Thursday 20 May 2010

Biblical Poetry, Interpretation, and Theology

Patrick D.. Miller, ‘The Theological Significance of Biblical Poetry’, in Samuel Balentine and John Barton (eds.), Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 213-30.

This under-explored area is addressed in the above essay by Patrick Miller:

‘There is a larger question that I wish to raise in this essay, and that is what does poetry mean theologically, or what does it mean theologically that we have poetry in the Bible? What does poetry do or not do as a part of the Bible’s claims to speak about God?’ (214).

The language of passionate love, anguished suffering, and devoted praise in Scripture uses the poetic form. Why? Why did the Spirit choose to inspire poetic voices?

Patrick Miller eventually comes round to answering his own question like this:

‘In the simplest form, I would argue that with poetry, the speaking of God (to, from, and about God) in the Bible is figural and non-literal; it is indirect and open’ (225).

Miller argues that the fact that poetry does not work in fixed, predictable ways means that it is ‘open’ and sometimes ambiguous. In some of his works, the scholar and writer Umberto Eco has made a distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ works. We intuitively know there’s a difference between a telephone book and a work of fiction. The telephone book is a ‘closed’ text, according to Eco’s criteria. It’s meaning tends to be quite clear and self-evident. A work of fiction or poetry, on the other hand, may deliberately be more ‘open’ – because it’s been written in such a way to engage the audience, to draw them in, to allow them to enjoy the experience, and to participate in the production of meaning.

Likewise with Scripture, some texts are more ‘open’ than others – like the poetry in Song of Songs, for instance, where the imagery is precisely designed to play on our minds and make us wonder what the point of the comparison might be. But it’s a very different reading experience than the laws in Leviticus or the genealogies in 1 Chronicles.

Miller gives examples where he thinks this openness of poetry is important theologically, reminding us that the ‘meaning’ of a poetic text isn’t always fastened down, and speaking to us of the mystery of God’s ways with the world. This is not to say that there is no sure word from God, only that God has chosen to communicate his sure word to us in literature which requires a certain sensitivity to being moved and persuaded.

One of the other things about poetry is that it often comes to us without a context. It stands on its own. Scholars on the psalms, for instance, regularly try to reconstruct the origins of the psalm in a specific historical context; occasionally we can do that, but with many psalms, we simply don’t have enough information. That, according to Miller, is a plus theologically. Because the poem is not fixed into a specific context, it can be more easily used by others who follow.

The use of figurative language and imagery is important, says Miller, because they remind us of the importance of using our imagination, that ‘the reality of God and things of God in poetry are approached indirectly in the figures of thought’ (229). Miller points out that what he calls ‘primal speech to God’, speech straight from the heart and the gut, directed to God – whether lament or praise – tends to be ‘ambiguous and imaginative, open, not closed’ (229). And this is also true of God’s speech back to us, in a number of places, in the prophets, for instance, or when he eventually answers Job, not with answers to the issue of suffering in the form of cold, detached propositions, but with yet more questions, in beautiful, allusive, powerful poetry.

Tremper Longman, likewise, encourages us to think about what insight the poem gives us into the character of God; he has this to say, in one of his many treatments of poetry:

‘God as poet teaches us something about His character by His choice to speak to us in this artful way. We learn that God is interested in our emotions and in beauty, as well as in our minds and our intellect. Because God wants us to “know” Him we may think that emotions and beauty would distract us. Beauty, we may think, is deceptive. It hides what’s important and true. But God knows better. It’s not a matter of truth or beauty; both reflect God’s glorious presence. This realization should inspire us to seek not only what is right but also what is lovely in our lives.’ Tremper Longman III, Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 142.

No comments: