The Poetic and the Prophetic

Be wary of blogs written after midnight, but here goes…

The poetic and the prophetic are related and the prophetic is best conveyed by poetry.

The Old Testament prophets were all poets to one degree or another and nearly all Hebrew prophecy is poetic in nature. Prose is the vehicle for inert information; but poetry is the magic carpet of prophetic imagination. Prose is the precise tool for telling what is; poetry is the mystical means of imagining what could be. Prose is the small room of fixed reality; poetry unlocks the door to infinite possibility.

The poetic and the prophetic are related.

This is certainly true with the book of Revelation. Approach John’s mysterious Patmos poem, not as you would a German theologian’s exegesis of Romans, but as you would a T.S. Elliot poem. Don’t “interpret” Revelation (we both know you’ll get it wrong), but hop on the magic carpet of poetry and let it take you for a wild ride and just see if you don’t come back different.

Here’s a new thought: The apostolic is related to the apocalyptic. The apostle operates from a motive of eschatology and not expediency.

(Mysticism trumps pragmaticism.)

Did I say Trump?

That reminds me…

American consumer Christianity has thought the Gospel is best communicated as a kind of business plan or investment prospectus; thus, deplorable books like, Jesus CEO.

But the Gospel is not a prospectus, it is a story.
And poets are the best storytellers.

You could tell the Gospel in the form of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but never as Donald Trump’s, How To Get Rich.

What am I saying? At least this: We shouldn’t try to turn prophets into corporate executives or imagine apostles as politicians!

But I digress…

Back to the poetic and the prophetic.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m being trite (I am not!), let me identify the essential element of happiness: It is HOPE. Hope by its very nature is prophetic. And prophetic hope is always best imparted through poetry. Hope is the magic carpet of prophetic imagination.

Walter Brueggemann says this in his book The Prophetic Imagination:

“The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know why they are there. Hope, on the one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question. Those who would be prophetic will need to embrace that absurd practice and that subversive activity. Hope is the primary prophetic idiom not because of the general dynamic of history or because of the signs of the times but because the prophet speaks to a people who are God’s people.”

Rock on, Brueggemann!

Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor says this about the poetic pastor:

The Apocalyptic pastor is a poet. St. John was the first major poet of the Christian church. He used words in new ways, making (poetes in Greek is maker) truth right before our eyes. The way a pastor uses the language is a critical element in the work. The Christian gospel is rooted in language: God spoke a creation into being; our Savior was the Word made flesh. The poet is the person who uses words not primarily to convey information, but to make a relationship, shape beauty, form truth. This is St. John’s work; it is every pastor’s work.

If St. John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible, which, in fact, is why it is so often uncomprehended.

Isn’t it odd that pastors, who are responsible for interpreting the Scriptures, so much of which come in the form of poetry, have so little interest in poetry? It is a crippling defect and must be remedied. The Christian communities as a whole must rediscover poetry, and pastors must lead them.

[But] people are most comfortable with prose. They prefer explanations of Bible history and information on God. This is appealing to the pastor, for we have a lot of information to hand out and are adept at explanations. After a few years of speaking in prose, we become prosaic.

Then a dose of apocalyptic stops us in mid-sentence; the power of the word to create faith.

Not all words create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform, regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. Communication is good but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. The pastoral task with words is not communication but communion — the healing and restoration and creation of love relationships between God and his fighting children and our fought-over creation. Poetry uses words in and for communion.

Words making truth, not just conveying it: liturgy and story and song and prayer are the work of pastors who are poets.

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to read that from Eugene Peterson. It affirmed and vividly expressed some things I have intuitively believed about the nature of preaching. It encourages me to trust my instinct to be far less prosaic and far more poetic/prophetic. Poetry is the language of passion.

One more quote on the poetic and prophetic imagination. This is from Alison Morgan and her brilliant book The Wild Gospel (this hard to get book is now available in Solomon’s Porch!):

“Everything Jesus said and did pointed to a new reality. He came not with a manifesto of political reform, but with a new concept of kingdom. He came not with a new ethic, but with a new vision. The Sermon on the Mount makes sense only if we see it as a poetic text, as the prophetic imagining of an alternative world; for the kingdom of God is within before it is without, and must be looked for as inner reality before it can take shape as outer reality.”

The primary purpose of poetry is for the prophetic imagining of an alternative world: The Kingdom of God!

The poetic and the prophetic are related.

And Jesus is the greatest poet of all.

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemists, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Finally shall come the Poet.