On first read, this excellent encouragement toward critical reading may seem like a departure from the culture-conscious content recently posted. But this kind of mind training is exactly the exercise needed to strengthen our resolve for Biblical thinking. As we are inundated with information and go digging for truths, it’s a focus on The Truth as found in Scripture that will keep us, wonky bowling balls on a kiddie lane, bumping ever forward and toward the goal: God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven. With the Holy Spirit, we can find God’s image or Creator signature in all he has made.
Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
James 1:5: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
—Jessica for the Blog Team
Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a series from Ben Porter – you can read his first post (referenced below) here.
Written by Ben Porter
I may have been a little hasty in my last post, slapping your horse’s behind and sending you off into the sunset of postmodern poetry. I mean, I’m glad I did it. I just may have forgotten to give you a pair of sunglasses. These poems can be dangerous, capable of challenging your faith and your morality. Any encouragement of Christians to read them should be accompanied by some warnings.
I realize that I’m stepping into a minefield.
The church has a checkered past with popular culture. We’re like helicopter parents unsure of when to introduce risk or swoop in and defend. We don’t often nail it, and parishioners are left out in the cold with little practical advice. Churchleaders, to varying degrees of embarrassment, step in it. And it makes sense: entertainment in general is a tricky subject. When asked why he didn’t own a T.V. the Baptist minister John Piper said,
“It’s the unremitting triviality that makes television so deadly. What we desperately need is help to enlarge our capacities to be moved by the immeasurable glories of Christ. Television takes us almost constantly in the opposite direction, lowering, shrinking, and deadening our capacities for worshiping Christ.”¹
The message is clear: TV’s deadly because time is short and attention is valuable. TV on its own and as a medium narrows our vision of Christ, period; a statement not many of us would be willing to make, at least so boldly. Books are scrutinized just as critically. In 1985 the Anglican theologian J.I. Packer was (with tongue pressed firmly in cheek) forced to publish this after a rumor got started that he liked detective novels,
“The cat came out of the bag at a recent CT senior editors’ meeting. To avoid scandal, I give no names; but it emerged that for relaxation one of us reads westerns (Louis L’Amour), another goes for espionage thrillers (Frederick Forsyth), and I devour mysteries. (’Tecs I call them.)”²
While Packer’s apology is laced with commendable sarcasm, it’s interesting he had to write the article at all. Maybe I’ll put forward a separate blog on why I think he did. But for now it’s enough to say that my last blog in this series was an argument against those who forced Packer to write it. It was an invasion so to speak, a declaration of war. But as I re-read my post, I began to realize that more was needed. OK, we are supposed to read secular poetry— so what, I just jump right in? Is there nothing wrong with what they say? There are no hard hats needed? What if I stumble into a poem that is unorthodox, crass, in celebration of sin?
Well shucks. I have some explaining to do.
To do so I will step away from the microphone and ask T.S. Eliot to come on up. Aside from writing the most influential poetry of the 20th century (The Waste Land, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Four Quartets), Eliot worked at a large publishing house called Faber and Faber in London and frequently published literary criticism. Though a seminal post-modern poet and member of the sketchy Bloomsbury Group, Eliot was a committed Christian. His criticism was therefore pretty conservative in a time (like ours) when literary thoughts were expected to be avant-garde and sexy.
To help us navigate the perils of poetry, I turned to an article of his entitled, “Religion and Literature”³ wherein he instructs Christians how to read non-Christian fiction and poetry. In this post, I’ll discuss his thoughts on what he calls religious poetry and how it has ironically secularized the project of poetry writing and therefore hindered the way we read modern poetry. In following posts, I will elaborate on other aspects threatening Christian reading and wrap up the series with Eliot’s thoughts on how Christians are to protect themselves from the dangers of literature. I hope you’ll find it as helpful as I did myself.
Eliot begins by stating, “it is necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination with explicit ethical and theological standards.” In other words, a Christian must not be a passive receiver of texts. It is their responsibility to understand poetry through a moral-theological grid (which he explains later in the essay).
Eliot understands literature to be especially dangerous because we’ve “tacitly assume[d] for some centuries past that there is no relation between literature and theology.” Eliot’s talking about secularization but he’s not only blaming atheists. He shows ways Christians have separated their faith from literature. He thinks we’ve done this by using literary forms to serve non-literary ends. In other words, Eliot argues that Christians have approached literature in a way that accidentally removes God from the project of writing. Christians have failed to recognize the fundamentally Christian aspects of literature itself. For Eliot, these specifically Christian separations of faith and literature include devotional literature and apologetic literature (my terms, not Eliot’s).
Regarding devotional literature, Eliot begins by describing the popular view of poetry readers toward the devotional poets:
“…the religious poet is not a poet who is treating the whole subject matter of poetry in a religious spirit, but a poet who is dealing with a confined part of this subject matter: who is leaving out what men consider their major passions, and thereby confessing his ignorance of them.”
In other words, what he is calling the religious poet, is not a Christian poet (like himself). Rather, a religious poet for Eliot is one who ignores all topics of poetry except religion. He sees this as a drawback, an ignorance of human nature. He says devotional poets have a “special religious awareness which may exist without the general awareness which we expect of the major poet.” But Eliot’s colors are clearly shown when he gets personal: “I do not pretend to offer Vaughan, or Southwell, or George Herbert, or Hopkins as major poets: I feel sure that the first three, at least are poets of [a] limited awareness.” For Eliot, the composition of poetic literature involves what he calls “general awareness,” the ability to perceive the world as all men do, not just those who perceive God. Now, it should be made clear that Eliot isn’t anti-devotional poetry. However, he sees it as something other than poetry proper. He argues that religious poets subtly divorce religion from literature because they see mere literature as inadequate, narrowing its scope to a religious dimension only. He is arguing that only writing this kind of poetry, or only reading it, ironically hinders our ability to read poetry with a Christian lens.
This may come as a surprise and slaughter not a few sacred cows. Let me say first, if you like devotional poetry, don’t stop reading it. I myself have long spread the gospel of George Herbert. But, if Eliot makes you angry, don’t miss his point. He is putting his finger on a larger issue.
Namely, when Christians withdraw themselves from the world, they secularize the world; when Christians withdraw themselves from the project of making art, they secularize art.
It’s a subtle secularization because it’s unintentional and born from good motives. But, it causes us to read with secular eyes. Eliot wants to reverse that trend, but he also goes further. He wants to protect us from it. He wants a full bodied poetry written and read by Christians who can bite off the whole of human experience. Anything less hurts our literature and therefore hurts our readers.
In posts following this one, I hope to elaborate more on Eliot’s essay. With him as a guide, we’ll think about other perilous ways to read and write. We’ll also dive further, drawing upon Eliot’s expertise, to develop guiding principles for our reading of modern lit.
¹ Piper, John. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-i-dont-have-a-television-and-rarely-go-to-movies
² J. I. Packer, “From the Senior Editors: ’Tecs, Thrillers, and Westerns,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1985), 12.
³ Eliot, Thomas Stearns, Selected Essays. “Religion and Literature” United Kingdom, Faber, 1999.