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Biblical Poetry and Fiction

Any revelation, to be a real revelation, must be adapted to the inner conditions of the recipient. Blot out what is poetic and imaginative from living literature, and the more inspirational and soul moving part would be gone. These forms of writing have a warmth and depth of appeal unequaled by what is prosaic, and must be regarded as effective vehicles for religious truth. It is inherently impossible for a mind of plain severity to assimilate the divine exaggerations of the poet, or to enter his rich creative realm. Some careful observers think it a matter of doubt whether it is possible for the Occidental mind ever to fully comprehend the Oriental, and we should remember that the Bible is wholly a Book of the East.

Not merely great learning, but nothing less than the cultivated imagination is well equipped to sift the divine precious metal from the human dross which ages of ignorance and credulity have fastened upon the Scriptures. The destructive literalism, which the stern but conscientious orthodox believer reads into the Word, is found quite as often and as strong among his prosaic destructive critics. Though radically in opposition, at this point they agree. Skepticism and even atheism is largely caused by the positive lack of the poetic imagination which is so exuberant in Holy Writ.

If there be some reluctance to the admission of the value of poetic form as a channel for Scriptural truth, what shall be expected of the fictional, which, in reality, is one of the most effective means it is possible to employ? It is not its mission to mystify or exaggerate, but to awaken and interest. If it does not light up the plain substance of what is real, it does not serve its purpose. The most fertile domain of the soul is that of the emotional nature.

Our Western temperament of sharp outline cannot well appreciate the necessity of the more fanciful or figurative method of teaching, and that imaginary stories, or fables, often bring home the most weighty principles. The parable, which was one of the most telling of the methods employed by Jesus, under literary classification belongs in the department of fiction. The instruments to reach the heart of man need to be fitted to his most favoring approaches.

The poetry of the Western World has two leading forms of expression which are known as rhyme and meter. Without at least one of these we do not distinguish it as poetry. But Hebrew scholars assure us that the range of the poetry of that language is vastly wider. It possesses a subtle and graceful rhythm, but neither rhyme nor meter is essential. Syllabic correspondence and measurement for distinctive poetry were not essential to the Hebrew ear. In the deeper sense that which is truly poetic depends not upon verbal uniformity, but proportion of the romantic and idealistic quality. It is the subtle designing of the imaginative faculty which introduces its subject most deeply into truth and the divine mysteries. It is the charming office of poetic art to paint symmetrical pictures in the mind, and these are often far more truly educational than any bald presentation of logical truth. There is a dramatic atmosphere to that which is imaginative, which invests the plain substance of principle and makes it live before the soul.

How uplifting and inspiring the poem of the Twenty-third Psalm, and yet as measured by prosaism, how little of it is strictly true! The whole book of Psalms is inherently a series of graphic sketches, deftly drawn, and rich in fancy, and the Proverbs and Job are exuberant in imaginative light and shade. Many other biblical books also contain songs, reveries, visions, rhapsodies, and flowers of speech. Both the major and minor prophets often break forth into poetic and exultant strains and give full rein to what a sober realist might call extravagance. The great lesson which the Occidental Christian needs to learn from Eastern sacred lore is enthusiasm, and not much less, spiritual entertainment. The logical doctrinaire, dealing with hard fact and sharp discrimination, should become more plastic and responsive. The man of the West puts little warm devotion into his religion, and gets no great joy out of it. It is vastly more of a duty than privilege. If the spiritual and religious stratum in man be the highest in his constitution, it should be the seat of the play of his finest soul forces.

Must the drama, the most powerful of all teachers, be forever confined to what is frivolous, or at the best, only of the material order? What a field, almost wholly unoccupied, for a higher creative art! The unsatisfied spiritual hunger for inspirational and dramatic activity of a lofty quality, is the direct cause of occasional outbreaks of fanaticism. The poetic fancy of men demands an outlet, and if that of the higher order be suppressed, it will burst forth in low and illegitimate forms. It is beginning to be widely recognized that if the Church is to increase or even hold its present influence, it must absorb and utilize many forces which it has discouraged or barred out. The human consciousness can no longer occupy a compartment by itself. The drama is the natural kindergarten for the adult, and human nature is so insistent upon its visible exercise that it will take realism from below, if denied the idealism of a purer atmosphere.

In the King James version of the Bible the text of the poetry of the Bible is all printed in the prosaic form, so that there is no outward mark of difference for the indiscriminative reader. But in the English version of 1884, and in the new American standard version, published in 1901, the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Solomon are rendered in modern poetic form. The same is also true in occasional outbursts of a similar spirit in other Books, an example of which may be noted in Isaiah, chap, xxxviil Dr. A. W. Hitchcock, in his very valuable work upon the Bible, says, regarding Hebrew poetry:
"It is the reflection of inner states, and of the effect which nature and experience have upon the soul. It is subjective rather than objective and didactic, lyric rather than descriptive or dramatic. . . . Mind and matter, brought together, produce philosophy; fancy and matter, invention; muscle and matter, labor; spirit and matter, religious expression such as we have in the Old Testament. The Hebrews were not philosophers, nor inventors, nor toilers, but they could not help expressing themselves in the Psalms."

The narrative of the Creation in Genesis may be designated as a pictorial imaginative sketch of the harmony, mystery, and divine completeness of the Eternal Intelligence. Its purpose is not to inform the understanding or impart cosmic knowledge, but to inspire and uplift the soul. Poetry need not be regarded as ornamental or embellished literature, but as inner truth expressed in artistic form. It appeals to the feelings of the heart rather than the reason of the head. It is spiritual experience cast in emotional or recitative measure. The prevalent almost unconscious translation of the poetry of the Bible into hard fact or "frozen truth" has been very harmful to its usefulness and right interpretation.

A good example of Oriental teaching through imagination of the fictional variety is found in the Book of Judges (ix, 8-15).
"The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? And the trees said unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine which cheereth God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon."

A strong simile of the varieties of human character, of current events of the time, and prophetic of their outcome.

The Book of Jonah is undoubtedly fable rather than history. Whether or not the brief story has any historic background, the main purpose — the teaching of great moral principles through hyperbole—is entirely evident. Through an imaginative story, it is graphically taught that the clear call of duty cannot be evaded or left behind with impunity. When the "word of the Lord" comes distinctly to us, demanding active conformity, it is in vain that we flee away. An attempt to evade the divine obligation is tantamount to absolute' denial. Anger and selfishness also receive a stern rebuke from the voice of God in the soul. The story is not that of the strange adventures of a man, but of the varying impulses of the heart. All phases of character are brought into a focus of light by the dramatic handling of imaginative material.

To interest and arouse the childlike temperament of the Eastern races, the picturesque method of teaching is indispensable. Dr. K. C. Anderson, in his most valuable and interesting work, "The Larger Faith," observes:

"What we are to see in the narratives of the Nativity is the religious imagination of the first Christians endeavoring to construct for their already idealized Messiah a fitting dramatic entrance into the world. To suppose that angels literally articulated to the shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem that the Messiah had been that day born, that the heavens were literally opened, disclosing a multitude of the heavenly host, and that there was literally sung, audible to outward ears, the words of the Christian anthem, 'Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men,' is to take all poetry out of the exquisite narratives, and to lose the fine spiritual truth which comes home to the imagination and heart of man. Not only is it not true that to make these narratives the poetical vestments of sublime truths is to reject them as worthless, it is only when we cease to regard them as bald statements of outward facts, and treat them as poetry, as drama, that we preserve them for religious use. For historical criticism will continually protest against the former interpretation, and the common sense of men will continually reject it. The account of the star — wonderful, mystical — of the wise men traveling far from the east, of the angels looking down from heaven and singing wondrous songs, is not history, but poetry."

The imagination is the great inspiration of life and takes hold of things unseen and eternal, while formal fact and logic meet with a much feebler response in man. The absence of faith and optimism in moral and spiritual things is a radical limitation. No "day of Pentecost" could ever be the result of mere prosaic statements, even though they be facts. The ideal must be in advance of present realization. The creative and soul-moving forces of religion reside in the beatific zone of consciousness. Some philosopher has said: "Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws." The Christian consciousness far transcends the influence of the historic confession. Hymnology, whether pure or faulty, has done far more in shaping religious belief than the whole consensus of theological dogmas. In the great evangelistic tours of Moody and Sankey through the English-speaking world it is probable that the service of song, in its power upon men, far outweighed that which came from exhortation. The great anthems, oratorios, chorals, and even the single voice — each at favoring times and seasons has melted the hearts of multitudes. Scores of thousands were enraptured and uplifted beyond measure by hearing the greatest of modern vocalists sing, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

Eloquence and the art of oratory, even when not directly exercised upon poetic themes are essentially poetic in their nature. Why are they so little in evidence in the modern presentation of the gospel? Doubtless the prosaic and materialistic trend in life is so general that a greater degree of feeling and Oriental method would seem to be out of accord. How few in the modern ministry read the Bible in public with power! A clear and finely modulated voice is almost a poem in itself. The truth needs more eloquent and fluent presentation, and it is to be hoped that the decline in oratory may be arrested. Expressive delivery with the charm of intonation, gesture, and impressiveness should be revived, for these are far more important than theological scholasticism. The genius who has the imaginative art to light up truth and paint it in attractive garb possesses a molding power upon the hearts of mankind to which the distinctive logician cannot aspire. The Christianity of bare bald doctrine may exist but must struggle to live.

Intellectual self-sufficiency disparages the intuitive faculty, and sometimes even denies it a place. Applying this discrimination to the doctrine of the Resurrection, a very prominent clergyman has well observed: "If the resurrection of Jesus is made so material and historic as to eclipse the spiritual Jesus (Christ), if he is made so local and temporal as to be a mere idol of the ever-living and ever-present Emanuel, there is religious decadence and not progress." If the human soul is to be "saved," those who are to engage in the work first of all should study its approaches, its features, its methods, and the kindling of its native forces, instead of directing their attention almost wholly to objective fact and dogma. An engine may be never so perfect in every detail, but until the steam is applied in conformity with its own working laws it is as useless as so much junk.

To consider the stories of the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Deluge, and Noah and the Ark, as legendary, symbolic, or even mythical, gaining through them a higher interpretation, is not to disparage the Bible but to honor and illuminate it. No enemy of the Scripture and the true gospel could damage them more than their avowed friends who mistake the poetic and imaginative method of teaching for the hard outline of truth.

If the "Word of God" is to flow into souls and shape itself to their vacancies and needs, it must be rendered in plastic rather than rigid form. The very primal purpose of divine truth is to fit itself to man, and it is spiritual tragedy to crowd upon him that which he cannot assimilate. The great variety of literary style and the diversity of light and shade combine to give it a unique charm. Its grand truths are rendered variously adaptable and graphic through poetry, fiction, hyperbole, sarcasm, metaphor, and anecdote.

The writers who have most influenced the world, whether biblical or otherwise, are those who have been profoundly imaginative. They are not dreamy or impractical souls but of creative ability and useful activity. They point out not only underlying laws, but also have glimpses of the ideal and perfect in the ultimate meaning of things. The work of the imagination, well done, is true art. There is unity, harmony, and proportion of detail, and the summing up is beauty. The Bible is a Book of spiritual inspiration and delight. It presents a kaleidoscopic vision of life, and its pattern “in the Mount" serves as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. The imagination is preeminently a religious faculty, but how largely in practice it is relegated to a lower range! Strip prosaism from life and the Bible, and their inherent charms will draw all men and win their hearts.

"I slept, and dreamed that Life was Beauty,
I woke, and found that Life was Duty.
Was my dream, then, a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream shall be
A noon-day light and truth to thee."

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Henry Wood

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