Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life

Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life

by William A. Dyrness

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Reveals the presence of God in the creative works of human life and culture

What are the "poetics of everyday life"? What can they teach us about God? Art, music, dance, and writing can certainly be "poetic," but so can such diverse pastimes as fishing, skiing, or attending sports events. Any and all activities that satisfy our fundamental need for play, for celebration, and for ritual, says William Dyrness, are inherently poetic -- and in Poetic Theology he demonstrates that all such activities are places where God is active in the world.

All of humanity's creative efforts, Dyrness points out, testify to our intrinsic longing for joy and delight and our deep desire to connect with others, with the created order, and especially with the Creator. This desire is rooted in the presence and calling of God in and through the good creation.

With extensive reflection on aesthetics in spirituality, worship, and community development, Dyrness's Poetic Theology will be useful for all who seek fresh and powerful new ways to communicate the gospel in contemporary society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865786
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 12/23/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

William A. Dyrness is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His other books include Reformed Theology and Visual Culture and A Primer on Christian Worship: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, Where We Can Go.

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God and the Poetics of Everyday Life
By William A. Dyrness

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 William A. Dyrness
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6578-6

Chapter One

Prelude to Aesthetic Theology: Theological Reflections on Love, Desire, and the Affections


Consider the following representative sample of contemporary twenty-first century, middle-class Americans:

• Adam has just celebrated his thirtieth birthday and works in financial services in downtown Los Angeles. He is an avid USC football fan and organizes his fall around the schedule of the Trojans. Every year he will make at least one trip to an away game, and he holds season tickets to all home games. During the fall his week is spent scouring newspapers and sports blogs for clues about the strengths and weaknesses of this week's opponent, and the readiness (and injury report) of his team. Saturday morning he rises early, dons his red-and-yellow sweatshirt, and goes to a buddy's house to carpool with friends to the Coliseum. He looks forward to the feeling of being part of eighty thousand people on their feet cheering a great play — he finds this experience to be deeply moving. • Lisa and her husband live in Salt Lake City. They love to ski and can't wait for ski season to arrive. Lisa has arranged her part-time work schedule in the local hospital so that she and a friend can make the short drive to the nearest slope at least twice a week. The couple's fall and winter program always includes trips to ski resorts with their friends. Even in the off-season Lisa watches the sales so that she can keep up with the latest ski equipment. Her favorite experience is to feel the cold mountain air as she drifts down the slopes. It is there that she feels most alive. • Brad loves to fish and has found several lakes near his Los Angeles home that he can visit — he is sure to fish in one or another at least once a week. He services heating and air-conditioning systems and is quick to tell his customers about the five-pound bass he caught last week. He checks online fishing sites regularly to see what people are catching and keeps his fishing gear (and the beer!) in the trunk of his car so he can make a quick trip with his friends. When he is fishing, the quiet of the lake and the birds flying overhead give him a sense of peace. • Sophia works as a graphic designer, but would love to paint full-time — part of her study is equipped as a studio where she spends long hours painting. Her weekly schedule will usually include a gallery opening, or a museum visit with her friends. Her home is full of original prints, and the coffee table is crowded with art books. Recently she was appointed to the cultural affairs council of her local community. She loves to spend time in front of her favorite work, sketching, or simply meditating — it is there that she feels most fulfilled.

These people are unremarkable in many ways, but they have this in common: All of them would say that they are relatively happy, and all of them would also claim that religion plays no role in either their happiness or their daily lives. As a result, the lives of people like this would commonly be described as secular. But in what follows I want to dispute, or at least challenge, this characterization. While they may have given up the formal institution of religion, none have given up the satisfactions that religion has traditionally supplied: all of them have found activities that they enjoy and that give them a sense of fulfillment. Furthermore, their regular practices have given a kind of ritual structure to their lives that gives them strength and offers them meaning.

Devotion, Ritual, and Community

Many, perhaps most, contemporary people with college degrees and middle-class jobs live their lives these days without paying much attention to religion. Even if they would claim to believe in God (as some 90 percent of them do!) and attend church or synagogue at various times, they will live most of their lives as functional atheists; God does not play much of a role in their daily lives. But I want to argue that this fact does not give a complete picture of what might be called their religious lives. For it is clear from even the brief examples above that many of them have committed themselves to causes and values around which they orient their lives. These causes, and the practices they inspire, are clearly the object of their affections as much as of their reason and will. As a result, one can fairly say that they are devoted to these things, and that they pursue them with specific practices that anthropologists would call rituals. These shared rituals, moreover, provide social contexts in which these people find their meaning and forge their identities. It is while pursuing these practices, they tell us, that they feel most alive.

To be sure, sports, fishing, and the arts are not religious in any traditional sense, but, for many of our contemporaries, they have taken the place of religious practices. And like religious practices, they have become things for which they live — and perhaps for which they might even die! Indeed, the argument I want to develop will go further and argue that the significance they derive from these activities has not only a human meaning but a possible theological reference as well. That is, the drive that moves them to pursue the goods associated with their passions is a movement of the soul that, if nurtured more deeply and oriented rightly, would lead them to God.

If something like this is true, it follows that a major work of theology today, at least of the apologetic sort, might be to explore these drives as though they were theologically significant. Accordingly, pursuing conversations about God today might not in the first instance be about the truth of Christianity, but about the presence and work of God in the contemporary situation and, especially, in the passions that move people to act, build, and create. It would proceed on the assumption that God is already deeply involved in their lives, and is already in conversation with them. The presence or absence of God would thus be reconsidered in the light of these passionate commitments. I would like to propose that people are not so much misled by the devotional urges they find in themselves, or by the legitimate activities that express these drives, but by failing to understand their direction and their limitations, by failing to see that life lived only for these things is finally not fulfilling. But the argument I want to make is that life lived with a more holistic understanding of these good things is more satisfying, even as it gives a deeper and richer meaning to these practices.

But is such a religious reading of culture really possible? I recognize that there are many barriers to mounting an argument of this kind — some of which I will deal with in due course. But I think it is important to begin with practices and creative activities of the sort I described simply because for many people today these activities define and give meaning to their lives. So an argument of this kind is important for strategic reasons, something I will explore in the third chapter. But the religious reading of these projects suggests that there are theological reasons as well — something I want to develop in this chapter and the next. I will seek to develop my argument in two ways. First, I will try to show that, for people like Adam and Sophia, aesthetic experience, broadly conceived, and the rituals and created objects that express this, are fundamental to the shaping and expressing of their human identity. That is to say, they are not optional extras, but fundamental to the growth and flourishing of persons. But this part of the argument goes further: aesthetic and symbolic projects are also spiritual sites where the affections, the goods of the world, and religious longings meet and interact. Second, then, I will argue that symbolic practices of this kind can also be "theological" in the broad sense of the word. That is, they are places where, because of God's continuing presence in creation and God's redemptive work in Christ and by the Spirit, God is also active, nurturing, calling, and drawing persons — and indeed, all creation — toward the perfection God intends for them.

Where Is a Theology of Desire to Be Found?

Before turning to my argument, I need to recognize a handicap that I work with. I claim to be doing a kind of apologetic theology — that is, I will be reflecting on the presence and purposes of God in relation to cultural patterns and trends. Theology as it is ordinarily studied does not appear well-equipped to carry out this sort of investigation. Some theologians have wrestled in various ways with art and aesthetics, and we will consider their contributions in due course; others are highly suspicious of this sort of approach, and we will consider some of these as well. But in general one could describe a particular modern way of doing theology that has emerged in the last few centuries. This method emphasizes the rational formulation, expression, and understanding of God's purposes as these are contained in Scripture. Only after we have reached a firm understanding of Christian truth, according to this dominant view, are we encouraged to apply it to our lives in the world. The truth comes first; practices and attendant feelings follow. This is the proper order of things.

A good illustration of this modern way of thinking about theology, and an indication of how far we have come, is contained in a story that I learned as a young evangelical Christian. In an illustration of the Christian life from the popular writer Watchman Nee, living as a Christian was pictured in the form of three figures — named Fact, Faith, and Feeling — walking along the top of a wall. According to this picture, for me to live out the Christian life rightly, it was essential that I get the order of these three figures right. Fact — the truths about Christ and his death for my salvation — had to go first; then Faith could follow, "keeping her eyes on Fact"; Feeling, last of all, would follow along, and all would be well. But if Faith would take her eyes off Fact, and turn around to see how Feeling was getting on, she would surely fall off the wall, and Feeling would tumble after her.

There are a bundle of theological (even psychological) assumptions hidden in this innocent little illustration. There is the supposition that all that we know about Christ is unambiguous "fact"; that faith has to do (primarily) with knowledge of these assured facts; and finally, and most significantly for our purposes, that emotions are unreliable and, in the end, dispensable factors in the Christian life. For many Christians, at least in the evangelical tradition, this picture of things has seemed unarguably true. It is a picture, which, as Wittgenstein says, holds us captive. (A parallel case might be made for classical liberal theology, which has simply replaced these facts and faith with different specified commitments and practices, and similarly overlooked the emotions, though I will not pursue that possibility here.) There is more than a little irony in this. The evangelical tradition has been among the most opposed to the use of images and metaphors in doing theology; Watchman Nee, the source of this illustration, is especially opposed to these things. Yet in this case, in spite of this resistance, images emerge, and, unbidden, do their work.

So in part, I want to undo, or at least challenge, the work that this image has done. And I want to do this by focusing directly on the role of aesthetics, ritual, and images in our religious life — inside and outside of church. Whatever room we make or do not make for these dimensions of our lives, it is fair to say that all of us, as people immersed in families and communities, live on stories and pictures — whether it is the rush of a roaring football stadium or the quiet whoosh of the ski slope. The problem is that too often when it comes to theology we make little allowance for this arena — dealing as it does with emotions and desires. This was felt to be an interesting subject for our spare time, for diversion, but it was not given any substantial importance in the exploration of the Christian faith. Aesthetics has to do with more than feelings, as I will argue, but it certainly includes centrally our emotional life, our feeling for what happens, as Antonio Damasio puts it. Damasio makes use of recent brain studies and his own extensive clinical experience to argue that our basic sense of self — what he calls our core consciousness — is based on images or mental patterns, and that particular images involve fundamentally our emotions. "Consciousness begins," he believes, "as the feeling of what happens when we see or hear or touch." Genuine creativity needs additional skills, experience, and training, but it is always rooted in the possibilities and the feelings that consciousness offers. And this consciousness invariably includes representations that the body offers and our feeling response to them. The relevance of this to my argument is clear: The aesthetic desires and the habits and objects that embody these are fundamental to our human identity.

Clearly the little picture I was given was not only misleading — it may have had things backward: the role played by feelings is prior to and influential on the pictures we finally make of the world (i.e., on our knowing); moreover, faith itself cannot be understood apart from a healthy awareness of the role of feeling. Thankfully, more and more emphasis is being given to this aspect of Christian devotion and theological reflection. Within the church, ancient devotional practices are experiencing widespread revival, especially among younger Christians, and these have always given full weight to our being embodied creatures indwelling special places and times. Indeed, all the practices of corporate worship — prayer, song, preaching, and so on — involve actions which necessarily have emotional and aesthetic dimensions to them. Outside the church, the media-saturated environment in which we all live inevitably raises issues of style and emotion. These concerns lie behind the discussions in this book. And they are developed as a means to opening conversations with Adam, Lisa, Brad, Sophia, and others like them.

In defense of our theological teachers, one might argue that during the last couple of centuries there were valid reasons for avoiding a focus on affections in theology. Given the excess to which this focus led, major theological figures purposefully avoided these emphases. The appeal to passions of peoples and races ("blood and soil") led Karl Barth to emphasize clarity and understanding, and to reflect on theology as scientia. In a very different context, the anti-intellectualist, feeling-saturated piety of his fundamentalist background led Carl Henry to emphasize Christianity as a rational system. In both cases, the theologians' aversion to emotion and their emphasis on real knowledge were understandable. Both of these also sought to escape the humanistic confines of classical liberalism, and their move to focus on the objectivity of God and God's Word is also sound — even praiseworthy.

Both of these theologians represent what is broadly called the Reformed tradition, which represents the perspective of this book as well. This tradition is well-known for being cautious about the role of feeling and affections. But however justified such suspicion may have been in the past, it is clearly problematic today. For it is increasingly clear that in contemporary culture, for many people, the search for truth has been overtaken by the search for what is pleasing — that during the last half-century, broadly speaking, aesthetics has come to replace epistemology as the central preoccupation of educated Western people. One no longer inquires about what can be known; one is more likely to be concerned about what feels and looks good. Although there are serious problems with this move, which we will address, the perception of the significance of aesthetics is widespread and ought not be ignored.


Excerpted from POETIC THEOLOGY by William A. Dyrness Copyright © 2011 by William A. Dyrness. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

The Method of Poetic Theology

1 Prelude to Aesthetic Theology: Theological Reflections on Love, Desire, and the Affections 3

2 The Historical Model: Theologia Poetica 37

3 Poetic Stewardship of Life 71

Building Blocks for a Poetic Theology: How Did We Get Here?

4 Re-reading the Nineteenth-Century Romantic Heritage 99

5 Twentieth-Century Aesthetics: In Search of a Theological Voice 125

6 Dante, Bunyan, and the Search for a Protestant Aesthetics 153

7 Calvin, the Locked Church, and the Recovery of Contemplation 187

The Trajectory of Poetic Theology: Where Can We Go?

8 The Aesthetics of Church 217

9 Aesthetics and Social Transformation 253


10 Living and Reflecting Poetically: Systematic Implications 283

Bibliography 313

Index 327

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