Why Christians Ought To Read Poetry

Dave Mahan is the Executive Director of the Rivendell Institute. He also teaches religion and literature as adjunct faculty at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School. His book, An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Thought of Charles Williams, Micheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill https://www.amazon.com/Unexpected-Light-OSiadhail-Princeton-Theological/dp/1556355076 frames this conversation.

David Moore conducted this interview. Dave’s videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.

Moore: You dedicate this book to your wife and a second grade teacher. We see dedications to spouses all the time, but not elementary school teachers. How come?

Mahan: Mrs. Wood was one of the earliest encouragers I had for reading and writing, so I promised her that I would dedicate my first book to her. In fact, she used to let me go off in a corner to read during certain periods, just to nurture that interest. Neither she nor I thought it would take 40 years before I would publish my first book, but there it is. Some of us are just slow bloomers.

Moore: Where did your initial interest in poetry arise, and when did you begin to see the ways it could help you do Christian theology more responsibly?

Mahan: I have been a lover of poetry and literature my whole life, but it did not take a turn to serious theological reflection until I did my Master’s work at Yale Divinity School back in the early 1990s. During the first year of this program, my teacher and mentor Peter Hawkins taught his famous two-semester course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it transformed me. It was the first time I encountered something so beautiful and sublime as Dante’s poetry doing the work of serious theology. From then on it became my scholarly purpose to explore and expand that connection.

Moore: Why did you pick these three poets?

Mahan: My main criteria focused on high quality poetry from exceptional writers whose work demonstrated creative engagement with Christian faith and expressed distinctly Christian sensibilities about their subjects. Charles Williams (one of the “Inklings” and a friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), the renown Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, and Geoffrey Hill, considered by many to have been one of the greatest poets of the English language during his lifetime (he only recently passed away), all met those qualifications in abundance. Since my academic work also focuses on 20th-21st century literature because of its relevance to the situation of Christian faith in late-modernity, their own ‘poetry of witness’ resonated with some of the theological issues that my book explores.

Moore: The Bible is full of poetry, so why do most Christians have a decidedly negative view of poetry?
Mahan: I wouldn’t know how to calculate what you mean by ‘most’ here, since most of the Christians I know do read poetry; but of course I live and work in a peculiar atmosphere at Yale. That said, what grieves me about the current state of Christian culture in America is that in many ways it is not a robust culture at all. Indeed, many Christians believe culture is something we are at war with, rather than as something to nurture. (The Christian artist Mako Fujimura draws this distinction when he opposes ‘culture war’ to ‘culture care’.) A negative view of poetry, where that may be the case, goes hand in hand with a depleted notion of the importance of works of the imagination to human flourishing, which I take to be integral to the advance of the Kingdom of God in the world. My other answer to this question is pretty basic: because we’re lazy, and reading not just poetry but any literature worth the time demands attention, as well as attentiveness, and not just Christians but people in our society as a whole are pretty short on both.
Moore: My amateur way of describing poetry is comparing it to turkey dressing. We love when a great cook stuffs the turkey with as much dressing as possible. Poetry seems to function in a similar way when we see a lot of truth packed into a few words or phrases. How do you help those who are skeptical about poetry’s benefits be more open to its magic?

Mahan: That’s a great question, the response to which I am trying to nurture with people all the time, including my own students at Yale. Often the best response to skepticism of any kind is wonder. If I can bring someone into the world created by a poem and encourage them to listen for the ways it works in its own terms, then I am most of the way there when it comes to helping them appreciate what a work is doing. We tend to bring a certain set of expectations to our reading, especially those that look for meaning to unfold in linear ways, and these are often frustrated when reading poetry. To seek first to discover how a poem wants to be read, so to speak, and then to consider how it meditates on its subject by virtue of the way it is crafted, requires some skill, but the payoff is great. I often compare this process to a director’s commentary on a film. When it is done well, which it rarely is, and you have not only the director but the writers, the actors, the cinematographer and the editor in the room, you realize that every scene and every single shot were constructed to create a particular effect that advances the story, you develop a ‘film sense’ that enables you to be more engaged viewers. It doesn’t take away from the magic of the experience, but deepens it. Whenever I teach a class on poetry or do workshops about it, I tell people that anyone can learn to read it if they are willing to invest the time it takes to cultivate those listening skills. We are, however, used to consuming art rather than living with it, and that also needs subverting in order to enjoy what art does.

The matter of poetry’s benefits is trickier. This has been debated since Plato expelled the poets from his Republic (though his reasons for doing so are far more nuanced than people usually recognize). The benefits for reading poetry that I emphasize are twofold, though again, their only ratification comes from the process of learning to read. The first is that we need enchantment, and I don’t mean as a luxury. God made
a marvelous world full of gratuitous beauty that serves no other ‘purpose’ than to fill us with wonder and delight. And He gave to us the extraordinary privilege to produce more works of beauty as His ‘co-creators.’ As George MacDonald once put it, ‘the human imagination is made in the image of the imagination of God,’ and its exercise in works like poetry bears the promise of extending the enchantment already built into God’s grand ‘poem’ of creation.

The second ‘benefit’ I emphasize is that poets can tutor us in what theologian Nicholas Lash called “the long discipline in learning how to speak.” Even if you don’t read poetry as a regular practice, or even like it as an artistic medium, we desperately need to engage this discipline. The careful reading of poetry nurtures that kind of attentiveness to words and speech, which I take to be of monumental importance both for our own age and for the exercise of godly virtue.

Moore: You’ve been working for many years with college students at an elite school. Do you see a growing interest in the reading of poetry, and if so, why?

Mahan: I see a growing interest among those who are willing to expose themselves to the study of poetry long enough to cultivate the ability to read it well. Beyond this it’s hard to say. I have the privilege to teach some remarkable students who are already engaged to an exceptional degree, so I have less difficulty than other educators may have. But reading poetry in the form of listening to it – beyond song lyrics, I mean – has grown through the popularity of poetry slams, spoken-word events, and the like, so we notice a growing interest generally. I think one reason for this is an earnest desire for authenticity, and good poetry as a medium for conveying human experience often resonates with that desire. Moreover, of all the arts, literature may be the most accessible because most of us use language all the time, whereas we don’t all paint or sing or perform music or dance or sculpt as a regular part of our lives, or at least not at the level of an artistic skill. Of course, for those of us who have the use of our voice, as well as our ears, we may not speak well either. But some of the growing popularity of poetry is likely also tied to its familiarity as a medium of communication.

Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will take from your book?

Mahan: In addition to what I have said already, I hope that my book would encourage people to read and to write poetry, of course, but especially to appreciate its importance to a Christian vision of life. Whether among clergy or laypeople or academic theologians, I hope that my book would nurture “a theology of the imagination,” which I also call a “missiology of the imagination,” of which I find us in such desperate need at this historical moment. I believe we need a renaissance of Christian culture, including in the arts, and have no trouble believing that spiritual awakening or revival, should the Spirit bring something of this kind to us, would feature such renewal. If my little contribution can encourage this in some way, I would feel quite gratified.

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