In the beginning of time, before there was anything, there was the Word. And the Word was the very manifestation of God (John 1:1). God spoke into existence all that comprises humanity. So from the beginning, embedded at the heart of all human experience, was Word, and subsequently words. It’s no surprise then that words are paramount when it comes to communicating the gospel of Jesus, the story of the Word who became flesh.
Gospel proclamation depends on the medium of words, but not just any words. The gospel requires words composed to penetrate the deepest roots of the human soul. Every culture conveys values and emotion using the rhythm and rhyme of poetic language—idioms, proverbs, songs, parables, poems and folk tales.
Every culture produces poets and sages, individuals gifted to speak powerfully to the hearts of their people. Abai to the Kazakhs, Hafez to the Persians, Burns to the Scotts, Dostoyevski to the Russians—there will always be poets and artists who shape the thinking of a culture and give direction to its moral compass. To reference their words is to touch the heart of a culture.
There will always be poets and artists who shape the thinking of a culture and give direction to its moral compass. To reference their words is to touch the heart of a culture.
So what does this mean for those seeking to communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus in a culture where it hasn’t yet been expressed? How could we use ancient words, proverbs, and poetry unique to each culture to help people comprehend the message of the gospel?
Poetry Transforms the Heart
I believe the gospel will only take root in a culture when the poetic heart of a people is engaged. Jesus himself modeled this approach. He was well educated in the teachings, law, and poetry of Israel. “You have heard that it was said,” he would begin, and then quoted the Jewish ancients (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). His language resonated deeply in the souls of his listeners. From the foundation of ancient truth, Jesus moved them toward greater light and clearer revelation.
Ancient words are sayings that have endured the test of time. They’ve been embraced and passed on from one generation to another until they became part and parcel of the social fabric and belief system of a people. And although at times no one knows exactly who first made the statement, the words themselves are locked into the soul of a culture. Often concepts and phrases cannot simply be translated literally from one language or culture to another. Ideas that require a cataclysmic shift in the moral and spiritual character of a people must be expressed from within culture.
When Jesus confronted Saul for the first time on the Damascus road, he demonstrated this approach. Jesus spoke in the Hebrew dialect, Paul’s mother tongue—a detail important enough to the story that Paul makes a point of mentioning it. And Jesus quoted a familiar timeworn saying that connected with Paul’s deepest heart values: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Jesus questioned, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).
In this meeting—perhaps one of the most transformational gospel encounters of all time—Jesus referenced a pithy, poetic phrase well known to Paul. He had probably heard his own mother chiding him with the same phrase many times as a boy: “Paul, why do you kick against the goads?” The familiar words penetrated to the core of Paul’s soul. Humbled, Paul responded: “Who are you, Lord?”
But if Paul had been Central Asian, Jesus might have quoted a popular local expression, possibly something from the wise words of a poet like Abai. Surprised to hear such a heart-gripping traditional phrase, he would have responded the same way: “Who are you, Lord?” And that recognition, of course, is the response we’re hoping for. We want those we meet to ask, “Could you please tell me more about Jesus?”
Knowing the Poetry of the People
Like Jesus, Paul demonstrated familiarity with the poetry of the people. While addressing a curious crowd on the Areopagus in Athens, he quoted Greek classical poetry. He spoke to the hearts of the people using the words of their sages. “’In him,’” Paul quoted, “’we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your own poets have said. ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). Paul didn’t reference the Greek poets in order to disparage them, but rather to connect deeply with the hearts of his listeners. He spoke to them in familiar words that validated the culture that had shaped their identity as a people. And then Paul helped them to see how even their own poets were pointing them to the gospel.
Ideas that require a cataclysmic shift in the moral and spiritual character of a people must be expressed from within culture.
The same principle would be true for the Central Asian people I live among. As a foreigner who speaks the local language, I am often requested to participate in various public events and television specials. And in every instance the interview follows a similar pattern: First of all, the host marvels at the fact that I, a foreigner, would choose to learn the language. Invariably, then, the interviewer wants to know what I like best about the country and the people. And finally, the ordeal climaxes with a request for me to sing a local song or recite a local poem or proverb.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why hearing a foreigner share a local song mattered so much to them. But I realized that they want me to connect with them at a heart level. They’re not as interested when I simply translate my ideas into their language. But when I acknowledge that their ancient words and rich cultural heritage point to truth, they pay attention.
That’s what Paul did when he visited Athens. He essentially said, “Your poets were legit. You’re on the right track. Now let me help you to discover the full truth that your ancients were searching for.”
Open to Hearing Us Again
After the Athenians heard Paul’s speech, some of them mocked, but others responded: “We’d like to hear you again about this” (Acts 17:32). The more we know of the heart language of those we’re trying to reach, and especially their poetry and ancient words, the more likely they’ll be open to hearing us again.
Islam has taken shallow root in the Central Asian country where I live, largely because the Qur’an must be read and recited in Arabic, a language that few people here know. Arabic doesn’t connect deeply with the souls of most people in this culture. At the same time, the Old and New Testament Scriptures often seem equally foreign to them. But what if we began, as Paul did with the Greeks, to lead them to the gospel by referencing their own poets and sages, men and women who longed to know God and cried out to him with their heart cries rising to heaven in their own language? And after affirming aspects of beauty and wisdom in their poetry, we could speak of Jesus, the very Word of God who became one of us.
Hank Smith and his wife have lived and worked in Central Asia with IMB for twenty years. Their home is always full and their door is always open.
This article speaks to a specific instance of the gospel connecting to the hearts of people through poetry—specifically song—among oral learners.