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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Common Grace Every Day

The poets can help us.

 The Foundation of Culture (5)

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard. Psalm 19.1-3

A neglected discipline

We should all spend more time reading and contemplating poetry. For the purposes of our study, poetry is a reliable way of connecting with the grace of God that underlies all life and culture. Reading poetry that understands this can train us to know more of the common grace of God in our everyday lives. And this can greatly enrich how we make and use culture.

I’ll let Dana Gioia argue for me. Gioia, a poet and critic, and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, has written a very useful article entitled, “Poetry as Enchantment,” in the summer, 2015, issue of Dark Horse magazine. The idea that poetry can “enchant” seems directly aimed at our secular age, in which evolutionary and naturalistic thinking has “disenchanted” the world, in the words of Charles Taylor. Poetry can help us bring some wonder back to life by connecting us to the transcendent Source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.

In his article Gioia explains that one of the important uses of poetry is to give human beings “the words to get through life.”

Isn’t that an appealing notion? The idea that poetry can help us make it through the day, and not only make it through, but understand, enjoy, delight in, and make sense of what’s going on around us every day. Gioia continues, “The aim of poetry…is to awaken us to a fuller sense of our own humanity in both its social and individual aspects.” I agree. And I also agree when Gioia writes, “Poetry proffers some mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase.” That is, poetry presents things in ways that mere narrative cannot capture, so that we experience an object, a situation, or a possibility in ways words alone can’t describe.

I suppose this explains why more than one-third of the Bible is written in poetry. Like Psalm 19.

A poet for everyday
I was once asked by a friend who expressed an interest in reading more poetry where he should begin. He was hoping that reading poetry would help to make him more observant of the ways and wonders of God. I didn’t hesitate to answer: Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins has been described as the greatest of the minor English poets. And, while he may be a second-tier versifier, few in the English canon surpass him when it comes to bringing out the common grace of God in everyday objects and situations.

As a boy, Hopkins wandered the English countryside observing everything, making notes and drawing pictures in a variety of notebooks. Those experiences would come to fruition in some of the loveliest and most delightful—common grace-full—poetry in the English language.

Hopkins’ verse is distinguished by its vividness, simplicity, and joyous creativity. Hyphenated words, strange but apt accent marks, alliteration and apostrophe sparkle throughout his works, creating a poetry full of life and imagination, richly reflecting the common grace of God.

Here is Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                     Praise Him.

In this poem Hopkins celebrates all the everyday, ordinary ways God by His common grace brings beauty to light in our sad world. The patterns of creation—finches and fish—and culture—the “gear” of men’s work and their cultivated fields—all bear witness to Him “whose beauty is past change” and speak of the relentless goodness of the Lord. As he reflects on these everyday objects and situations, Hopkins is led to glorify God, and he calls on us, his readers, to join him in his praise.

An aid to our witness
Poetry like this can aid us in using culture to bear witness to God. It can teach us to look, wonder, see, and rejoice in all the many and varied ways the common grace of God works to bless, sustain, and delight us every day. By reading and contemplating the poems of Hopkins and others, we can become more alert to and in tune with a world that everywhere declares the glory of God, to join our voices with it to bring praise to Him Who loves His creatures unfailingly. As Hopkins elsewhere wrote, Christ speaks in 10,000 places, and poetry like his can help us hear Him.

Put another way, poetry—like that of Hopkins, which focuses on everyday things—can get us in touch with the foundation of all culture, the common grace of God. And once we have our feet firmly set on that foundation, we can find ways to turn our everyday lives—whatever we do (1 Cor. 10.31)—to the praise and glory of God, for loving Him and our neighbor.

To recall Dana Gioia, “The aim of poetry…is to awaken us to a fuller sense of our own humanity in both its social and individual aspects.” A sense that is better known as we are anchored on the foundation of God’s common grace for all aspects and facets of our cultural life. 

For reflection
1. How do you understand the “glory of God”? How do you experience it?

2. Why do you think God wrote so much of the Bible in poetry? Is it important, in reading the poetry of the Bible, to make sure we understand how to read poetry?

3. How does experiencing God in His glory help us to recognize His glory in His works of common grace? Is this something we should seek to improve in our walk with and work for the Lord? Why or why not?

Next steps—Preparation: Make a list of things that fit the descriptions Hopkins summarizes in his poem. For example, “couple-colour” things, that is, as we might say, “two-toned” objects, like saddle shoes or a robin’s coloration. List as many as you can in all the categories suggested by this poem. Then praise God for them all!

T. M. Moore
Here are two books to help you rediscover the power of poetry to connect us to God and His grace. You Could Do Worse Than Verseexplores the work of various poets for what we can learn about this discipline. Click here for the book, here for a free PDF. Poetry Calling discusses God’s use of poetry in Scripture and why each of us has a “calling” to poetry in some ways. Book here, PDF here.

Two books on culture are available to accompany this series on “A Christian Approach to Culture.” Christians on the Front Lines of the Culture Wars shows how important it is that we consider culture as a way of bringing glory to God. Order your copy by clicking here. Redeeming Pop Culture examines the nature of pop culture and some ways we can make good use of it for God’s glory. Order your copy by clicking here.

Support for ReVision comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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