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Book review: The Bible and Poetry by Michael Edwards, translated by Stephen E. Lewis

09 February 2024

This view of the Bible challenges systematics, says Anthony Phillips

THE distinguished poet and scholar Michael Edwards contends that, in contrast to theology, the presence of poetry, in which the Bible abounds, is the key to a more faithful reading. The words of the poem as they stand convey what God reveals to us. Edwards regards systematic theology “as an error”.

The author indicates that everything that he has to say flows from his conversion experience. The Bible convinced him not by arguments or proofs, but by the strength of its words. They vibrate with power. But he recognises of necessity that we exist between belief and the absence of belief. True faith is out of reach. “We depend on the goodness of the Creator and the Saviour.”

Edwards reminds theologians to remember that the Bible was not written for philosophers. Nor does it owe its origins to European traditions, but to its Jewish heritage — for instance, in the way it speaks of God. Nearly everything “is simple — brief and jargon-free” and “much more joyful . . . compared with what theology can invent”. Edwards rejects the urge to prove the existence of God: “He is not an ‘object of thought’”, but “a presence acting on the earth and everywhere”.

Turning to the Last Supper, the author laments that this act, which should unite Christians, has become a scandal of disunity, owing to the adding of human words to the word of God. Jesus offers no explanation of what he meant, and we should be content with a literal reading of his words.

There follows a discussion of the mysterious nature of poetry itself. Edwards holds that “the poet understands that the things he feels and the words he employs come in part from elsewhere,” before asserting the special nature of biblical poetry, which is both human and divine at the same time.

Further discussion of biblical poetry follows in chapters on Isaiah’s call, the Psalter, Song of Songs, the New Testament, and St Luke. Edwards concludes that poetry in which there is no room for paraphrase “offers itself as a more exact and appropriate means to speak of God and of everything concerning him”. Indeed, “Biblical poetry suggests above all that everything in the Christian religion is strange, foreign.” By embracing that religion and its way of life, “the Christian himself becomes strange.”

While there is much prose in the Bible, and people come to belief in many different ways, none the less, Edwards’s study, delivered with considerable passion, constitutes a profound challenge to the way in which theologians interpret the Bible. As post-exilic writings show, the Hebrews’ attempt to understand their relationship with God in terms of the Near Eastern suzerainty treaties misread the nature of their God, as does so much Christian writing on the atonement. Quite simply, God is love, and it is with that love that the pages of the Bible “vibrate”.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

The Bible and Poetry
Michael Edwards
Stephen E. Lewis, translator
New York Review of Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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