Poetic Theology: God and
the Poetics of Everyday Life
William A. Dyrness
CONTEMPORARY theology is a lot of things, but poetic it is not. Quite the contrary: long captivated by the supposed rigor of a flattened rationalism, and saddled with a desire for intellectual respectability, theology speaks in the jargon-laden tongue of the academy. In the name of analytic precision and conceptual clarity, contemporary theologians approach metaphor like Saint George meets the dragon: as an enemy to be vanquished by the lance of univocity. This situation is both tragic and ironic: tragic that discourse about the creator could be so unimaginative and dull; and ironic that speech about the incarnate God should have so little room for mystery.
Hence my eagerness upon seeing William Dyrness’s new volume, Poetic Theology. As one who plies his trade in theology but spends his evenings curled up with poetry, I heard a peal of hope sound in Dyrness’s project—here, finally, is someone returning theology to its proper home in a language more befitting the Word become flesh. And the opening page of Poetic Theology is a tease in precisely that direction, promising to connect poetry and theology, albeit in “the pigeon-toed prose of theology—a dog barking at the moon.” A metaphor on the first page: the theologian as baying canine. Not exactly Dante, but we’ll take what we can get; this holds promise.
Unfortunately, the book I wanted—and the book Dyrness seemed to promise in that opening paragraph—is different from the book he has written. Take a moment or two to work through that (it took me quite a bit longer), and we’ll be in a position to then receive the book for what it is: a theological affirmation of the arts and “everyday poetics” as expressions of human nature’s ineradicable longings. It is an apologia for theology to take seriously all sorts of human making (poiesis), especially artistic creation, precisely because our culture-making efforts express the core of human being: our loves, our longings, our desires.
It takes a while for Dyrness to come clean on this, mainly because the opening section includes a constellation of concepts that he treats as roughly synonymous, whereas others might parse them as more distinct. For example, while he opens by talking about the “poetic” in relation to poetry, already on the second page it becomes clear that the force of “poetic” here is more etymological: Dyrness is interested in making, in cultural labor more generally, the cultivation of creative possibilities. Other terms blink in and out of this constellation: the aesthetic, the symbolic, the imaginative, the beautiful. These seem to be treated as either roughly synonymous, or at least significantly overlapping, which I found to be both confusing and frustrating.
But all of this finally crystallizes when Dyrness hits his Augustinian stride and we realize his primary quarry: desire. “Whether this is recognized or not,” he concludes, behind our cultural projects:
lies Augustine’s notion that the self is defined not by what it knows but by what it sees and loves. Although ignorant of its source, and confessedly non-creedal, postmodern people are radically committed to this Augustinian creed. They are living examples of the medieval adage: You become what you behold. Just look at a typical football fan on a Saturday afternoon, or a groupie during a rock concert. The modern person’s life is defined, often unconsciously, by what they contemplate—the vision of what they indwell in affirmation and affection.
Now the constellation comes into focus: it is precisely because desire is operative on a register that is more imaginative than intellectual—more attuned to beauty than deduction, more activated by the symbolic than the conceptual—that Dyrness’s theological account of human desire must also attend to the aesthetic. Given this, one might suggest that the book would have been better titled Erotic Theology.
But I’ve still only sketched half of his project: a “poetic” theology is a theology attuned to desire, and to the expression of our longings in cultural artifacts. But Dyrness also regularly describes his project as an “apologetic.” What could this mean? If he’s concerned with beauty, aesthetics, and symbolism, we’re obviously a long way from the flat-footed demonstrations of Evidence That Demands a Verdict. So what does it mean to describe this poetic theology as “apologetic”?
It seems to me the term operates in two ways: first, Dyrness is mounting a defense—an apologia—of cultural production as a site for our most basic longings and desires, and thus as a prime topic for theological reflection. In other words, he’s trying to convince theologians to pay attention to more than ideas, beliefs, and doctrines—to be attuned to culture’s making as some of the most potent expressions of our love, especially since (per Augustine) it is our love that truly defines us. On this score, Dyrness’s apologetic is directed to those theologians who write as if human beings were primarily thinking things untainted by cultural context—as if humans (even theologians) don’t inhabit a symbolic world in which they are more moved than convinced, more subject to the dynamics of attraction than deduction. Let’s stop writing theology for brains on a stick, Dyrness is saying, to which I can only add my “Amen.”
But there is a second, more charged aspect to his apologetic: Dyrness wants us to be attentive to the longings expressed in cultural production precisely because of their religious significance. Poetic theology, he concludes, “suggests that the Christian faith, and consonant human flourishing, are to be shaped in part by embracing the play of light and love that is to be found in the wisdom of the surrounding culture—what sparks affection in its objects, patterns, and tales.” Thus poetic theology “seeks to do a religious reading of these deep-seated cultural longings. For these longings, insofar as they reflect the goodness of the created order and God’s loving presence there, constitute a partial vision of God.”
It is precisely this second aspect of the apologetic where I would demur from Dyrness’s project. While I think Dyrness is exactly right to honor the fundamentally religious impulses that characterize our longings (and hence the arts), he tends to thereby read them as implicitly theistic, even anonymously Christian—as if they’re on the right track but don’t quite get to their target, often because they don’t realize what they’re really intending. Thus Dyrness claims that “post-Romantic people are already engaged in practices that spark affection and move them toward a vision of a good life” even if they “may not see” that these refer to a transcendent God. But one could worry that this is a bit of a colonizing move. While Dyrness argues that “all good art…even against its will, echoes this reality,” I wonder how secular artists would welcome the claim that their art is really longing for God. There’s a way to make that point, but Dyrness doesn’t quite make it. We’ve all heard the quip, often (mis)attributed to Chesterton: that a man knocking on the door of a brothel actually desires God. Indeed, Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter is an extended meditation on the idea. But surely that doesn’t entail affirming that lust (cupiditas) as an inchoate worship and stunted praise, even if the persistence of such longing is itself a testament to our nature. (I have discussed these dynamics in Greene, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh in my Desiring the Kingdom.)
There is a further problematic consequence of his move: unwittingly, Dyrness often ends up instrumentalizing art. His reading of cultural artifacts turns out to be another “finding God” project: the arts are affirmed insofar as they “can move people toward God.” This finds expression in the structure of the book, which culminates by focusing on the role of art in worship—a welcome and much-needed emphasis, but one that also fuels the worry about instrumentalization. Perhaps unwittingly, the apologetic aspect of Dyrness’s project ends up with only a qualified affirmation of the arts, unable to affirm arts which unpack the world even if they have no aspiration toward transcendence.
Dyrness is right to build an apologetic on the basis of our longings; and he’s exactly right that Augustine would read these cultural longings as a testament to our nature as desiring creatures. But Augustine would not thereby affirm them as rightly ordered “as far as they go”; rather, Augustine would emphasize that even dis-orderd love is still a backhanded witness to our nature, that God has made us for himself and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. That doesn’t mean that our disordered longings merely fall short; they are aimed in the wrong direction. What makes these religious is not that they are almost Christian, but rather that they are idolatrous. But for Augustine, even idolatry is a witness; and even the “splendid vices” of Rome are not without their virtues. As Jean-Luc Marion has said, idolatry is its own “low-water mark” of divine revelation. We don’t need to thereby make it a tepid theism to prefer it over naturalism.
Dyrness has written an impassioned apologetic for the arts—one that will be especially important for those recovering from the latent Gnosticism of so much of evangelicalism. But I’m still trying to get over that opening page which birthed in me a longing for a genre that remains to be realized: a poetic theology.
—Reviewed by James K.A. Smith