“I hate poetry!” English teachers hear this phrase every time they mention the “p” word. Poetry has become synonymous with words like “confusing” and “pointless,” or phrases like “out-of-date” and “hard-to-understand.” If this rings true with you, then let me change the subject for a minute…to twenty-first century Western culture.
We like our communication fast—texts; we like our food fast—McDonald’s; we like our cooking fast—microwaves. Our culture is filled with services and devices that provide ease and speedy convenience. As a result, we have come to expect everything to be fast, easy and just-a-click away. Our collective cultural “attention span” is becoming shorter by the second: when surfing the internet for example, the average viewer will spend fewer than 5 seconds on a webpage before clicking away. The problem with “fast, easy and convenient” is the accompanying lack of depth, vitality and longevity. Few of us cherish emails the way we might cherish a handwritten note or letter; few of us remember the last fast-food meal or celebrate the microwave meatloaf the way we remember and celebrate Grandma’s turkey dinner or homemade pie.
So what do emails, Big Macs and microwaves have to do with poetry? These icons of cultural convenience have very little to do with poetry, other than to serve as a stark contrast: poetry is anything but fast, easy or convenient. So why should Christians bother investing time and energy into understanding poetry? Because poetry helps us to slow down, ponder and understand the deep and profound realities of God’s universe. While our culture is chock-full of vapid, ephemeral experiences, God’s creation is full of inspiring, rich and eternal experiences. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). In our fast-paced, non-stop, 24/7 culture, reading poetry teaches us to slow down and “be still.” Poetry instills in us the habit of remembering and reflecting on who we are, who God is, and what life is all about.
Poetry is also a powerful way to express the wonder, depth and beauty of God’s world and to capture the essence of our human experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poetry of the Bible. The great poems of the Psalms have been the mainstay of many Christians through times of trial and joy; the depth and profundity of the Psalms are in part due to the medium of poetry. This is true with hymns as well; Christians cherish the poetry of hymns sung weekly during church meetings. But our enjoyment of poetry should not be limited to the psalms or to hymns. All great poets are great observers; they hold up a mirror to ourselves and to society, so they have much to teach us about life on earth. In a powerful way, they urge us to stop and reflect on our human experience, God’s universe and his goodness to us in a world mired in sin.
As we read a broad range of poetry, both secular and sacred, we will be challenged to look at ourselves and God’s world with fresh perspectives. Our ability to appreciate the Psalms and hymnody will also be enhanced by concerted attention to all kinds of poems. Most importantly, perhaps, we will learn to pause in our hectic lives in order to take in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
 This essay is reprinted from Jeremy W. Johnston, All Things New: Essays on Christianity, culture & the arts (Kitchener: Joshua Press, 2018), 59 – 61.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.