The Death of Poetry? (RJS)

The Death of Poetry? (RJS) May 15, 2012

I was recently sent a copy of the new book by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History. Harry Lee Poe (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson TN, Jimmy H. Davis (Ph.D. University of Illinois) is University Professor of Chemistry at Union University.

In God and the Cosmos Poe and Davis explore the interaction of God with his creation. There are two parts to their approach. Part One explores ideas about the kind of God who interacts with the world and the ways humans have considered this across cultures, religions, and time. Part Two turns this around and asks about the kind of world that allows God to interact.

Part One: What kind of God interacts with the world?

This section of the book does not address this question directly – but rather asks questions about the way humans have conceived of God and the way this impacts ideas concerning God’s action in the world. Poe and Davis begin with a survey of the way that God or divinity is understood in major world religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. This is an interesting survey – although the discussion of Judaism makes such a break with Christianity that it left me scratching my head at times.

How do we think about God?

How does this affect the way we think about God’s interaction with the world?

Turning primarily to the West and the development of science in Europe, Poe and Davis put forth a few ideas that drive much of the discussion in the rest of this section. The notion of a God who is rational combined with a break from the Platonic philosophical underpinning derived from Augustine gave rise to the reformation and the scientific revolution. Poe and Davis see the key developments and conflicts as more philosophical than theological. Thomas Aquinas set the stage by breaking with Augustine and his reliance on Plato, turning instead to Aristotle. This allowed a view of nature more conducive to the development of science. But even Aristotle had to fall. Philosophical underpinnings that found the ground of knowledge in rational thought without experimentation, not “the God Hypothesis,” had to fall before the scientific revolution could flower. The conflict over Galileo was not theological but philosophical – a rejection of Aristotle.

Question Authority. Poe and Davis also suggest that the reformation, including the cultural changes that preceded the reformation, led to the scientific revolution.

In the Reformation the principle issue at stake was one of authority.  … The University was a monastic community. All disciplines were subdisciplines of theology. Theology was the “queen of the sciences” and philosophy was her handmaiden. The Protestant reformation was not only a debate about authority in matters of religion but also authority in politics and all areas of scholarship, including what we now call science.

Scripture and tradition. The change of mind that we call the Reformation began to take place at least 150 years before Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses, and it would continue to unfold 150 years afterwards. … this way of conceiving authority had begun at least by the time of John Wycliffe (d. 1384) , long before the observations of Copernicus (d. 1543). (p. 60)

The revolution in the view of authority enabled the scientific revolution, which required something of an open view toward tradition and traditional authorities. This also led to a view of scripture as the authoritative foundation for faith.

Either-Or. According to Poe and Davis, with the publication of A Golden Chain (1590) William Perkins (1558-1602) set into motion a process that led to an either-or dichotomy describing God’s work in the world. A Golden chain is a text that popularized the theology of Calvin with a famous diagram that outlined the causes of salvation and damnation.

The idea of conceiving theology as a massive dichotomy represents a major innovation by Perkins to the earlier theology of Calvin.

Like Plato’s hierarchy or Aristotle’s chain of being, Perkins’s Golden Chain provides his audience with a way to conceive of God’s causal involvement in the world. God is the King who issues decrees, and from these decrees there issues forth an unbroken chain of cause and effect. (p. 79)

The problem with Perkins and the theology that followed Perkins is that it keeps the Holy Spirit safely in heaven or eternity. There is no real role for God or the Spirit in the day to day processes in the world. This either-or mode of thinking became the dominant assumption as men thought about the nature of God’s role in the world.

By the end of the eighteenth century, William Perkins’s model of reducing things to two alternatives had become the dominant way of thinking in the English-speaking world. … In the natural world observed by scientific investigation, scientists were faced by the two alternatives that their worldview allowed them: (1) phenomena occurred by the direct action of God, or (2) phenomena occurred as the result of the laws of nature. The idea that God could be active within nature was not an alternative allowed to them by their prevailing worldview. (pp. 87-88)

Poe and Davis trace this development through Newton, Boyle, Laplace and other early scientist to Darwin. In the thinking of Darwin, and in the way evolution has been thought of since Darwin, we see a full flowering of the idea. If there is a natural explanation then God was not at work. He is relegated to some deistic first cause or eliminated from the picture entirely.

The Death of Poetry. Poe and Davis see the loss of poetry as another major piece of the puzzle in understanding the modern conflict between science and the action of God.  In fact they put it rather bluntly: “Modern Western culture is unique in world history for having lost its poetry. All cultures, except modern Western culture, appreciate poetry.” (p. 96) This they see as a unique development of the 20th century … and it is not only poetry, but the arts as well that we have lost: painting, sculpure, opera, ballet, classical music. These no longer belong to the broad western culture. The loss of poetry goes hand-in-hand with a literalism that permeates our reading of scripture and our understanding of God. And this devastates the ability to understand God.

Because humans have no frame of reference for understanding God the language of the bible uses analogy, comparison, and poetry. Only by using creative license in the form of poetic language can we even begin to describe God and his action in the world.

Without a sense of poetry and the way analogies work, people lose the ability to use models, whether in theology or in science. The model, whether scientific or theological, is not the reality. A theological system is never more than a human constructed model of God. It may be useful for understanding an aspect of God that it affirms, but it is always woefully inadequate as a total understanding of God. (p. 100)

The last two chapters in Part One consider with process theology and God of the Gaps thinking.  These chapters delve more deeply into the question that frames this portion of the book – what kind of God interacts with the world – and how does he interact. I’ll turn to these two in the next post on this book – but today I would like to stop here and consider the scenario that Poe and Davis have outlined.

Do you think that Poe and Davis are right in the time-line they’ve sketched?

Does the either-or dichotomy represents the common view of the action of God in the world?

And perhaps most important of all:

Have we lost the ability to appreciate poetry and thus to think constructively about God?

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I just happened to be reading Poe’s and Davis book so I am amazed how you can summarize thngs so well and put things together so nicely. On the point “if there is a natural explanation, then God was not at work.” Despite the reality that God works in creation and the natural order, the incarnation was God at work. One can find a natural explantion to everything, certainly to Jesus—he was just a man! It doesn’t get more natural than this.

    Yes, we have lost the ability to appreciate poetry, think of some of the responses on this list to anything that may have poetry in it. I think this also relates to holistic thinking and dichotomous reasoning or as you put it, either/or dichotomy we set up. One of the other Evangelical patheos blogs just did a series of studies on the beginning of the book of Genesis. Basically his conclusion was Genesis is BOTH narrative prose and poetry. I for one agree.

  • DRT

    I can’t help but think that the author’s don’t spend a lot of time listening to music. Music with lyrics is our poetry today.

  • CGC

    Kurt Willems patheos blog has N. T. Wright singing the beetles song “Yesterday” with new words he calls “Genesis.” Lyrical theology, I think you will like it 🙂

  • Joe Canner

    I’m with DRT; bemoaning the loss of poetry and other arts sounds like reverse chronological snobbery (aka nostalgia). If anything, since the late 1800s painting, sculpture, dance, and music have become *less* literal and more abstract. Perhaps the problem we have with reading the Bible overly literally results from being stuck a bygone era where the arts were much *more* literal.

  • RJS


    I think the point they are making is that the arts bring an abstract representation of reality in a form that people don’t expect to be literal “fact”. Analogy, metaphor, representative, image … While one can overstate the problem, I think it has been a real problem in the science and faith discussion. Many will say that either Genesis is literal fact or it is a lie. This is an artifact of the death of poetry – or at least so Poe and Davis claim (and I agree).

  • DRT


    My life is immersed in art from music to sculpture to everything. Perhaps I am blinded because I am in a special situation, but my father, wife, one son, daughter are all very into art of various kinds. I own a company that employs graphic designers and I have to deal with their artsyness all the time. And music with lyrics that are definitely a poetry pervade my life.

    Like Joe Canner said, I believe art (of all kinds) continues to get to be exceedingly abstract.

    Perhaps it is more a problem of the church frowning on the arts and therefore the people becoming illiterate.

  • DRT

    Here is a good article on the site, here is an exerpt:More than a thousand poetry books appear in this country each year. More people write poetry in this country–publish it, hear it, and presumably read it–than ever before. Let us quickly and loudly proclaim that no poet sells like Stephen King, that poetry is not as popular as professional wrestling, and that fewer people attend poetry readings in the United States than in Russia. Snore, snore. More people read poetry now in the United States than ever did before.

    He continues to say that it is primarily the publicity of poetry that is not as prominent.

  • Rick

    Although some in the faith are trying in keep poetry in the conversation (Ben Witherington, Steve McCoy, etc…)

  • Monica

    Actually, poetry is making a comeback and some of us are working in the area of “theopoetics” which attempts to return to the more mystical dynamic you discuss here (i.e. – Aquinas and apophatic theology). Obviously, this isn’t well-supported in a culture focused on generating capital, but pronouncing the death of poetry is a bit premature. Any preacher worth listening to is reading Emily Dickinson (and definitely listening to good music too).

  • Norman

    I don’t disagree that we understand poetry and symbolism in our culture but the problem is that we don’t recognize it in Biblical literature because we are not looking for it. If you’re told to read nuanced poetry literally then you’re out of luck. Even in the first century there were discussions upon how to interpret biblical symbolism because the common person wasn’t versed in the form that much of scripture was written in. It requires proprietary knowledge to grasp the meaning and once that occurs then the messages are much more discernible.

  • Norman is understanding the problem. Creation of poetry is a unique human brain function — a delicate combination of the abstract and analytical with the artistic and expressive to carry a factual message interpreted with emotion. But what would be abstract and what would be artistic is relative to the time (era) and culture – abstract compared to what — artistic compared to what? A lot of the OT Hebrew and some of the NT was a type of poetry or something similar that it would take someone getting into that ancient mindset to be able to read the original and interpret what it means with greater accuracy. Being only literal wouldn’t give the picture. The problem isn’t that we don’t have poetry today, the problem is the poetic expression today doesn’t help prepare our thinking to interpret the poetic type of writings of the OT and therefore of the NT.

    It’s like another art expression – music. We have tons of music published today – it’s written for movies, for TV commercials, for SuperBowl halftimes, for bam bam 120db in your ear, and for church (119 db in your ear). Does any of this music today help us understand the mind of Beethoven or Mozart or Handel? Where are the classic composers of today? Music written today sounds more like downtown traffic than classical (IMO).

    Part of the problem is an imprecise definition of “poetry” that allows the comparison of situations that are too dissimilar.

  • Joe Canner

    theophilus.dr: “The problem isn’t that we don’t have poetry today, the problem is the poetic expression today doesn’t help prepare our thinking to interpret the poetic type of writings of the OT and therefore of the NT.”

    Are you saying that this is a deficiency in contemporary poetry or that this is a deficiency inherent in our being thousands of years removed from the genres we are trying to understand?

    As for music: no doubt the music of today sounds different than it did hundreds of years ago, but I would question whether that makes it intrinsically less valuable. Why is it necessary to understand the minds of Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel? This post is talking about understanding the mind of God, something that can (and does) happen regardless of the musical genre (with perhaps a few exceptions). Perhaps there are proportionately fewer artists these days who are creating for this purpose, but they exist nonetheless. And, I would venture to say that there are artists who help us understand the mind of God even if they don’t intend to.

  • AHH

    I agree with RJS that our modern lack of appreciation for “poetry” (more generally, for literary genres that are not modern history/biography or modern science) is one of the big hindrances in the science/faith discussion. For example when people uphold Genesis 1 as some sort of literal history on the grounds that it does not exactly fit Hebrew poetic forms, as if those were the only two options.

    Our Enlightenment-stained culture seems to find it hard to recognize that truth can be conveyed via these other genres. Even though that sort of communication is common in Scripture, Christians even more than the rest of the culture often seem to be the ones who relegate such communication to second-class truth at best.

  • RJS


    I think this is the point. Poetry, imagery, and art can be forms of truth telling. But the dichotomy in our culture has been fact vs. lie (and God doesn’t lie).

    I actually think the tide may be turning in Western culture.

  • DRT

    RJS and AHH, I agree with the dualism and its problems. One of the most frustrating arguments I come upon regarding Gen 1 is that YECs say it does not match Hebrew poetry. That may be a correct statement, but I fail to see why it is relevant considering the obvious poetry in the text.

  • TJJ

    In affirmation of DRT’s point above, do we have poetry? Bob Dylan, “nuff” said!

    Poetry/genre is not the problem. Genesis 1-11 has been interpreted in a rather literal fashion for a very very long time. And moving away from that has long been interpreted as moving away from orthodoxy and Biblical authority and capitulation to secular/materialistic scientificism.

    That move away from seeing Genesis 1-11 as true because it is more/less historical to seeing it as less historical

  • TJJ

    But also true, is happening but slowly and I do not find that particularly surprising or disturbing.

  • DRT, if you wish to convince anyone that Genesis 1 is obvious poetry, then show where that form of poetry is established as such anywhere else in the OT. Otherwise it is merely so much hand waving and looks like you are merely imposing some modern notion of poetry on an ancient text. Just saying it is poetry does not make it so, not even by modifying your assertion with “obvious.” Comparing Genesis 1 with the established form of Hebrew poetry that we do have in the OT, it does not match up.

  • holdon

    Even if Genesis 1 were poetry; how does that make it say something different than what it says?

    It seems for some “poetry” means that you can just make up your own mind about what it means. That’s kind of insulting to the Poet.

  • TJJ, yes Genesis 1-11 has been taken literally, as history, for a very, very long time indeed. Since even before the early Church. They did not find anything in the text that would indicate to them that it was intended to be taken otherwise. Nothing in the text clued them in that they had to account for the theory of evolution or long geologic ages in their reading.

  • holdon, yes, even if Genesis 1 could be shown to be some newly discovered form of Hebrew poetry, that would not necessarily disprove it as an account about historical events and sequences. Poetry, even Hebrew poetry, can be about historical events (I’m thinking here of a few of the psalms that give a historical rundown).

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles, well, let me ask this. If Genesis 1 is meant to be a text produced with knowledge alien to its authors except through divine revelation, would it not make sense that the style of the text could be an indication of its origin?

  • DRT

    Jeff, I have to ask this. Now, is it not more reasonable in the human sense that someone could get special knowledge of the actual physical events that take place for creation, or that they have a feeling about the intent and insight into a rhythmic and repetitive way to express it?

  • DRT @22, I take all of Scripture to be divine revelation given by inspiration, and it comes in a variety of genres. I don’t think it requires a special style.

    @23, perhaps it is because I have just gotten up from the dinner table and I have gone to digesting, but I think I need you to explain your question for me.

  • Merv Olsen

    Well said Jeff Doles! (at 20,21)

  • Thanks, RJS for this post and your work on this blog. I do think there’s something to this. What goes for art nowadays is akin to noise in the city versus what would be the art or poetry (and music) which would be akin to the sounds in the silence of nature. Which may be akin to hearing God in nature, creation, knowing the Presence in the stillness. Versus the noise of progress and pragmatism.

    I bring this up, because I think it does carry weight in supporting the argument of the authors. Imagination is a needed ally in interpreting truth both in special as well as general revelation. But our culture is not wired that way.

    Just the same, poetry is part of our humanity, so even in the noisy din we’ve created, there is an ally for being open to the possibility of learning truth in something other than straight reason.

  • DRT

    Jeff Doles, I have lost the desire to debate tonight, but my question is pretty much asking why can’t the inspiration be about the writing style and content and not the literal words? I find them to be highly inspired, and not even close to literally true.

  • DRT, I take the revelation to include the words as well as the style and content.

  • I must be living in a different modern Western culture. The one I live in has a broad variety of artistic, musical and poetic styles and a pretty creative imagination expressed across many different kinds of endeavors. It is not all about “progress and pragmatism” ~ there are styles centered on the city, certainly, but also styles that help us tune into nature and creation and stillness. Not everybody knows how to access it all, but it is all there to be accessed.

  • I would argue with the premise (as stated) that the West has *lost* its poetry. As a literary scholar, I know that’s not the case. What is the case, however, is that there has become a sharp divide between imagination and reason as ways of knowing. What the West has lost is the understanding that poetry is a mode of knowing, and can convey truth just as rational propositions can convey truth (but in a different way). That disjunct is harmful. In any case, I am glad to see new books coming out that show an awareness of the importance of poetry and the imagination in Western culture!

  • Luke

    This is really fascinating. I have to read this book now.

  • As a sophomore college lit teacher I assure you we’ve almost completely lost an ability to read poetry–at least our kids have. Sure, we literary types still read it, but it is not a shared cultural value. I think the loss to God-seekers is two-fold: 1. We’ve lost the ability to embraces ideas that seem at odds. This leads us to lean into one part of God’s nature at the expense of some other equally important part. 2. We don’t know how to embrace mystery. The biggest reason my students disliked poetry was because they didn’t always know what it meant. And that’s a part of what poetry is–a channel for mystery, an opportunity to talk about and around something we don’t totally understand.