Why Christians should use poetry to understand the nature of time

This past week, I have been working on expanding and adapting a conference paper on what poetry can teach us about the nature of time and its end for publication in a volume  by de Gruyter. Here is a short, adapted section from the introduction that explains how the use of poetry in approaching eschatology (doctrine about the last things) is modelled in biblical literature:

Christian eschatology is a doctrine that has, from the beginning, been bound up with artistic representation. The book of Revelation, in describing the last things, uses images and metaphors to appeal to the imaginations of its readers in order to provide a captivating vision of the end that will enable the readers to remain faithful. Academic engagement with the Christian doctrine of eschatology must therefore always include an awareness of and engagement with the kinds of images, devices, and forms involved in how the last things are presented to the imagination. We cannot access the Eschaton directly, but only through the forms and images through which visions of the Eschaton are presented.

I engage one such form involved in the presentation of the end that is not often considered: poetry, or more specifically, the poetic form. The poetic form is part of the biblical presentation of last things. A large portion of the book of Revelation involves the heavenly creatures, multitudes, and elders in John’s vision reciting praises that are presented in poetic form,[2] as if this form is the most appropriate available to human language in which to represent heavenly speech. The book reads like an oscillation between visual imagery and poetic speech. John alternates descriptions of what he sees with what he hears, and what he hears is written in verse-form. Likewise, eschatological themes in Old Testament prophetic literature are often presented in poetic form.[3] Explicit doctrines of eschatology were not developed until seven or eight centuries after the prophet Amos, making these poetic presentations of a redeemed end precursors to explicit doctrine regarding that end.[4] This suggests that there is something about the poetic form that makes it appropriate to the presentation of divine last things.

One could attribute this to several things – poetry’s densely-woven internal connections, for example, or its powerful and solemn force. What I am particularly interested in, however, is the vision of time that poetry presents, its rhythm. Specifically, how does poetic rhythm come to an end and what could this tell us about an eschatological end of time? Large swathes of scripture, which may or may not be recognized as poetry, could be considered rhythm,[5] however, this is not an analysis of biblical poetry and rhythm in particular, but of poetic rhythm as such and in general.

The American poet and theologian, Amos Wilder, in writing about the rhetorical forms of scripture, points out the ways in which scriptural poetry borrows its forms from the surrounding culture, manifesting both novelty and convention. He argues that this practice reflects the desire to connect revelation to “generic mortal experience.”[6] The same hungers and passions and mysteries of humanity that are reflected in poetry pass through “a narrow gate” so as to become better-ordered.[7] Arguably, rhythm, the most general form of all human experience, is used so frequently in scripture as an attempt to bring human experience into the presence of God. To consider rhythm as such is therefore to consider the form of human experience as such in order to understand how this experience could be shaped by eschatology, by something beyond experience.

[2] Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:9-13; 7:10-17; 11:15-18; 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 16:4-7; 18; 19:1-8.

[3] E.g. Isaiah 5:26-30; 12:4-6; 12:1-3; 25:1-5; 26”1-3; 49:13; Joel 2; Jer 4:23-7; Amos 9:13-15.

[4] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 187. According to Amos Wilder, the poetic element of both the Old and New Testaments is the oral core out of which the prose narrative then arose (Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 93).

[5] Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric, 115.

[6] Ibid., 97.

[7] Ibid., 117.

Categories: Poetry, Theology

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