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The Use of Christian Poetry

Wonder and care.

Two excellent articles in the December 2022 issue of Christianity & Literature provide a helpful framework for thinking about the role of poetry in the life of faith.

Jack Dudley (“Teach Us to Care”) and Abram Van Engen (“Wonder and Care: A Christian Poetics for the Present Day”) emphasize that Christians writing poetry should be concerned for more than mere theological reflection, devotional fodder, or self-expression. Christian poetry should move us to wonder at the mystery of God and faith and to care about our neighbors and the creation.

Dudley’s essay raises questions about the role of truth in poetry, and the answers he provides are not always consistent. He writes, “A poetics of Christian care imagines new formations of the Christian oriented to real, material care for bodies in the world. It requires the work of discernment, of unmaking those elements of carelessness that might appear within Christian traditions that have taught us not to care or that have pretended that damaging and often violent practices are somehow the work of care when they are assuredly not.” He chafes at basing such a poetics on any tradition of received theological truth, but I don’t see how he can proceed consistently without one.

Van Engen, whose article summarizes an entire symposium about Christian poetics, of which Dudley’s article is one contribution, affirms Dudley’s ideas about a poetics of care but is more reliable in developing this view. He acknowledges both the role of common grace in opening possibilities for truth and seems to be rather more firmly anchored in Biblical truth, historically understood, than Dudley. He believes that poetry can help us wonder more about the world around us and the mystery of God: “Creating a poem serves like a resting place for order and meaning in a cosmos otherwise devoid of both. In a sense, many poets present themselves as spirits hovering over the deep, briefly making a world of sense out of a set of verses, before returning to a wild void.” His three-point summary of a Christian poetics, based on all the articles in this symposium – hermeneutics, wonder, and care – can be helpful both in writing and reading Christian verse.

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