Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Poetics of Religion

If you spend any significant amount of time learning about religion, you find that poetry is an integral part of ancient religion. The fact that religion has lost most of its poetry may explain some of the decline in religion these days.

Have you ever heard a song that was able to transport you to another place at another time? Maybe it reminds you of something from your childhood or in your adolescence, or a person you used to love (or still do). Music seems to have a magical quality about it.

Music can imprint on our memory in a way ordinary spoken or written words can’t, and people can remember the lyrics to songs better than other quotes, even if the lyrics don’t seem to make any sense. Children’s nursery rhymes have this same quality. Rhymes and rhythms stick with us, and religion used to rhyme.

The Old Testament is mostly written in a fashion that can be sung, and this method allowed it to be committed to memory easier than by simply reading prose. The mythology of Greece and Rome was primarily passed down in epic poems, as with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. I think you would be hard pressed to find a religion that wasn’t started in the last 200 years that didn’t rely heavily upon poetry and song.

This is part of why I think Scientology will never really catch on; there’s no Scientology songs, and the texts of the religion read like a text book. Scientology is less of a religion than it is an expensive set of classes. People don’t like school enough for Scientology to take off in a big way. It’s just as well that Scientology doesn’t have music, though, because a Scientology CD would probably cost thousands of dollars.

Besides actual poetry, people are also pretty good at remembering stories. For some reason, a narrative tale is easier to remember than just a list of facts and ideas.

It’s a strange condition. We seem to remember things in a non-meaningful way. What have you learned from “Three Blind Mice,” or “Little Bopeep?” How many songs do you love… and yet have no idea what they’re talking about (most songs by Hendrix and Zappa come to mind)?

I suppose what is important is not how we have no connection with the majority, but those few and far between connections we make with certain select pieces. Out of hundreds of songs we remember but don’t care too much for, we have a song that seems to be about us, or it speaks to us in some profound way. Out of all the books and stories we read, a few touch us in a way that, oddly enough, cannot be put into words.

There is something written between the lines of great art that speaks to a select few. Those that speak to the masses become canon, they are the masterpieces of culture, the works that not only explain the human experience in a profound way, but are even capable of shaping human behavior.

The stories of ancient religions, despite being stripped of their poetry through clumsy translations, retain a profound capacity. This is why even the myths of long-dead religions are still read by millions across the globe, and why the Bible will still be read after Christianity withers. Dianetics probably won’t last long, though.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have anything to add to that, but that's a really fascinating line of thought. Hm...


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