How Poetry Enhanced My Bible Reading Learning to read the Bible like a poem June 14th, 2016 Jen Pollock Michel
How Poetry Enhanced My Bible Reading
How Poetry Enhanced My Bible Reading Learning to read the Bible like a poem June 14th, 2016 Jen Pollock Michel
Bible Engager’s Blog

I rang in 2016 with rest, not resolution. Instead of agreeing to new work deadlines, I replenished my creative energies by experimenting in the kitchen and finishing a couple of novels. I even read a poem or two every day as the new year, like a fresh flag, unfurled. 

Soon, I realized quickly how the experience of reading poetry mimicked my experience of reading the Bible: the almost reliable lack of immediate gratification; the constant invitation to pay attention; the hard-won reward for sticking with it. In fact, it was upon discovering Luci Shaw's poem, "Catch of the Day" (in her collection entitled, Scape), which began to illustrate for me how poetry reading and Bible reading are sibling skills. 

It leaps, breaking the skin of the lake
of possibility, this thing that flashes steel—
this trout of a poem, wild with life, rainbow scales
and spiny fins. Now, for patience, the pull of the catch:

I cast, wait for the tug—the jerk of hook in bony jaw—
feel the line go taut. The ballet begins, a wrestle
to land this flailing, feral thing—all thrash and edge–
and tame it into telling its own muscular story.

I heave it over the rim of its arrival, glorious,
fighting the whole way, slippery as language.
Its beauty twitches on the floor boards, its glisten
spilling over the lip of my notebook page.  

According to Shaw's description of the ballet battle between poet and poem, there is something "feral" about a poem. It is wild and unpredictable, hard to reel in for all of its flail and thrash and slipperiness. It resists being caught, and it strains against the line. It is not meek but "muscular," and the poet needs stick-to-it-iveness to land the catch. And yet, for all the strain and struggle, there is also undeniable beauty to behold: its rainbow scales, its glisten.

I can't help but notice how Shaw captures what it feels like to be on the end of the "line" of a Bible passage as a reader. There is a muscularity to God's Word that I can't deny. It will not be bent to my will. It does not confirm human preference but rather attests to the eternal, holy nature of a God, who calls himself, "I Am Who I Am" or "I Will Be What I Will Be" (Exodus 3:2). As readers of the Bible, we have to develop the necessary submissiveness that lets it tell its own "muscular story"—of sin and salvation, exile and welcome made possible through Jesus Christ. 

But the Bible is "muscular" in another sense: not simply that it resists our fantasies, but that it narrates human stories, recounting the lives of people in their places. It is a divine Word, and yet it is fleshly, conveying its eternal certainties through the literary medium of narrative. A frequent temptation we face is to read the Bible for its didactic content. We want it to teach us something, so we mine it for abstract nuggets of gold—principles by which we ought to live or truths about God we must master. But to reduce the Bible to abstract information or moral to-do lists is to ignore "the bony jaw" into which our interpretive hooks sink when we read: the fleshly verbs, the bony nouns, the strong scent of its adjectives and adverbs—all the material details that make our imaginations spark and catch fire. A poem conveys its meaning through concrete language; the Bible does, too. 

I was just recently reminded of this as I had begun reading (and re-reading) to memorize Psalm 139. It's a familiar psalm that speaks to the care with which all human beings are created. But how many times had I failed to notice the particular verb used in verse 13: to knit? "Knitting" (as opposed to a verb like "making") gave me an altogether different understanding of God's creative work as something careful and methodical, slow and attentive. Like a woman bent over a row of stitches, God is presented bent over our bodily frames, connecting one cell to another, weaving together bone to muscle to skin. And more than this, the word, "knitting" gave me a very different picture of God: even the God, who deigns to do women's work. Only in sustaining attention did I land the catch of a small detail that broke "the skin of the lake of possibility." (The mystery, of course, will be that the next time I'm at the line, the steel beauty of Psalm 139 will catch new light, and I'll behold something altogether new and wonderful.)

As people culturally goaded on by the principles of efficiency and speed, who has time for a poem? Worse, who has time for careful reading of the Bible? But maybe the poem has something to teach us about the holy, slippery beauty and muscularity of the Bible: that we must slow down and sustain attention. There may not be immediate gratification, but there will be reward.

"Now, for patience, the pull of the catch."


Want to learn more about poetry and reading the Bible?

Click here for more on the Bible and poetry

Luci Shaw's, "Catch of the Day," has been used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com 

Read more posts about: Reading the BibleArt and Poetry

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of the award-winning Teach Us to Want. Her second book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, releases on May 9, 2017. Jen writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. She holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan, and they have five school-age children. Their family attends Grace Toronto Church in Canada. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel.

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