I recently completed John Piper’s book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis (The Swans Are Not Silent). It’s part of The Swans Are Not Silent series and to me this is the best so far. However, I could be a bit biased as this is an area of passion for me, a passion for the Prince of Peace and the poetic effort to see and savor Him, while pointing others to do the same.
In the Introduction, Piper tackles a tremendous question and one of his biggest fears. Does poetic effort contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:17? In Paul’s writing he says, “I …did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom.” On this topic Piper notes that, “there is a way to speak the gospel — a way of eloquence or cleverness of human wisdom — that nullifies the cross of Christ.” He states it’s a fearful thing to run the risk of contradicting Scripture, but “the risk is unavoidable” because words are required. Piper writes:
Every person who seeks to commend Christ with words faces this issue. And we cannot do without words in commending Christ. We know him in the words of Scripture, and the Scriptures themselves teach us how indispensable words are in the Christian life.
And we cannot just quote Scripture. We must talk about it. Explain it. Exult in it. Defend it. Commend it. Herald it. Pray it.
Should I do the hard work of thinking about these things but not share it with anyone?
The effort to put the truth of God, and all his ways and works, into fresh language — something that may have never been spoken before — is a way of coming near to God.
He goes on to explain Paul’s writing and gives six reasons for defending poetic effort including examples of the use of poetry in Scripture. He then highlights the different ways Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis modeled the use of poetic effort in their lives. It’s not just about writing poetry like Herbert did, it includes the preaching of Whitefield and “his God-given oratorical abilities”, and the prose of Lewis, whom Piper, while pointing out their theological differences, calls “a master thinker and master likener — a master of poetic effort in story and essay.”
The theme throughout each of their lives was a poetic effort of seeing and saying things for the glory of God in Christ. We may never see talent like these men again, but we have the same Christ, the same wonder, and various gifts to glorify Him in unique ways. How are you using your gifts and abilities? How can you incorporate poetic effort in service of the Lord?
In the Chapter on George Herbert, Piper writes:
The role of the poet is to be God’s echo. Or God’s secretary. To me, Herbert’s is one of the best descriptions of the Christian poet: “Secretarie of thy praise.”
O Sacred Providence, who from end to end
Strongly and sweetly movest! shall I write,
And not of thee, through whom my fingers bend
To hold my quill? shall they not do thee right?
Of all the creatures both in the sea and land
Only to Man thou has made known thy wayes,
And put the penne alone into his hand,
And made him Secretarie of thy praise.
(From Herbert’s poem: “Providence”)
So what is poetic effort? Piper explains it several different ways:
Every Christian is called to speak of God’s excellencies.
The effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly. The effort to say strikingly is a way of seeing strikingly. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty.
The effort to put the glimpse of glory into striking or moving words makes the glimpse grow.
The effort to put the excellencies into worthy words is a way of seeing the worth of the excellencies. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen.
Poetic effort is a way — a pervasively biblical way, a historically proven way — of seeing and savoring and showing the glory of God.
Poetic effort is the effort to see and savor and speak of the wonder — the divine glory — that is present everywhere in the world.
…may he grant us a humble, Christ-exalting poetic habit of speaking his wonders…in words of seasonable joyousness, honey sweetness, golden fitness, and gracious saltiness. May he do it so that we ourselves might first taste, then tell.