Monday, May 19, 2014

Poetry, song, and the language of faith

Photo by saffroncisco
When I started asking big questions in college, when I started drowning in my own thoughts and fears and the simultaneous existential crises of my friends, I could not turn to theologians or philosophers or scientists or even pastors for respite. I see now as I look back that even when my mind was rebelling, questioning, unsettling, I had a truer kind of knowing in poetry, music, and art.

During that time of my life, and many times since, the book I have continued to return to is a lovely little reflection on faith and art: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, who writes about “probable impossibilities,” about naming and being named, about vulnerability and faithful doubt. Her approach of honest questioning, coupled with the openness to receive and affirm it all, has stayed with me.

“I have been asked if my Christianity affects my stories,” L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “and surely it is the other way around; my stories affect my faith, restore me, shake me by the scruff of the neck, and pull this straying sinner back into an awed faith.”

My stories, yes. And the stories and poems of others. My faith has been formed and re-formed and renewed in the poetry of songs and hymns and liturgy.

So at a time faithful people are abuzz with what kind of programs and churches and relationships and opportunities and strategies are the best for helping the young and the old cultivate their faiths, I want to offer simply this: let us not forget the arts.

I sang in my mom’s church choir when I was old enough to talk. And little by little, as I grew, I noticed the words in the songs. I began to cut out pieces of the church bulletin that held prayers or liturgy or music I liked. I taped them in a little pink journal. I began to close my eyes during the songs we sang, to sense the wonder of Christmas, the agony of the passion story, the joy of Easter.

The poetry of sacred music was not restricted to church, because God cannot be restricted. I found God everywhere good music and good poetry were offered.

In high school, we sang secular music, sure. We also sang gospel: The storm is passing over, hallelu. We sang Mozart: Hail true body, born of the virgin Mary, who truly suffered and sacrificed on the cross for humanity. We sang poetry, scripture, psalms, laments.

There were songs that touched my heart more deeply than any sermon. The idea of listening for God’s guidance first struck me when I was ten and sang, Do you know your shepherd’s voice?

I experienced the power of nonviolence and justice during a high school choral tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.: The world is sick with war. When I lost my voice in eleventh grade, I leaned into Jesus: if my joys and comforts die, I know Truth is living.

I felt peace in the midst of newness in my first college choir rehearsal when we sang the twenty-third Psalm, and I meant it wholeheartedly when I sang in sophomore year of college, the time of my doubt, why should I wander an alien from Thee?

And years later, I still feel shivers of truth and beauty every time I sing certain hymns.

So I think what I want to say is simply that I am grateful: to the poets, the liturgists, the composers; to the music teachers, conductors, and mothers; and to a creative God, for the ways in which art can invigorate us, pull us back to amazement, for the ways in which we, as artists, are made co-creators with God and dreamers in an unfulfilled world.



  1. Ah, I love these thoughts. I never realized how important music (especially as part of a church service) was until I moved to a new church with no musical leadership or talent. I had to fortify myself with singing along to worship songs on my iPod before I could even set foot inside the church (I have no talent, either, but I was accustomed to being surrounded by talent so I could belt out my praise in anonymity ;) ). Thank you to everyone who dedicates their talents to making church music beautiful.

  2. MaryBeth CrissmanMay 20, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    I completely understand where you're coming from. I started in the junior bell choir and children's choir as a young child, and it is what kept me with my church throughout those early formative years. As an adult, I've attended some southern services where musical accompaniment wasn't allowed at all, and it always struck me as ... weird. When we didn't sing "Morning Has Broken" on Easter morning this year, I ran to my car after mass and immediately turned it on. That must just seems like a requirement.

  3. Kirsten OliphantMay 20, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    I love her as well! Some great theological truths for me came from some of her fiction books, like why suffering exists, from a conversation between Vicky Austin and her Uncle in "The Moon by Night." This is so well-said, and I wish more people read and read all over the place to be shaped and to shape.

  4. Thanks, Anita! I think talent and leadership was important for me, but also simply the chance to experience Christian truths in a way that was less rational and more poetic. Beauty certainly helps us experience that.

  5. Thanks, Kirsten. I mean, what writer doesn't love her? I remember telling my brother at age 13 or so that if I grew up to be a writer, I wanted to be just like Madeleine L'Engle! And yes! I so related to Vicky :)

  6. Loved that last line, Katie. And M. L'Engle is one of my favorite authors. Her books gain power as I get older.

    Sometimes I think churches "cut" the arts, sort of like schools do in a budgetary crisis. I don't know of very many pastors, for instance, who stress participation in art the way they stress, say, study of scripture. It's all in the mind, these days, and not in the soul. It's fine if you want to create art, and all, but nobody really pushes you deeper into it. So churches fail to take art seriously, and so Christians have fallen out of the larger conversation of arts...what I mean is that very few fine artists are discussing faith in a serious, non-cynical manner.

    It's one of my dearest wishes to bring faith back into the conversation. Thanks for your thoughts on this.