Theology needs Poetry


“I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” – from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I have not found a more emotive, and clearer description of the relationship between eternity and our temporal life than the quoted passage above.

Theology is limited because of its language set; it is philosophical and/or dogmatic. The logic of such language set is helpful, but that very demand for logic is its rigidity. And it gets us into dead ends, as in trying to unfurl the relationship between eternity and the temporal.

Eternity, as the perfection of the creation in an unending relationship with the Creator, seems to completely overshadow our life now. Why trudge through this life when the next life is so much better?

But art, in this case the novel Gilead, helps me not only to see but feel the connection between now and eternity, that the songs and stories of eternity are our lives today. Of course this life matters, for it is the source for the songs of eternity — the way we hear the saints sing of the story of the lamb of God in the book of Revelations.

I think theology, but most certainly preaching, has to know the language of art if we are to be better theologians, in our writings and in our speech. This is why all the prophets spoke in poetry and not in proposition. You can’t just speak of God in prepositions and adjectives. You have to speak of God in the clashes of nouns and verbs, in metaphors that rip apart old associations and spark new associations, and in the fissures see God, and in that fusion see new possibilities.

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