I TELL THE STUDENTS in my theology classes that every choice of art in worship opens up and closes down possibilities for the formation of our humanity. Art is never neutral. It does things. The sixteenth-century poetry of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer does something to our brains, if neuroscientists are to be believed, that is utterly different from the effect of the dialogical poetry of ad hoc Nigerian Pentecostal prayers. Art rouses the imagination, captures and tinkers with the emotions, enlists our bodies and marshals metaphors that orient our sense of self in the world. Its powers sobered Plato—and plenty of Christians since. It was Plato, incidentally, who said that it was “vain for the sober man to knock at poesy’s door.”
I tell my students that liturgical poetry matters. Some of them readily believe me. Some drift into boredom. Some question me, and they are right to do it. They see the world differently, not least on account of their ecclesial contexts. Some go to megachurches, some to Presbyterian church-plants in Seattle. Some go to Chinese churches in Toronto or Catholic churches in Taiwan. One of my students goes to “Beyoncé’s church” (a.k.a. Saint John’s United Methodist in Houston). Another goes to no church because she is burned out on church. Heterogeneity marks the theological landscape of their convictions about art and worship. Context informs perspective, and perspective is everything, as cinematographers might tell us.
When I tell my students that poets are shepherds of words, as Eugene Peterson once said, they ask, “But what counts as poetry?” When I argue that where language is weak, theology is weakened, they counter, “But whose culture gets privileged when we judge the language of our hymns?” When I cite the nineteenth-century poet John Mason Neale as an exemplar, they cite Charles Albert Tindley, the most prolific black hymn writer of the early twentieth century. Where I invoke Isaac Watts and John Donne, they invoke Christy Nockels and Israel Houghton. If I tell them that a good poet must be superlatively sensitive to the shades of meanings of a word, to phonology, to metaphor, a master of syntax and a lover of words, they will likely mumble: “That sounds like what an academic might say.”
I remind my students that at its best good poetry, like all good art, can make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Or as Wallace Stevens put it, in the presence of good poetry we find ourselves “more truly and more strange.”
I teach my students that poetry is a kind of language that says more, and says it more intensely, than ordinary language, borrowing Laurence Perrine’s definition. Poetry involves densely woven speech; it’s suggestive rather than scientific. In the hands of a poet, a generic falcon becomes “this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” sees it: a perfectly particular falcon.
And, as the Psalter might have it, it is through poetry, not despite it, nor beyond it, that faithful worship occurs.
God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
This is how Eugene Peterson translates Psalm 19 in The Message. His use of language calls to mind one of my favorite Christmas poems, which unfortunately has never appeared in a modern hymnal. Its author, Phillips Brooks, born in 1835 in Massachusetts, was the Harvard-educated pastor of Trinity Church and is perhaps best known for giving Abraham Lincoln’s funeral oration and for publishing a poem that he titled “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But it is an unpublished poem that deserves, to my mind, special appreciation. It begins:
The silent skies are full of speech
For who hath ears to hear;
The winds are whispering each to each,
The moon is calling to the beach,
And stars their sacred wisdom teach
Of faith and love and fear.
But once the sky the silence broke,
And song o’erflowed the earth;
The midnight air with glory shook,
And angels mortal language spoke,
When God our human nature took,
In Christ the Saviour’s birth.
A good hymn does double duty. In addition to its fundamental task of facilitating the praise of God, it both delights and instructs. It arouses the affections and it teaches doctrine. Most Christians’ primary exposure to theology will occur through the hymns they sing. In certain cases, as the Anglican pastor George Herbert knew firsthand, “a verse may find him, who a sermon flies / And turn delight into a sacrifice.” This is why, I repeatedly tell my students, thoughtful, well-crafted poetry matters to the songs we sing in public worship. Phillips Brooks gets the birth narrative of Christ right (while the latest hit on K-Love gets it wrong, as often as not) because he sees the intertextual, theologically dense nature of the gospel accounts.
When I am cranky, I will say things in class that I might regret about the amount of schlocky poetry that shows up in contemporary worship music. I want to pull my hair out every time I am asked to sing phrases like “You unravel me with a melody” or “I’m beautifully in over my head.” I want to throw up my hands when we neglect the pilgrimage metaphor in favor of near-exclusive use of the enraptured soul metaphor. I want to shout from the mountaintops that Percy Dearmer’s translation of Aquinas’s Pange Lingua is ten thousand times better in the soteriology department than Ben Fielding’s “What a Beautiful Name.”
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
Sing the ending of the fray
Now above the Cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
As a Victim won the day.
You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now
An inherent danger to the academic is a spirit of crankiness. And where there is crankiness without charity, something ugly results. When I let myself become small-hearted, I lose my capacity to see. I fail to see the good that Hillsong’s massively popular “Oceans” might offer the church. I fail to see how the tad-stuffy Reformed inflections of Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone” bless Christians across denominational lines. I fail to see how the simplicity of spirituals enables the all-too-familiar gospel to become strangely good news again. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I experience a failure of love.
What might I see if I looked with a more charitable spirit?
In “Oceans” I might see a fascinating interplay between motifs of Saint Peter on the water and the person of John the beloved. What might seem like a higgledy-piggledy piling on of imagery might actually stimulate desire for the Divine Lover, the infinitely personable God. The line, “My soul will rest in your embrace / For I am Yours and You are mine,” might recall Catholic mystical writings which promote an intensely sensory encounter with God. When matched to a pattern of swelling sounds mimicking the swell of ocean waters, the poem invites the singer to an immersive contemplation of Christ, in the rise and fall, push and pull of desire for God that often characterizes our spiritual lives.
Where the poetry of “Oceans” invites the singer to a state of rapture, “In Christ Alone” invites you to immerse yourself in the whole story of salvation. Here we have Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the birth and resurrection of Christ, the gift of righteousness and a divine wrath satisfied at Golgotha. Here guilt is removed, death robbed of its sting, and life lived in confidence that no power can rob the Christian of the irresistible love of God. The simple and accessible melody, in the style of an Irish ballad, makes possible a broadly communal embrace of the hymn. The gift of this song is an infectious tune that readily brings to mind a beautiful poem about Christ’s salvific work.
Like anyone who loves poetry, I’m attached to my own notions of what makes a good poem. But a spiritual like “’Tis the Old Ship of Zion” calls them into question. Its verses follow a call and response pattern. The leader sings: “Ain’t no danger in de water / Ain’t no danger in de water / Ain’t no danger in de water.” The people sing: “Git on board, git on board.” Subsequent verses remind the singer that the “old ship” was good “for my dear mother” and “my dear father.” For those who took swim lessons as children, “the water” may hold the promise of joy and recreation. But this is not true for all. As Luke Powery remarks in his book of Advent reflections on the spirituals, slaves were thrown overboard to drown during the Middle Passage. “Water became a natural grave.” To sing “git on board, git on board” is to identify with the plight of black Christians. And it is not get—it is git. The editors of the hymnal Songs of Zion instruct singers not to change the dialect, because it would undermine the performance of the song.
The poetry, in this case, as is the case in all our hymns, matters to the theology. It matters to how Christians are formed in worship—to how they know and love God. I tell my students that liturgical poetry is a way to access the heart of a people. When we put on our lips the words of a sixteenth-century or twenty-first century poet, whether simple or complex, strange or familiar, we also access by grace the heart of God; at least that is what an academic might pray happens, not just for others, but for himself, too.
An Anglican priest, W. David O. Taylor teaches theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Theater of God’s Glory and Worship and the Arts (both from Eerdmans) and the forthcoming Honest to God (Thomas Nelson). In 2016 he produced a short film on the psalms with Bono and Eugene Peterson.