On Poetry and Papyrus

On Poetry and Papyrus January 17, 2012

Do they never read poetry? I often ask this question when I see people picking apart poetic passages in the Bible as though these were doctoral dissertations with extensive documentation, rigid logic, and grammatical precision.

Poetry reads differently. Its verbal images are meant to invoke great truths, open new worlds and connect with the hearts of its receivers. Poetry, especially biblical poetry, is intended to be read aloud to a community. The hearers use collective wisdom to understand the truths underlying the symbols we call words.

During my graduate studies, I researched the ways knowledge was passed down through generations of pre-literate societies. It’s hard for us to imagine societies without written words. The creation of inscribed alphabetic symbols, and the means to preserve such writings, are recent developments in human history. Until Gutenberg and his printing press, introduced in the mid 1400’s, only the elite had access to books. Few could read.

So it was in biblical times— few were literate in the sense of reading. But many were literate in the sense that huge portions of the Holy Scriptures were committed to memory.  In the time of Jesus, those Holy Scriptures consisted of what many now call the “Old Testament.”

It’s hard to conceive of memorizing that much information, but it was done. And so the scriptures were passed from generation to generation with astounding accuracy.

One of the reasons those words are memorable is that much of the Bible is written in the form of poetry

Poetry, with its rhythms and repetitions, with the way it builds by looping back into previous words and phrases, lends itself to memorization. This is why the King James Bible is so much easier to memorize than later translations. Translated when most people were not yet literate, its rhythms and sentence structures reflect a world of memory retrieval, not a quick trip to Google. Prose is far harder to memorize.

I am concerned that biblical poetry, translated and printed to look like normal prose text, has been twisted to “prove” modern scientific facts rather than expose eternal truths.

Some of those who insist on treating poetry as dissertation fact have come up with a six, 24 hour-day creation story and a 6000 year old earth. They call themselves the YEC (Young Earth Creationists) and vigorously defend their stances.

I was perusing some cyberspace Christian discussion boards, and found that the debate rages, sometimes with appalling lack of civility. I sense that fear drives much of the debate. With an admission that a literal (i.e., non-poetic) reading of the early chapters of Genesis is not justifiable, perhaps the rest of their faith will crumble.  So they yell “HERETIC” at those who have found real possibilities of truth and revelation about God in the discoveries of investigatory evolutionary science.

I understand such fear. It keeps God confined to an impenetrable box in a time-bound world that admits no mystery or uncertainty. Yes, I understand it because I lived in it for a long time. One step away from that certainty meant expulsion from the whole religious community, and the perceived loss of hope of eternal life.

I understand it, but I had to leave it behind, and work out a faith structure that honors the Scriptures as God’s revealed word and also honors the push for humanity to understand the world in which we live.

This refusal to see scientific exploration as holy activity is another reason the church loses so many of our teens and young adults. Vigorous scientific research suggests intriguing possibilities about our world, but the church often dogmatically insists that research is wrong, because its results don’t fit with their pre-determined stances.

It’s sad. It does the Holy Scriptures a great injustice by making them say something that would have made no sense to those who first put those words to poetry and to papyrus.

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