrie, Stevan. “Created for Creativity.” The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts, and Public Affairs, Easter 2016, http://thecresset.org/2016/Easter/Guthrie_E16.html. Accessed 31 October 2016.
Sayers, Dorothy. “Toward a Christian Aesthetic.” The New Orpheus: Essays Toward a Christian Poetics, edited by Nathan Scott Jr., Sheed and Ward, 1964, pp. 3-20.
Wilson, Ryan. “How to Think Like a Poet.” Dappled Things, Lent/Easter 2015, http://dappledthings.org/7507/how-to-think-like-a-poet/. Accessed 31 October 2016.