In Defense of Poetry

There are songs sung today in many churches that have lyrically raised the eyebrow of many a backyard theologian. Today, I would like to speak to these well-intentioned people with a gentle tone of rebuke because I think they have become accidentally judgmental about something God wants us to embrace. Let me get to it then.

One song that comes to mind is called simply, “Holy Spirit,” written by Bryan and Katie Torwalt, a husband and wife duo from California. Rather than post the entire lyrics to the song here, just click here for the YouTube video with lyrics:

The chorus of the song invites the Holy Spirit into the songwriter’s presence, asking Him to “fill the atmosphere.”

I have heard from many who bemoan the theological inaccuracy of this invitation, reminding any who would listen that the Holy Spirit 1) needs no inviting, 2) does not occupy physical space, and 3) already dwells in the hearts of believers. For these reasons, they would, at the least, not sing the song in church and ideally ban the song from rotation altogether.

So, are these concerned Christians being needlessly uptight? Doesn’t the Bible warn us against false teaching and command us to cling to the truth of Scripture? We shouldn’t misrepresent God in our very worship services, should we?

Well, hold up there, Irenaeus. I think we would all do well to take a moment and reflect on some other eyebrow-raising lyrics:

“[King David] asked life of you, You gave it to him, length of days forever and ever.”

That quote comes from Psalm 21:4. It’s a psalm of David, which means he is referring to himself in this verse. So, what’s the problem? Well, David died of course. Yet this verse seems to imply that God made it so that David would live forever and ever. Guess the lyricist made a mistake, seeing as how he died and all.

Instantly, all my fellow Bible enthusiasts out there will remind me that David was speaking of the king’s lineage which would lead to Jesus Christ whose kingdom IS forever. I reply with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, “Well, that’s not what the verse says!”

The aforementioned Bible enthusiasts come back at me a second time with, “Well, that’s what it means!”

And that’s the real point I am trying to make. How did we conclude that “God gave the king length of days forever and ever” means that David’s kingdom would lead to Christ’s, which is forever? We realized that verse 4 is a line of poetry. It was speaking figuratively. It doesn’t mean that David himself would live forever and ever.

So, what does all this have to do with the so-called heresy in the song, “Holy Spirit?” What is a song if not a melodic poem? Did it ever occur to anyone that the lyrics of the Torvalt song might be poetic instead of literal?

If what I’m saying is true, we should be able to read the chorus of “Holy Spirit” and come away with a potentially heartwarming yet still theologically accurate message.

What do we mean by saying the Holy Spirit is welcome “in this place?” It means that those who sing the song together (in a church, at a Christian camp, etc.) want to surrender themselves to the Holy Spirit, an act we apparently need to do every hour of every day. What does it mean when we invite Him to “flood this place and fill the atmosphere?” This is a line means that we need the presence of the Holy Spirit to such a degree that it would be like breathing Him in because He is like the air. He gives life to us and to be apart from Him is like dying. It’s a call to deeper closeness and spiritual intimacy. The song is about the renewal of one’s desire to be close to God by about surrendering oneself regularly to His Spirit.

So, before you go tearing the next Chris Tomlin tome apart with your heresy hacksaw, take a moment to reflect on the legitimacy of poetry in God’s literature. You might conclude that David wasn’t the only one allowed to write metaphors in song.

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