Michael Edwards is an English-born French poet and scholar, and he argues that it’s important to recognize that much of the Bible is written as poetry or as poetic prose, particularly the most important parts.

In the newly published The Bible and Poetry, Edwards warns about the dangers of translating the word of God into another language, specifically the temptation to paraphrase what is odd or ambiguous or startling — in other words, what’s poetic:

Translators sometimes permit themselves to make small modifications of the text of the Bible by interpreting it. Theologians change it even more when they follow, in part unwittingly, the pathways of European thought.

For the latter and the former, their motives are pure, their consciences at peace, but they nevertheless give in to a temptation. It is to be feared that in this context and in certain circumstances, paraphrase is diabolical speech.

That may seem to be a harsh judgement.  But Edwards goes on to say that it is a “devil’s trick” when such scholars decide to substitute for a word in the Bible some other word that, instead of being accurate, is approximate, equivocal or even contrary.

This trick veils the divine language and aims to stifle its authority and power.

Wiggle room

In The Bible and Poetry, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, Edwards, a Roman Catholic convert in his teens, is writing as a believer first and as a literary critic second.  For him, this problem of paraphrasing isn’t about literature — it’s about the meaning of life and the word of God as conveyed in the Bible.

He agrees that theologians are important but can become misguided. This is because of their tendency in the West to try to fit the Biblical text into the structures of European thought, even though “the Bible, a stranger to our habits, was not written for philosophers.” 

As an example, Edwards looks at what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven:

He never says that it is defined in this way or that, by propositions to be dissected; he always says that it lets itself be glimpsed through comparisons to ponder, or in short stories that must be explored.

Here, it seems to me, is the core of what Edwards says about the poetry of the Bible. 

Prose seeks to lock down ideas with logic and clarity so there is no wiggle room.  Poetry, by contrast, is all about wiggle room. 

Poetry is all about “glimpsing” something — say, the kingdom of God — without constraining it by rules and tenets, without defining it.  Poetry is about open-ended ideas and images that are there to be “explored.”

Prose tries to build a room and determine every item inside that room. 

Poetry stands out in the open — whether in a desert or a city or in a jungle — and is awash with a great deal of thoughts, emotions, sensations, some of which are to be expected but others, such as a bird suddenly flying past at eye level, are unsettling, maybe in a pleasurable way but maybe a distressing way.

“Denaturing the biblical word”

When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says it is like a lot of things.  Edwards cites them, and his list is worth repeating here:

  • “a man sowing good seed in his field”
  • “a grain of mustard seed”
  • “leaven which a woman took and hid”
  • “a treasure hidden in a field”
  • “a merchant in search of fine pearls”
  • “a net which was thrown into the sea”
  • “a king who wished to settle accounts”
  • “a householder who went out early in the morning”
  • “a king who gave a marriage feast for his son”
  • “ten virgins who took their lamps”
  • “a man who, going on a journey, called his servants”

This is nothing like how a philosopher or theologian would go about defining an important religious concept.  Yet, Edwards contends that the lack of logical structure or delineation of meaning is extremely important.

These comparisons are there to help the believer understand that the kingdom of heaven “escapes our comprehension, and that we can approach it only through imagination and lived experience….they indicate that the kingdom of heaven is indeed ‘near,’ that it fills the here and now and the fabric of life.”

Theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, try to answer questions that, Edwards writes, the Bible does not ask.

The writers of the New Testament are totally indifferent, for example, to the “problem” posed by the fact that Jesus was without sin yet at the same time born of a woman.  No one denies, moreover, this indifference.  It is very difficult for us not to denature the biblical word with our ways of thinking and our vocabulary.

“Simple — brief and jargon-free”

Some of the ways in which the Bible describes God are straightforward, such as that God is good, is true, is love.  Others, though, are poetic and appeal to the imagination, such as “God is light” (1 John 1:5).  Edward writes:

If we try to explain these few words by paraphrasing them, we lose their dazzling simplicity.  Nearly everything the Bible says of God is simple — brief and jargon-free — as if to suggest that the incommensurable immensity of the Creator culminates…in a concentration of infinite power.

Edwards writes that, of all the names of God in the Bible, the most fundamental is “the living God,” and goes on the say, “We seek the life of God, which moves among us, a life that is not ours but of which a living face, a living landscape, a living work, gives us a faint but eloquent sign.”

It’s worth nothing that I checked more than 30 translations at biblehub.com and found that all of them retained “God is light” and “the living God.”  So, in this case at least, translators haven’t sought to paraphrase the Bible’s words.

On the other hand, there have been thousands of years of attempts to go beyond such words and make everything clearer.

We know that God’s being is inaccessible to us, and we are eager to theorize its inaccessibility.  Seeing clearly that it is beyond us, we want to enclose it in a philosophical system.

Let me highlight that.  Edwards is pointing out that, from everything in the Bible, we can see clearly that we can’t know God’s being.  And, yet, we want to make up theories about it and contain it in philosophy. 

“Like a faithful dog, full of goodwill”

That strikes me as trying to imprison the wind.  And I suspect Edwards would agree with that image.

As for knowing if God is the “pure act of being” (Thomas Aquinas), if his being precedes his goodness, if Jesus has two natures but one energy, if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son or only from the Father, we need to realize that these inventions — and so many other inventions of philosophical theology, respectable in their way — answer questions that the Bible does not formulate, take us away from the only revelation, from the only truth we have, and attest to the existence of a professional discipline that proceeds according to its own codes and constitutes a sui generis intellectual enterprise.

Edwards states that God “alone knows the coherence of all things on earth, and in heaven, and…gives us marvelous glimpses of it in the Bible.” It is ridiculous, he argues, to attempt to explain the unexplainable.

To try to grasp the Most High God, creator of the universe, from outside what he has delivered to us is to behave like a faithful dog, full of goodwill, who seeks to understand why his master especially appreciates the final quartets of Beethoven.

Resounding with a divine Presence

In the New Testament, Edwards writes, Jesus provides insight to his being through “a kaleidoscope of images: bread, the vine, the door, the shepherd…And faith in Christ is aroused by the Bible, received not as an invitation to philosophize, but as a ‘poetic’ work.”

The use of the word “aroused” by Edwards is interesting.  It’s an apt way of suggesting that Jesus isn’t trying to prove that faith in him is necessary, but instead is trying to entice those who read or hear his words. 

No great painting has the words written on it THIS IS A GREAT PAINTING. Indeed, the whole idea of great painting is beside the point.  A great painting is one that is simply itself, the creation of its creator.  It is there naked to the viewer, and, when it is great, it entices the viewer to interact with it, it arouses in the viewer a wide array of thoughts and feelings through the viewer’s imagination.

For the believer, Edward writes, the word of God “touches and disturbs” — the biblical words themselves touch and disturb.

Have we lost the feeling of the power of this word by wanting to promote Christianity, by trying to hard to show it to be plausible and reasonable, or indeed, in certain settings and with a complete scorn for the biblical message, humanly attractive?

The Bible, Edwards writes, “resounds with a divine Presence whose authority is in need of nothing to make itself felt.”

And the best way to approach the Bible, to be present to God’s word, he writes, is “through imagination and lived experience.”

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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