Oh God! well look at you now!
Oh! you lost it, but you don’t know how!
In the light of a golden calf,
Oh God! I had to laugh!
—"Neon Bible," The Arcade Fire
Five months ago I wrote that I would be starting a project to read the whole Bible. I pursued this project with a great deal of excitement at first, which slowly diminished to diligence, and then to lethargy, over the first half of 2013. I set out intending to finish the project after a few months (I gave it three, tops) and move on to other pursuits. This was misguided, though not for the reasons you might think. It wasn't the fact that the material was boring or alienating because of its ancient character (I was raised with this stuff, after all, and have spent much of my adult life investigating it), nor that it was simply too long to read all in one go (at ~700,000 words, it's pretty long, but I've engaged in similarly long projects without tiring out—I'm looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire). The problem, my friends, was poetry.
Reading Biblical prose is easy for me. In just about any prose text in the Bible, one idea follows the next in a logical sequence, usually keeping to chronological and/or cause-and-effect order. If you encounter something weird, you plow through it until you come across something more understandable and interesting. There is a plot or a narrative of some kind, so it's easy to stay engaged because you want to find out what's next. Plus, there's a feeling of excitement and discovery when things are new, and a feeling of returning to something beloved when they are not.
Biblical poetry, alas, is a different beast altogeter. Unlike much of the poetry of the ancient Near East, Biblical poems are virtually never used to tell an extended story, with the rare exceptions being retellings or references to a story that the poet assumes is known by the audience (see for example "historical" Psalms like Psalms 78, 105, and 106). Even when a poem tells a story in such a case, there is never any exposition to help the reader along. And in all events, most Biblical poems serve other purposes.
So it was with some dismay that I hit the middle portion of the Christian Bible, which is almost exclusively poetic in content, and realized that the pace I'd achieved during the previous sections was not going to be sustainable. (In my Bible, the distance between the beginning and end of the predominantly poetic books [i.e., Job to Malachi] is a little under 700 pages, roughly one third of the total.) Reading Biblical poetry is taxing; it forces you to either slow down and take it in (to try to analyze it for deeper meaning), or to rush through it and exhaust yourself with a task that starts to seem meaningless after a while (this is what I did).
Because I got exhausted reading poetry, and because the project was keeping me from doing more fun reading, I stopped for the month of May. To get prepped to start again, I'm rereading a favorite book, The Art of Biblical Poetry, by Robert Alter. In it, Alter lays out the features that make Biblical poetry unique and beautiful (specifically, a kind of dynamic parallelism, where things are stated and then restated in a way that makes them more interesting and moves the action of the poem forward). Alter makes a very compelling case for the poetry of the Bible as a interesting and important kind of art, in addition to its religious meaning for many, myself included. Thanks to his work, I'm looking forward to restarting this project in the days to come.
Photo 1: www.flickr.com/photos/skeggzatori/4278335002/
Photo 2: www.flickr.com/photos/vblibrary/4596177185
Photo 3: www.flickr.com/photos/joshme17/2143980427