May 29, 2014

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully

What pressed me to request a review copy of this highly recommended book from Crossway was the title, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, which expresses my yearning for poetry – both yours and mine.

If you have searched and searched, as I have, for Christian poet-mentors to study, you know how difficult it can be to find one who does not see beauty as saccharine and who does not write unrealistic poems that tap-tap their iambic feet onto paper from Miss Goody's two shoes! And so this slender hardback comes to our rescue, featuring three poets, writers, and pray-ers worth emulating: George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis.

Although each of these writers makes use of different genres to address their honest doubts, worries, and concerns, they all keep searching for God until they find, see, and express the beauty that's bound to blossom with fresh words and refreshed faith and hope.

As the sixth book in The Swans Are Not Silent series by John Piper, this book was most likely written with Christian educators and pastors in mind, rather than poets and writers. Regardless, the book speaks clearly to any communicator for Christ, exhorting us to consider the poetic effort in the poetry of Herbert, preaching of Whitefield, and creative writings of Lewis.

The Introduction defines that premise by saying, “This effort was the God-dependent intention and exertion to find striking, penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways of expressing the excellencies they saw. My thesis is that this effort to say beautifully is, perhaps surprisingly, a way of seeing and savoring beauty.”

Whether in writing or speaking, we choose our words and how we use them – hesitantly, softly, boldly, accusingly, or beautifully. We want to move people to hear and heed, which “may be one reason why the Bible is filled with every manner of literary device to add natural impact: acrostics, alliteration, analogies, anthropomorphism, assonance, cadence, chiasmus, consonance, dialogue, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, paradox, parallelism, repetition, rhyme, satire, simile…and more.”

Anglican pastor, George Herbert (1593-1633) “called his poems the record of his conflict with God,” and yet “his skill in the use of language has earned him the high praises in the twentieth century from T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney.” Never aiming for “art for art’s sake,” Herbert consecrated his poems to God’s glory, aiming to “feel the love of God and to engrave it in the steel of human language for others to see and feel.” In this role as the secretary of God’s praise, “Herbert discovered… that the poetic effort to speak the riches of God’s greatness gave him deeper sight into that greatness.” In other words, “this effort to see and savor the glory of Christ was the effort to say it as it had never been said before.”

Oh, how great such an aim with no thought of a brand or platform!

Similarly, in the 18th century, George Whitefield’s sermons became “a phenomenon not just of his age but in the entire two-thousand-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power.”

“Whitfield’s poetic effort focused on the making of sermons” where “specific biblical passages and doctrines were chosen, and specific words, sequences, consonances, assonances, cadences, images, narratives, characters, tones, pathoses, gestures, movements, facial expressions – all combined for an astonishing impact on believer and unbeliever alike.” In other words, his “poetic effort to speak and act in suitable ways wakened in him the reality he wanted to communicate. For him the truths of the gospel were so real – so wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real – that he could not and would not preach them as though they were unreal or merely interesting.”

Closer to our time, C.S. Lewis came to Christ through logic and reason, which “led him to see that truth and beauty and justice and science would have no validity at all if there were no transcendent God in whom they were all rooted.” However, he reasoned that “if the key to the deepest meaning of this world lies outside this world then the world will probably be illumined most deeply not simply by describing the world as what it is but by likening the world to what it is not.” By using “metaphor, analogy, illustration, simile, poetry, story, myth – all of these are ways of likening aspects of reality to what it is not, for the sake of showing more deeply what it is.”

So, how does this affect us in our writing and speaking endeavors? As series author John Piper says, “Groping for awakening words in the darkness of our own dullness can suddenly flip a switch and shed light all around what it is that we are trying to describe – and feel. Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself. Telling of beauty in new words becomes a way of tasting more of the beauty itself.”

Sometimes this simply means praying before we speak or write, giving our work to God, and giving God and the work the time needed to speak beautifully to us and others. As one of my favorite Bible verses says it, “With You (God) is the fountain of life, and in Your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9.) Amen!

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, hardcover

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