Awaken Series: Can Poetry Matter (to Theology)?

Awaken Series: Can Poetry Matter (to Theology)?

Twenty years ago poet, critic, and one-time National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia published a book which contained one of the most important literary essays of the last century. Can Poetry Matter? takes its title from an article Gioia wrote that was first printed in The Atlantic Monthly of May 1991, garnering hundreds of letters of response, and inciting a firestorm of discussion. At its core was a plain spoken articulation of the decline of readership and relevance for American poetry:

Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward.

As goes poetry, so goes theology….

And yet there is much to suggest that something else is on the horizon.

*          *          *

In 2009, Phillip Clayton published the small and readable text Transforming Theology in which he wrote, “I can no longer publish theology books that are written primarily for specialists. From now on I must write for a broader audience, one that includes ordinary people who are eager to speak clearly and passionately about their faith—and those who are struggling to find out exactly what in the Christian story they really do care passionately about.” This articulation is close to my own thinking as well: the power and future of the Christian church does not rest within the pages of a professional class of theologians or their graduate students, but in the hearts, minds, and lives of countless people of faith who are struggling to grow into a future that is ever more grace-filled and true. People are seeking out fleshly, earthy specifics of faith, not abstract platitudes and propositions. So to the extent that poetry grounds us in the particular and yet thrusts us out to limits of our longing – yes –  poetry can matter to theology.

*          *          *

Writing in the late 1960′s before the full rise of the conservative Christian right and its Modern Biblical Scientism, Amos Wilder worried about the future of Christianity. The “Death of God” theologies were in vogue (and on the cover of Time Magazine) and for a number of reasons that seem distant now, Christianity was sometimes seen as on its way out. Into that context Wilder wrote the book Theopoetic, suggesting:

It is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered. It is here that culture and history are broken, and here that the church is polarized. Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown…

What he was calling for is an embrace of the aesthetic dimension of Christian life. Not a prettying up of that which is, but a call for renewed imagination and articulation: a call to let down what Wilder calls the “wan and bloodless abstraction” of most theology and take up a more more embodied, imaginative, and artistic approach.  Wilder wanted to help theologians to overcome their “long addiction to the discursive, the rationalistic, and the prosaic,” suggesting that the perspectives of artists and poets would be essential in the days to come. And so it seems. With books like William Dryness’ 2012 Poetic Theology, coming out, another volume on theopoetics due in 2013 from Fordham, and the overall increase of interest in aesthetics and religion, I have hope. Tens of thousands of folks from all over the world have visited, dozens of them have contacted me and many sing the same song: I love God. I have faith. But I’m sick of religion being about knowing or saying the right thing. Where is there room for mystery? For beauty? To them I say “With the poets. With the artists and writers, with the preachers and teachers. With Phillip Clayton who refuses to write  primarily for specialists, and with every person of faith who thinks that talking about God need not be confined to those with special degrees. With those who know God to be the Poet of the World, and with every man, woman, and child that is tired of churchly islands of seclusion turned in while the world marches by.” To them I say, “There is room for mystery. There is room for beauty. There is room with you.



Callid Keefe-Perry is an Educator, Artist, and Community Builder.  He is the founder and managing partner of an improvised comedy troupe and theater in Rochester NY, consults on the use of the Arts in classrooms, coordinates the non-profit arts organization, The Transformative Language Arts Network, and writes/researches on the use of language to shift (religious) experience. He maintains both and for people interested in his theological blah-blah. His short film, “Made as Makers” releases later this week.

4 Responses to “Awaken Series: Can Poetry Matter (to Theology)?”

  1. Tania Runyan says:

    Very thoughtful post, Callid. God is the Poet of the World. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Tania! And just so you know, the phrase “God is Poet of the World” is from philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.

    If you’re interested in this kind of thinking, be sure to check out my (soon to be released) project over at .


  3. Sarah says:

    YES! Love this.

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