by Kellie Brown
“Where language is weak, theology is weakened.” (1) This was the pronouncement of Madeleine L’Engle in her reflections on faith and art. L’Engle, who had made a career from the strength of words, found herself increasingly concerned about the decline of language in society and in her beloved Episcopal Church. Given that she made these observations in 1980, I wonder what she would say today.
L’Engle’s statement points us to the heart of theopoetics— the acknowledgement that words play a critical and dynamic role in our faith and culture. Derived from theopoiesi, a combining of the Greek word for God (theos) with poiein, which means “to make or shape,” the term theopoetics in the modern sense was first used in 1971 by theologian Stanley Romaine Hopper. Proponents regarded theopoetics as a possible response to the “Death of God” movement that had taken hold in the 1960s. For many in the Christian community, the Death of God movement signaled the possible death knell of Christianity’s dominance in the United States. Hopper attributed part of the problem to lifeless theology that lacked imagination and discovery, and believed that effusing the pursuit of God with poetic aesthetics and sensibilities could spark a Christian renewal. He and others hoped that theopoetics could offer new ways of thinking and speaking about God that people in his time would find more relevant. But as conservative evangelicalism gained prominence in the late 1970s and 80s, there was less fear of Christianity’s demise. Then with the 1990s came a renewed interest in theopoetics (maybe ironically) as the result of those same evangelical forces. The corruption unveiled through Praise the Lord Network’s Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and the insidious shadow of political conservatism that twined with the American evangelical movement caused some to seek a method of framing their faith that more clearly centered on truth, beauty, and justice.
In time, theopoetics became linked to a progressive perspective that emphasized how words can shape our personal and corporate spiritual formation. This approach of revealing the divine through words can involve both the process of writing as well as the critical analysis of religious texts. Scott Holland, who helped bring theopoetics into the academy through the development of first a certificate program and then a Master of Arts degree in theopoetics at Bethany Seminary, has contributed to the defining and expanding of theopoetical discourse, especially its generative quality. “Theopoetics is a kind of writing that invites more writing. Its narratives lead to other narratives, its metaphors encourage new metaphors, its confessions invoke more confessions, and its conversations invite more conversations.” (2)
While the poetic form has served as a guide, theopoetics is not just a composite of theology and poetry. Instead, theopoetics relies on a poetic thought process, which means this field of theological inquiry includes other artistic forms and ways of knowing. It invites us to embrace the mystery of the divine rather than expecting us to reduce the examination of faith to a scientific formula. Catherine Keller, one of the important theopoetical voices today, describes theopoetics by its necessary alignment with artistic praxis – of creating something out of nothing. In this way, theopoetics mirrors a Creator God who forms and shapes like a potter and who speaks to us in poetry, imagery, and metaphor.
Theologian Mason Mennenga emphasizes that what theopoetic discourse brings to theology is its “way of thinking, visualizing, and sensing images of God,” (3) and that through this variance of artistic forms we discover that there are multiple ways of knowing God. This points to an especially compelling aspect of theopoetical ideology— that it resists orthodoxy and absolutes, and instead strives to be universal, to move beyond political or denominational labels of progressive or conservative.
Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that one day philosophy and theology would be taught by poets. Scott Holland thus suggests that Emerson might be the root of modern theopoetics, as it insists on the primacy of this artistic praxis as a necessary precursor to more traditional forms of theological discourse. Indeed, Amos Niven Wilder, brother of Pulitzer-winning playwright Thornton Wilder and an early pioneer in theopoetics, sought to make a case for placing artistic and poetic discourse and sensibilities firmly in the realm of theology. From his experience pastoring a Congregationalist church in New Hampshire to his esteemed post as the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard, Amos Wilder articulated the complementing nature of art and faith— “Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem.” (4)
Exploring theopoetics draws me back to poetry again and again. W. David Taylor reminds us that poetry is “a native language of God and of the people of God.” (5) It is “a mother tongue of the Word Incarnate on whose lips the psalmist’s words came naturally.” (6) Taylor insists that the Church needs poets because they “teach us to be careful with our words in an often-careless world.” (7) Eugene Peterson offers a similar pronouncement— “Poets are caretakers of language, shepherds of words, protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse.” (8) Marilyn McEntyre adds that “Poets slow us down. They teach us to stop and go in before we go on. They play at the edges of mystery.” (9)
Waiting, witnessing, and paying attention are at the core of theopoetics. American poet Mary Oliver had much to say about keeping our eyes open to what surrounds us, especially in nature. In her essay “Upstream,” Oliver declares that “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” (10) Her daily habits bear witness. “In the spring, I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail, in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.” (11)
There is no better spirit guide on a theopoetical journey than Mary Oliver unless you consider Malcolm Guite. Poet, Anglican priest, and life fellow at Girton College of the University of Cambridge, Guite may not use the term theopoetics, but what he says and writes lies firmly rooted in it. In a recent interview, Guite teases apart the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom. He describes how adept our reasoning minds are at collecting and organizing information, but then unapologetically declares that “reason has almost no access to wisdom at all.” (12) To support his argument, Guite directs us to the words of Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven. And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” (13) Guite calls this imagination and defines it as a particular way “of knowing and intuiting and feeling we might have missed entirely if the poet or the artist or the painter or the musician hadn’t bodied it forth.” (14) Guite further asserts that reason and imagination, that science and religion, are not antagonists, but “enfolded” partners, and that when they work together, when intellectual inquiry pairs with deeply held faith, we arrive at more fuller ways of knowing. “To do theology well, we must bring the poets to the table along with the theologians.” (15)
Through its openness to the depth and breadth of human experience, theopoetics focuses on our longing to know God. The psalmist confesses, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (16) According to Terry Veling, theopoetics recognizes that each human being, no matter their individual demographic, is a person who “desires.” Veling enumerates many things we long for, including to be loved, and named, and affirmed, and uplifted, while also acknowledging that we desire to offer these same supportive gestures to others. Veling insists that “God is more akin to ‘desire’ than to ‘knowledge’” (17) and that it is the poets and artists who teach us how to give and receive what we crave. These thoughts undergird theopoetics’ insistence that walking with God should be a fully embodied experience. Human senses serve as witnesses and interpreters of God’s work in our lives and in the world. Theopoetics refuses to shy away from the material and physical side of life and bodies. It urges us to accept that objects and living organisms teach us and that connecting with our own body’s experiences of pleasure, pain, and mortality allows us to relate with our Creator God in deeper ways. I believe this resonates with the message of the Gospel, which is a profoundly embodied story as God submitted to inhabit a woman’s womb for 9 months and then drink from her breasts as the only means of life-sustaining nourishment.
Originally published by Earth & Altar Magazine.
Artwork: Ancient of Days by William Blake. Public domain.
- Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Convergent, 2001), 32.
- Scott Holland, “Editorial,” CrossCurrents (Volume 60, No. 1, March 2010), 5.
- Mason Mennenga, “What is Theopoetics?” (Blog post, April 10, 2019). https://masonmennenga.com/most-popular-posts/2019/4/10/what-is-theopoetics
- Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination. (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), 1.
- W. David O. Taylor, Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans, 2019), 122.
- Eugene Peterson, Holy Luck (Eerdmans, 2013), xiv.
- Marilyn McEntyre, When Poets Pray (Eerdmans, 2019), 2.
- Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays (Penguin, 2016), 8.
- Ibid., 7.
- Tish Harrison Warren, “Putting the Poetry Back in Christmas,” New York Times (December 11, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/11/opinion/advent-christmas-poetry.html
- Psalm 42:1
- L. Callid Keefe-Perry, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer (Cascade Books, 2014), xvi.
Dr. Kellie Brown is a violinist, conductor, music educator, and award-winning writer whose book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation during the Holocaust and World War II (McFarland Publishing, 2020), received one of the Choice Outstanding Academic Titles award. Her words have appeared in Earth & Altar, Psaltery & Lyre, Ekstasis, The Primer, Agape Review, Calla Press, among others. In addition to over 30 years of music ministry experience, she is a certified lay minister in the United Methodist Church and currently serves at First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport, TN. More information about her and her writing can be found at kelliedbrown.com.
Christine Sine is offering three seasonal, virtual retreats to explore living in balance and in line with the natural and liturgical rhythms of the year. Join her for one or all of them September 2, October 14 and December 9. These retreats will encourage us to center ourselves and our lives as we move through the seasons beginning in Fall and moving through Advent. They will be times of reflection, creativity and fun.
As an Amazon Associate I receive a small amount for purchases made through appropriate links. Thank you for supporting Godspace in this way.