Jefferson Bethke’s poem, “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” has gone “viral,” as they say, and with all youtube videos come comments, both positive and negative, hopeful and discouraging. In reading the comments and blogs and listening to the poem written by Jefferson again and again, I believe there is a gulf between the artist and the theologian. There are limits to both perspectives but, because of social media and its vast influence, they must engage one another.
First, poems don’t have footnotes.They stand alone as pieces of art before a reader. A poem can’t display the toiling over the choice of one word versus another or the time spent praying that what the poet is trying to say will be received the way that he or she actually intended. Artists introvert their “process” by nature and produce a product. Simply put, a poem is not a straightforward exegesis of a text, because that would be an essay or a dissertation.
Which brings me to exactly what theologians do. They toil day and night writing books and sermons on one word or a single concept. They find supporting texts, helpful quotes, construct and extend metaphors and then explain those metaphors in a valiant effort “not to be taken the wrong way.” Theology by its nature is exhaustive and in most cases not poetic.
Therefore, when Jefferson says “religion,” as a poet he places it in the context of our culture without explaining what that context is. He builds on implied points and does not include James 1:27b, Matthew 23, or Romans 8e. He says the “Gospel” assuming that we all know John 3:16 without extrapolating on Shalom Theology, the wrath of God, and the wages of sin. Sadly, poetry does not always allow for these to be included, because it is a poem.
So the theologian does what theology calls for. He or she breaks down the poem verse by verse. He defines terms, defines a context, and places the poem against his chosen doctrine. Then she might state a case for approval or disapproval with a point by point analysis and draw a conclusion to point the “flock” in the “right” direction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow for metaphors to stand alone, similes to be open to interpretation, or images to go unexplained, because it is theology.
Poetry speaks to a time or context and may only be wisdom for a season because “hot” sometimes means “cool” and “wicked” is somehow a compliment in Boston. There is poetry that is timeless, but I believe the number of poems read in the 1800s is vastly larger than those we study from that time today.
Conversely, good theology and sound doctrine speak to generations. C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Boenhoffer, Jonathan Edwards, St.Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others have toiled over philosophy, art, vocation and more to see where the eternal truth of the Gospel is directing His people.
Poetry at its best is theologically sound and theology at its best is poetic and accessible. Sadly, the gulf between poets and theologians can be wide and those on both sides hard to find. Praise God that more poets are talking to theologians and more theologians reading poetry.
Jonathan Walton is a poet, activist, and Director of InterVarsity's New York City Urban Project. This post first appeared here on NYCUP's blog.