We are pleased to feature a guest post by Andrew Kuiper
Mainly poetry was chosen because the emotions of a young man can run deep in the river of poetry. Clyde Kilby was a giant in the lit department in those days, and his book Poetry and Life was lived in front of us in class. Kilby took the passion for observation and breathed a kind of life into it that biology never could. He taught me that there is always more to see in what I see. There is always wonder. There is always something to be astonished about. There is mental health in learning to look at a tree or a cloud or a nose, and to marvel that it is what it is. This then became poetry. When you finally see the wonder of what you have been looking at for ten years, what you do with that seeing is try to say it—and that is what poetry is.
– John Piper, The Pastor as Scholar, p. 32
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
– William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
To my mind, these two passages present John Piper’s philosophy of Romantic Rationalism. During his time at Wheaton College, Pastor John benefited from the poetic tutelage of the great C.S. Lewis scholar Clyde Kilby. Given that this teacher was an indispensable milestone in his romantic literary awakening it is no surprise that Piper fixates on C.S. Lewis as the archetype of the Romantic Rationalist (although that category include others he has written about favorably, such as G.K. Chesterton and Jonathan Edwards). In Piper’s life and work, the twin pillars of Romance and Rationalism have been represented by his own tasks as a pastor and as a scholar respectively. He has never allowed a schism within the essential unity of the head and the heart either in his writing or his preaching. His convictions concerning that unity are the same that Wordsworth presents in the lines above. The aspects of reality capable of being grasped by the intellect evoke an irrepressible joy. Conversely, the aspects of reality capable of being grasped by the heart inevitably furnish the mind with ideas. Piper not only believes these things but has a particular affinity for practicing them. Scattered among desiringgod.org many resources-articles, sermons, devotionals, etc.-are Piper’s poems. They are of a diverse character, but most are in the form of four-part series meant for public reading during Advent.
I can still remember sitting in the auditorium of Burnsville High School where the South Campus of Bethlehem Baptist met every week. I remember John Piper reciting his poems about Nicodemus and Daniel with an almost hypnotic energy. His cadences were dramatic but without a trace of showmanship and every ounce of his vocal and mental effort was spent in artistically expositing the biblical reflection contained within the text. The same discipline and ferocious loyalty to the text he demonstrated in Biblical exegesis was put to work for the sake of Biblical poetic reflection. It was simultaneously a performance by John Piper and something that was not for the sake of glorifying John Piper’s abilities. It was a kind of worship but not with instruments. Or more accurately, it was worship with different kinds of instruments.. His voice was an instrument for the expression of his poetry and his poetry was an instrument for the expression of the divine.
But where did Pastor John get the idea that poetry could be more than a personal activity and delight? Even if Piper’s literary interest bloomed under Kilby in Wheaton, his experience of the power of poetry went further back.
My father sowed the seeds of poetry, because he wrote poems for special occasions, and he read poems to the family. Even in the months before his death at 87, I would ask him to read his poems to me, and he would weep at certain points as he read about his six-year-old son. (p. 28 PAS)
John Piper first knew poetry in a familial context as a way to commemorate moments of importance and express emotional intimacy. It created a bridge through time by allowing his dying father to participate in the remembrance of his son as a child. Even more, it allowed John to participate in his father’s own love for him in a way that would have been impossible without this preservation of intimacy through poetry. In this way, his father cultivated the bonds of love within the tiny ekklesia of a family. The art of poetry was taken up in service of the domestic church.
What John Piper does currently is transpose that fatherly concern into his shepherding of the congregation of Bethlehem Baptist Church Granted, the fact that it is a formal ecclesial body and that the duties of a pastor are not identical with that of fatherhood complicates the matter. Still, the family is a microcosm of the relation between Christ and His people, as Scripture attests. The same need for preserving moments of significance with a communal intimacy remains. And for John, while the primary task is always preaching, the work of writing and reciting poetry remains.
For Piper, I think the use of poetry was a natural outgrowth from his understanding of homiletics. Preaching was a means of expositing the text but also of quickening the hearts of his flock. By paying close attention to how he expressed his exegetical findings, he was already sounding the shape and rhythm of his words. It is only a small step from an eloquent sermon to a formal poem organized around a biblical and theological narrative. And now looking back, it seems fitting that he would write and recite those poems sparingly and only on occasions that concerned the spiritual life of the entire church, such as the annual celebration of Christ’s Nativity.
Of course, Piper never exempts any aspect of his ministry from a severe examination of conscience.
I put Philippians 2:3 before me regularly with its piercing word kenodoxian (vainglory): “Do nothing from rivalry or vainglory [kenodoxian], but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). The love of human praise—human glory—is universal and deadly. Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). You can’t. You can’t believe in the crucified Messiah as your supreme treasure and hero, and then love the exact opposite of the mind-set that took him to the cross. (PAS, p. 24)
Here the concern is the use of pastoral autobiography. But the solution Piper adduces for that genre equally applies to his use of poetry. The evidence and weight of personal experience and reflection is most fully realized when given in an orderly way for the benefit of the church as a whole. Piper considers this attitude to be a deeply Pauline one. How else are we to interpret “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” except as an endorsement of holy men and women (and by extension, their sober reflections) as exemplars of sanctified life for the body of Christ? Granted, that holiness, as we know from Paul’s account of the thorn in the flesh, is never safe from congealing into pride.
The safeguard against that pride in personal experience is to make it public in such a way as to be subject to the accountability of judgement provided by the body of believers. This operates in at least two ways. One, if there is any content which is doctrinally objectionable, the humble resistance of the flock can provide a remedy. Two, if the pastoral reflection is orthodox but unexceptional, the people of God can refrain from preserving or repeating the sermon or poem and act as a welcome winnowing process. On the other hand, if the work in question is of lasting theological and artistic value, the body of believers can decide to repeat and reuse it even after its author has passed away. It then becomes a gift to that congregation and their future children.
Perhaps this is not a particularly original observation, as most denominations understand that they inherit forms of verbal and musical worship from their predecessors. In my limited experience, however, the rationale for creating and keeping such extra-biblical reflections for public use were not often the subject of discussion. John Piper’s unique life, however, and approach to pastoral ministry provide the elements for such a rationale.
In addition to the subjugation of pride in one’s spiritual experiences and providing for the nourishment of future generations, there is another reason for the creation of reflections for public worship. It goes back to what John detailed in his early life with his father. For him, poetry acted as a bridge through time. This seems to be a particular characteristic of poetry. Augustine remarks on this same relationship between memory, time, and poetry during a significant excursus in the Confessions.
I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention is extended to the whole; but when I have begun, as much of it as becomes past by my saying it is extended in my memory; and the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory, on account of what I have repeated, and my expectation, on account of what I am about to repeat; yet my consideration is present with me, through which that which was future may be carried over so that it may become past. Which the more it is done and repeated, by so much (expectation being shortened) the memory is enlarged, until the whole expectation be exhausted, when that whole action being ended shall have passed into memory. And what takes place in the entire psalm, takes place also in each individual part of it, and in each individual syllable: this holds in the longer action, of which that psalm is perchance a portion; the same holds in the whole life of man, of which all the actions of man are parts; the same holds in the whole age of the sons of men, of which all the lives of men are parts. (Confessions, Bk.XI, emphasis mine)
An analogy is drawn between the unity of poem in the memory of a man, the unity of man’s life within his own memory, and the unity of all men in the history of Creation and Redemption known by God. Ultimately then, under an Augustinian understanding, the nature of verbal art and its performance has an affinity with memory and with the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves are the divinely inspired memories and reflections of the people of God on the mystery of God and his saving work. As such, it receives pride of place in public worship in all Christian traditions. But as each generation of Christians desires to appropriate for themselves the Holy Scriptures, the very best of their artistic and spiritual reflections are purified and grafted onto the witness of the apostles and the prophets (albeit in a chastened and subsidiary fashion). They become second nature and indispensable as ready forms and teachers of spiritual experience. Think of A Mighty Fortress is Our God or Amazing Grace as examples of individual creativity seamlessly blending into the joyful expression of the Gospel.
My own hope for this piece is that it will allow for more common ground between Catholics and Protestants concerning the role and significance of liturgy. In this instance, I am thinking most of those Protestants that come from an Evangelical or Non-denominational background, and especially those of the Reformed Baptist tradition. I think John Piper is attuned to something which is true about the nature of man. We all desire to make genuine contact with the events of the past and those of the future through the mediation of words. In public worship, we receive the most efficacious Word imaginable, both in the Scriptures and the saving work of Christ. Should we not also look for an even more glorious mediation in our public worship of the One who is the Fulness of Time? And since the object of our worship is deserving of infinite praise, we can never be finished marveling and reflecting on the ways in which our inadequate babble pleases Him.
Andrew Kuiper received his B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Hillsdale College (2012), and is currently enrolled in a Joint M.A. program for Philosophy and Theology at Boston College. His wife Catherine is a Ph.D candidate in Political Theory at Notre Dame. His interests lie primarily in philosophical hermeneutics, the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius in the Latin tradition, and the theory and practice of patristic and medieval exegesis.