How Art Moved Me Beyond the Cliché

Have you ever felt stuck between reading Scripture as either too clichéd or too academic? Our Bibles seem clichéd when we’re reading familiar texts like John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, and Philippians 4:13, as the verses we memorized in Awana or see on billboards begin to wear thin.

Approaching Scripture in an overly academic manner runs to the opposite extreme, where we obsess over meaning but reach the same net effect: dullness of heart. We see this among pastors who treat the Bible like a job manual, or seminarians who treat it like a textbook.

The best antidotes to these problems are regularly sitting under faithful preaching and regularly studying God’s Word. But we often overlook another important supplement: the power of artists to bring Scripture’s truths from the head to the heart.

Head to Heart

As a former pastor of mine once remarked, poets are “shepherds of words.” They facilitate wonder and awe in the face of our miraculous existence; they lift the veil to let us see the reality of God’s work in the world.

If this is true of great poetry and prose, then it must be even more true of Scripture. I remember my college creative writing professor remarking that if the Bible weren’t true, critics would be free to consider it the greatest work of literature in human history. This God-breathed collection of letters, songs, and historical accounts on which we stake our beliefs and lives isn’t merely a theology textbook; it’s poetry and literature of the highest order.

But how can we read and experience the Bible in a way that blends oxygen and nitrogen in our hearts? How can our regular reading flavor the beliefs we affirm? The Spirit comes and goes like the wind, independent of human control, but he often works most profoundly through the hands of gifted artists.

These days, our most popular and accessible poets are songwriters. Below are two examples of times their craft has helped me overcome the cliché and move past the academic, freeing me to experience the poetic power of God’s Word.  

Overcoming the Cliché

I recently read through the Psalms—one song every morning or evening. But when I got to Psalm 23, something happened. I read through it in a minute or two, and not a single substantive thought went through my head. When I reached the end, my mind was blank.

Why? Because it’s Psalm 23! Everyone knows it. I’ve probably had it memorized since I was 7 years old. Over the years, the psalm has dissolved, for me, into a rote sequence of words.

What a shame. Gratefully, I remember Jon Foreman’s song “House of God Forever.” Take a moment to listen and contemplate:

God is my Shepherd, I won’t be wanting
I won’t be wanting
He makes me rest in fields of green, by quiet streams
Even though I walk through the valley of death and dying
I will not fear, ‘cause you are with me
You’re always with me

The Shepherd’s staff comforts me,
You are my feast in the presence of enemies
Surely goodness will follow me
Follow me in the house of God forever.

Foreman’s lyrics paraphrase the original text, virtually identical in substance, but don’t they make the psalm spring to life? The tender timbre of the music captures the intimacy of the divine shepherd’s relationship to his sheep and the peace only they can know. It reclaims and even proclaims the truth under the cliché, reminding us how the Psalm 23 was meant to be heard and experienced.

No critical analysis can explain the mystery of how this works. The words are immediately recognizable, yet put to music and slightly alrered they feel fresh and free of pretense. They comfort my heart by stirring my affections with a melody that rarely fails to move my soul.

Beauty Before Controversy

Talented arists highlight the forgotten beauty amid the well-known and mundane. They also disarm our propensities to fight and argue, inviting us to sit back and behold instead. 

I’m reminded of the Oh Hellos’s song “I Was Wrong,” which opens “I was born; I was born in the hands of the Potter.” 

These words reference the controversial passage from Romans 9:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

Books have been written and churches have split over the questions this passage raises. Does God choose us, or do we choose him? How can we have free will if we’re putty in the hands of divine omnipotence? Theologically and philosophically, it’s a difficult issue to square with our human notions of fairness.

Such debates can be good and necessary, but they can cause us to lose sight of the metaphor’s mysterious beauty: the hands of the Potter. Merged with the concept of birth, in the song the Potter’s hands become a tender, comforting thing for the Christian, suggesting that each and every life is a work of craftsmanship—precious, unique, purposeful.

Listen as the song descends from creation to fallenness, identifying with Adam in the garden: “I was torn from the start. I was torn between my God and my Father. . . . I was young, stubborn to the bone, as I took from the tree that was rotting.” Then comes the wretched conclusion: “I knew you’d never forgive me.” And yet, at this great moment of despair, the song reverts course and seizes on to hope: “But I was wrong.” Indeed!

Now go back to the opening metaphor of birth in the Potter’s hands. As the prophet Jeremiah says, the divine Potter forgives those who seek redemption from their evil ways. He’s in the business of reshaping and restoring what’s broken.

Lift Up Your Voice

These two songs remind me why Christians need poets and musicians. We need each generation to keep creating so we can see old truths afresh, so we can remember what it felt like to glimpse the light and be loved by God for the first time.

And so, dear artist, I call on you. String your guitar, take up your pen, lift up your voice, play it out. Show us those ancient truths once again, like we’ve never seen them before.

Editors’ note: A shorter version of this article appeared at Humane Pursuits.