November 22, 2013

Heart and Soul: Theology

This article continues our occasional series on how some of the finer points of human existence relate to our great, all-knowing, all-wise, all-endowed, and all-giving God. The series seeks to elaborate on how artistic areas of our lives and talent do reflect, and may even more effectively declare, the genius of their Source and Giver. We pursue this goal through expert contributions that include some of Seventh-day Adventism’s best artists, writers, musicians, architects, and others. At the Adventist Review we specifically wish to demonstrate our common cause with God’s many gifted agents and representatives, whose conscientious dedication to their craft and Creator qualifies them to uniquely appreciate and critique what we consider to be a highly necessary endeavor, and one we pray is proving highly valuable as well.

“Poetry is a vehicle of praise, exhortation, meditation and understanding. Let us read it, recite it, study it, memorize it, and where the Spirit leads, write it to Christ’s glory” (James H. Trott, in A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English From Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century).

God is a poet. I hope you think that’s good news, but if not, hang in there. For those of you who already like (at least some) poetry, you may unbuckle your seat belts and walk around the cabin.

God the Poet

First off, on what grounds am I claiming that God is a poet? As we know, He is a creative being—Creator is one of His names—and this quality must naturally influence His use of language. Exhibit A is the astounding creative process in which He spoke words to create a world. We can also infer it from the extensive use of poetry in the Bible; from Jesus’ liberal use of story and metaphor—“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matt. 13:34). Besides, there is His extensive quoting from Old Testament poetry.

Furthermore, God created human beings with the capacity to love words, to love the way things are said, to take pleasure in shaping words to create a beautiful form, a pithy insight. This we can infer from the fact that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26, 27), and that our most exalted language has been praise to God in song, prayer, and poetry.

Human beings have been given the privilege of being creative with language from the beginning. Adam’s first poetry writing assignment was to name the animals. I want to ask him how he did it. When we played four square in my early elementary school years, half the fun was hitting the ball; the other half was making rules by rhyme. Kids naturally have a lot of fun with language. Adults have sometimes lost that. But the fact remains that God created us to be poets, or at least appreciators of the gift of language, the textures of words. With that in mind, I’d like to look at a biblical passage, a hymn lyric, and a religious poem by a contemporary author, savoring at least some of what God the poet might want you and me to taste of the special flavors they offer.

Psalm 33

For our biblical passage let’s try Psalm 33, a little fresher to our ears than the also beautiful twenty-third. The writer starts with a bang, the keynote: “sing joyfully” to the Lord. The second line can be translated “Praise is becoming to the upright” (NASB).1 I quite like that translation. I might paraphrase it as “you look good when you’re praising God”—not because you’re trying to look good, but because you’re not conscious of self. Instead, your focus is praising God, and this makes you look good because you are doing something very much in line with your higher nature.

The third verse is remarkably pithy:

“Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

This command sounds so simple and straightforward, but it says a lot, in three parts. We are asked to do something new. It’s great to sing the old hymns, and I’m as guilty as anyone of singing only “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In the Garden” and the 26 other fundamental hymns out of the 695 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. But here we are asked to be creative, to do something new. And why should we sing new songs? If our religious faith is to be alive and ongoing, it can’t just be passed down like a family heirloom. It has to be re-created in each generation, and part of that is coming up with new praises to God. God is telling us, “Be poets!”

You look good when you’re praising God.

The second line also says a lot. Just playing an instrument takes technical facility, usually years of lessons, scales, arpeggios, etudes, and for composers you can lengthen the list. A musician with lots of emotion but little skill can be quite a trial to listen to—especially if he plays the trumpet. But part two of the line also calls for the emotional component of music. Great music is a combination of technical skill and emotional investment and communication by the performer. Again, note how the poet packs so much wisdom into such short, effective phrasing. That’s good poetry.

Verse 4 begins the section on why we should do this joyful/skillful singing/playing: it’s based on God’s character and actions. We dedicate this music to Him because of His right and true word, because of His faithfulness, because of His righteousness and justice, because of His unfailing love—and the list goes on. This is a beautiful psalm, a treasure. But, as the psalm itself reminds us, we should be writing new ones.

A Classic Hymn

Let’s turn to another form of poetry, hymn lyrics, and look at one old classic. Since I had my hand up first, I’m choosing number 341, “To God Be the Glory,” originally published in 1875, with lyrics by Fanny Crosby. Among my favorite lines are:

“The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

First, there’s a humbling, grace-filled insight embodied here. Second, I love the word “vilest” here. I doubt you’re using that word these days—it’s kind of nineteenth-century. But you can’t improve on it for this spot: for meaning, number of syllables, accent, sing-ability. Try inserting “wickedest,” “most awful,” “most evil,” “terriblest,” “evilest,” or “sinningest” and you’ll see what I mean. God created us to love the texture of words, and “vile” has a unique texture. Can’t you taste it?

However, my favorite lines are these:
“But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.”

I love the purer/higher/greater trio and how it parallels wonder/transport/Jesus. I love how the melody ascends to support the swelling climax of the message. And I love the way the word “transport” works. It has the standard meaning of “to carry from one place to another.” We commonly think of this carrying in the physical realm, but it also can refer to the emotional or psychological realm. To be “transported” in this sense is to be lifted to a higher emotional state, to be elevated in the highest degree. And at the Second Coming we are both physically transported to heaven and emotionally transported when we see Jesus. I also like the combination of “wonder” and “transport.” It seems just right for speculating about our probable attitudes on this occasion. And, finally, I love how the song is constructed so that the refrain, each time around, initiates the bursting out of praise in response to whichever facts about God have been enumerated in that verse. What a great hymn. Still, recalling Psalm 33, let’s have some new ones.

A Poem

Finally, let’s look at a poem, “Pied Beauty,” by the nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:< /p>

“Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.”

For a meditation on God as the creator of beauty, these 11 lines are thrilling, both in drawing our attention to beauty we might otherwise overlook, and in the delicious language the poet uses to arrest our attention. The title and the phrase “dappled things” bring our focus to that aspect of creation that features color combinations and other varieties of arrangement rendered by God the artist. From the alliterative delight of such phrases as “couple-colour,” “Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls,” and “fickle, freckled,” to give just three examples, to the striking imagery of cow, trout, chestnut, and finch, Hopkins nudges us—or should I say shakes us—into appreciation of what we might otherwise foolishly yawn over. Jesus says, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matt. 13:16), and although the context is different in the poem, I would say that Hopkins helps us to see God’s work in nature and thus blesses us.

Moving on to his second stanza, note how the poem also privileges what is odd, or as Hopkins more felicitously phrases it, whatever is “counter, original, spare, strange.” This could be seen as limiting us to the periphery of the observable because most things, by definition, would fit into the other category: the “normal.” However, an alternate interpretation could be that through God’s eyes all things have their uniqueness, that seeing things in categories is a necessary accommodation to the weakness of human intellect; that God sees each plant, each animal, each human, with individual appreciation. And are not each of us, in a potentially beautiful way—in God’s eyes—“counter, original, spare, strange”? Furthermore, does it not help me to better appreciate and value others, as well as the natural world, to see them in this way, “adazzle” in God’s eyes? In this poem Hopkins gives us that gift.

Contemporary poets who tackle religious themes include Luci Shaw, David Citino, Marilyn McEntyre, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, and Christian Wiman.


I rejoice that God created us with the gift of language; that He communicates with us in large part through language; that language is not merely functional, but creative and (can be) beautiful. Created in the image of God the Poet, we are to be poets too. I would be derelict in my duty if I did not mention that this potential—like many gifts—has to be extensively cultivated to be realized. Fanny Crosby certainly paid her dues as a writer, composing more than 8,000 hymns and 1,000 secular poems. But our plane is landing, and that’s the subject for another essay. In the meantime, let us celebrate God’s gift of language, and use it for noble purposes. n

  1. Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  2. Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1988), p. 181.