On a rainy spring night in college, I went with some friends to a poetry reading.
I really wanted to like it. It was at a small, independent bookstore with great coffee, and many of the poets were my student colleagues and professors. But, I have to say, it just wasn’t my thing. The truth is, I’ve never felt at home with poetry. My pastoral colleague has tried valiantly to convert me, and I do respect the discipline and creativity required to compose beautiful poems, but I still prefer the directness of prose or narrative.
That being said, I love song lyrics. I particularly love song lyrics that convey an unforgettable scene, or juxtapose diverse ideas into one surprising image. I especially love song lyrics that use theological or Biblical language. While they are not exactly the same, both song lyrics and poetry share some similarities. They have the ability to convey a powerful concept in a few short words, and to invite imagination in a way that can be blunted or stilted by explanation.
While there are many good examples, none is better than Bono and U2. They have the ability to entwine the language of theology, romantic love, personal struggle, and social awareness in a way that always forces me to think differently. Their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, is no exception. One song in particular, “Moment of Surrender,” uses gripping descriptions and metaphor to speak about human relationship, but with an echo of theological language.
Sometimes the words are crystal clear. At one point, Bono claims, “It’s not if I believe in love, but if love believes in me.” I’ve been trying to say that for years in the pulpit, but I’ve never said it so clearly. Other times, the words invite the listener to stop and ponder the meaning. “I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross. Every eye looking the other way, counting down to the Pentecost.” I could try to explain what I think it means, but the gift of this kind of language is that it can mean so many things, especially when augmented by the diverse personal experience of many hearers.
The same, of course, could be said of the Bible. In addition to narrative and history, the writers of Scripture expressed themselves in metaphor and fantasy; they even used poetry. Usually in my preaching, I seek to be clear. I use the tools of humor and story and try to make plain the sense of Scripture. But preaching can be so much more. The beauty of poetic language is that it gives room for more imagination, more participation, and more questions. If, like me, you struggle with this, we can seek inspiration from Scripture itself. And, we can learn from those who have the discipline and creativity to create poetry.