Books I’ve Been Reading in Heaven: Theopoetics
Tiger is shape running through a forest
Tiger is roar rupturing a chorus
Tiger uses sight through skin to see
Tiger hides in darkened shelters to stay
Nights are getting longer, and the moon and its consorts linger long in their black cloaks. Dark conversation escapes the shrouds and pricks my ears, softly rattles the windows. Flecks of the sky have begun to coat the ground, exploding against tigers’ paws like ashes. Forecasters called for a nailstorm to begin, and everyone fled into the caves and shelters, like Earth tigers fleeing the thunder of a hunter’s weapon. But when the familiar corkscrew clouds coil their way across the sky, they pass without depositing a single nail. Lately, I have been doing nothing except sleeping through the ashfalls, listening to the slender talk outside.
Have we angered our safekeepers? Is this heaven collapsing down on our heads? When the sky sheds its last bit of exoskeleton will the brilliant light of heaven spill forth again? If I may speculate: either God is coming or the true nature of this world will be revealed as an inferno, a false paradise. These idle thoughts aside, I have been reading a great deal in the past few days, and as I have buried the lead far enough, I feel I should offer some thoughts about books I’ve been reading lately. It may work wonders for my constitution.
1. Amos Niven Wilder: Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination
At the tail end of the 1960s–as the counterculture dominated the news, church membership declined, and postmodernism’s seeds were being sown by architects and writers–a group of Christians were concerned that the church was hurtling toward extinction. Add on top of this the contemporary vogue for Death of God theology, and you have a potent mix. Many of them were part of a group called the Society for Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture, including our author Amos N. Wilder, whose brother was writer Thornton Wilder. His book is primarily concerned with exhorting Christians to reconfigure and reinterpret their religion to suit the times, to develop a theopoetic that could address the condition of their situation and be the basis of better contemporary theology that would reinvigorate the old religious institutions. Wilder explains the importance of the poetic in his opening:
“It is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered. It is here that culture and history are broken, and here that the church is polarized. Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown and new-name the creatures.
Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem.
Before any new theologies however secular and radical there must be a contemporary theoretic. The structures of faith and confession have always rested on hierophanies and images. But in each new age and climate the theopoetic of the church is reshaped in inseparable relation to the general imagination of the time” (1)
Theopoetics thus attempts to describe God in terms of poetic interpretations and articulations of lived experiences. Wilder lays out the justification for the Church to enter into this kind of work, noting that the old, stultified rationalisms were breaking down and people were becoming more interested in the experiential and the mystical, especially in New Age and Eastern religions. This, Wilder perceives, is a golden opportunity for Christians to both rediscover their more mystical and aesthetic traditions and help people translate their purely inward experiences into greater coherence. As Wilder notes on page 27:
“A traditional theology, oriented to older vicissitudes of the church militant, encourages an evangelical pietism or an ineffective liberalism. A theopoetic oriented to today’s struggle with the principalities and powers can overcome their bondage, exorcise their evil, and shape human future.”
In other words, religion enraptured by its own past, wedded to an old language that fails to resonate with the contemporary imagination, will devolve into something either purely therapeutic or something uglier. The Church should struggle instead against what Wilder calls “the principalities” of our age. How? His interpretation of the Christ story gives a good clue:
“[The life of Jesus] was a guerilla operation which undermined social authority by profound persuasions. What no overt force could do it did by spiritual subversion at the level of the social imagination of the polis and the provinces of the empire. It was a case of liturgy against liturgy, of myth against myth” (28).
I appreciated this book for expressing many of my own concerns about the church today and because it resonated with my own support of a theopoetic expression of faith rather than a “scientific” theory of God. Radically situated beings, who are performing in a great theater of the Divine, can only play their roles to their utmost. The language of any group, including the Church, should change as God reveals God’s self in new ways and gives new opportunities. The book is short and to the point, laced with technical language but put together in a way that I found readable even as a relative neophyte in theology. It provides an inspiring framework where the Church can tell its story in new and renewed ways and effect real change at the level of the imagination. Highly recommended.
That ran longer than I expected, so I will continue this series of posts this Friday and beyond. Hold out hope for this feline heaven. I would be disappointed if my suspicions in this matter were proved correct.