Why we need the poets

Justin Moffatt

Not exactly the news cycle (my brief), but news has it that Westminster's Carl Trueman is coming to town. One of Dr Trueman's essays helped me last year when I was preparing a sermon on the Psalms.

A recurring theme in his book Minority Report: Unpopular Thoughts on Everything from Ancient Christianity to Zen Calvinism is what evangelicals need to learn from the Psalms. One of his essays in particular caught my attention. In ‘Where is Authenticity to Be Found?’ Trueman shows us why we need the skill and the poetry of the Psalmists in order for us to express our faith with integrity in a fallen world.

First he points out how a bumper sticker tells 'the truth':

The tragic truth of life in a fallen world can be expressed in a variety of ways. We are all probably familiar with the neat summaries of such which appear on bumper stickers, variations on a statement like `Life sucks; then you die'. Not particularly profound, for all of the truth it may contain.

Then Trueman compares that particular bumper sticker to a speech in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. In the Fifth Act Macbeth laments, upon hearing of the death of his wife,

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Trueman points out that both have the same meaning, and yet Shakespeare's poem 'enriches the reader's understanding' in a way that a bumper sticker never will. How?

The language, the sounds of the words, the images, the alliteration, the metrical structure - all provide an elaborate and complex expression that draws the audience into a deeper, more frightening, more striking encounter with the absurdity of existence.

Both the bumper sticker and Shakespeare tell us that life is short and apparently pointless; but only the latter actually confronts us with the full complexity of the truth and thereby transforms us in relation to it. The more we wrestle with the form of expression, the subtlety of the images, and the sheer beauty of the words, the deeper we are forced to probe into the nature of what is actually being claimed about existence in general and our own existence in particular. What is being taught is inseparable from how it is being expressed.

In other words, we need the poets to give a voice on what we think and feel. And because we believe that God speaks to us in the Psalms, that is true of the Psalms in particular. He concludes:

The Bible writers clearly appreciated the need for complex literary forms to give full expression to complex theological ideas and to the complexity of life in covenant with God in a fallen world. Theological curricula, at home, at seminary, and at church, should surely take the forms of the Bible's teaching with similar seriousness to that with which they take the basic content (to the extent that it is even possible to separate them). Only then can we avoid the reduction of biblical wisdom to bumper sticker slogans; only then will our theology find authentic expression.

Carl Trueman will be in Australia in August. He is speaking at Presbyterian Theological College Sydney on the 7th or 8th of August on the topic Confess or Die: How the Historic Confessions of Faith can Save the Church.