The Poet As Theologian -- By: Sherwood Eliot Wirt
JETS 19:1 (Winter 1976) p. 39
The Poet As Theologian
When a person is born into the Kingdom of God he often waxes poetic. Under the overpowering stimulus of the Holy Spirit his imagination runs riot. Sometimes he expresses himself skilfully, sometimes not; but he can’t help being a poet. Whether he is also a theologian is another question. Our hymnbooks are full of imprecise theological statements, a legacy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since T. S. Eliot a vast amount of religious poetry has been published in the English language, but much of it fails to qualify as Christian and Biblical. So often it seems to be people-oriented and earth-centered.
So we have the problem of making Christian poetry more theologically exact; but we also face the problem of making theology more poetic! For people will read poems about God where they will shun the dissertations of the theologians. Under torture by North Vietnamese interrogators, American pilots with Christian upbringing did not turn to the fifth chapter of Romans, but to the twenty-third Psalm.
Poetry is an art form and as such belongs to the orders of Creation. I would side with the purists who defend the concept of art for art’s sake. At the same time I contend that when poetry exalts the Creator of art it becomes art for God’s sake. Thus I draw a distinction between poetry that propagandizes or promotes a human cause, however worthy, and poetry that seeks to bring the reader closer to God. Rudyard Kipling used poetry to extol the British Empire; Yevtushenko and Langston Hughes forced poetry into the service of Soviet Communism; Hirohito and Mao Tse-tung wrote poems to promulgate their respective ideologies. Christian poetry belongs to a different sphere.
In some mysterious way, art forms seem to rise out of themselves when they are made to interpret the truth and majesty of God. Music enters into a different dimension when it glorifies the Lord. Painting acquires a certain radiance; sculpture assumes a nobler lineament; and poetry evokes a stronger image. Art for God’s sake becomes a greater art.
Plenty of inferior religious poetry (and art and music) could be cited to show that just because a thing is sacred, it is not necessarily good. Yet we must be careful here. The Holy Spirit, who, as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, is the true muse of poetry, uses both literary masterpieces and doggerel verses. God makes use of them over and over again to snatch sinners from hell and to draw seekers into the Kingdom of God.
Artists within the Christian community will tell you that we should “give of our best to the Master,” but what we give to him is not nearly so important as what he gives to us. We do not set the standards of excellen...
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