Good literature refuses to tell it straight.

This past year, to pass time during recurring coronavirus lockdowns, I’ve been reading the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I must confess that despite having been assigned a lot of Shakespeare in school, I never actually read a full play of his until recently. Sure, we supposedly read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar in English literature classes. But like any enterprising youth in the internet age, I discovered convenient online summaries that enabled me to pass the reading quizzes.

As part of my ongoing experiments in adulting I decided to absolve myself of earlier transgressions and get to know the Bard. Imagine my surprise when, as I braced myself to swallow the bitter medicine, I discovered — hey! This is actually quite good!

From my Ikea reading chair in my Belfast study, I have met unforgettable characters. Some of them, if I’m honest, seem to be more real — or at least more interesting — than several of my in-the-flesh friends (don’t tell them I said so!)


What strikes me about Shakespeare’s genius is that he never tells me someone is going mad. He shows me. For example, this week I met Richard II. Even just reading black print on creamy page, without the benefit of an actor’s performance, I watched King Richard’s mind implode. As the play progressed, his dialogue regressed. Once so eloquent, he started to repeat words, fixating on the smallest minutiae. His language became, indeed, playful. But in a sort of terrifying way. No one had to tell me, He’s losing it.” I could just see it.

When a truth is shown, rather than told, it connects. Emily Dickinson has a scrumptious poem about this:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Poetry — all good literature, really — never tells it straight. It tells it slant”. The bigger the truth, the brighter the superb surprise”, and the more we need to take it in at an angle. Of course, we know this about emotional truths: I’ve never cried, that I can recall, reading an op-ed in The Guardian. Yet I dare you, dear reader, to remain dry-eyed watching My Dog Skip.

In addition to the teary feels, the sublime and the profound must also capture our imaginations before they can saturate our intellect. Unless these dazzle gradually” we run the risk of blindness, like staring straight at the sun. Our delight-buckets are too floppy, too infirm”.

But what does this all have to do with what it means to be human? How does this help us read the God story?

To begin, most of the Bible communicates to us in story or in poetry. We can’t take in the full sun of God’s glory direct. We need the slant of narrative and the grammar of poetry.

We first learn who God is and what He is like by stories. We’re given true tales of adventures and accidents, battles and births, conferences and catastrophes. But we’re also given poetic imagery. We learn about God through doors and darkness, in eagles and in ebenezers, in fire and in fathers. God reveals himself through gates and ghosts, husbands and horns. He is Immanuel and Invisible. All of these pictures give us something concrete. These tangibles found in the poetic and the narrative passages are the stuffing that fills out the more specialised vocabulary in other parts of the Bible: words like glory, holy, and righteous.

One thing this means for us is that, in order to get all that we can out of the God story, we can be greatly helped by learning to read literature. We recently spoke with Karen Swallow Prior on the podcast, who has a passion for teaching Christians to be better readers. If over a third of the scriptures use poetry or poetic language (a conservative estimate at best) then the skills that help us read Keats and Milton will help us read Job and Isaiah, and vice versa. And learning how to read Dickens and Tolstoy will help us read Exodus and Luke.

Jesus, like the literary masters, shows us what God is like. He tells it slant in parables and stories. He also came to teach and preach and tell it to us straight. Jesus shows and He tells. It shows us something profound that Jesus chose to enter the story He authored. As convincing as Shakespeare’s characters are, even if He had written himself into a play, it would still be just another character. Clever, to be sure, but not really real.

The Word, however, truly became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the poem of God, like Lightning to the Children eased” that makes all the imagery and poetic language of God’s spoken word more than just a metaphor. The metaphor has become reality in the flesh of Christ.

The Author and the Word are one and the same. The story and poetry of the scripture aren’t mere plays of word, like those of King Richard II as he was losing his mind. The realness of the language isn’t merely like the visceral feeling I get when I encounter one of Shakespeare’s characters who seem to jump of the page.

The Word really is the Author. He really swallowed the bitter cup for you and for me. So now, when we drink of His cup, we can be surprised that it’s actually good — very good, in fact. He has spoken a new story over you. And you, in Christ (yes, you!) are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). You are His poiéma.