Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life

Written by William A. Dyrness Reviewed By Wesley Vander Lugt

With the title Poetic Theology, you might expect a book brimming with iambic pentameter, but the subtitle hints at another purpose: to explore the poetry inherent in all of life and to do so in “the pigeon-toed prose of theology” (p. ix). By speaking of poetry, therefore, Dyrness is not referring to a particular kind of literature, but the creative-making—the poesis—at the heart of all human activity. To unpack the parameters of this proposal, it is helpful to approach poetic theology from three different angles as apologetic theology, aesthetic theology, and active theology.

First, poetic theology is a proposal for how to respond to the ubiquitous hunger for beauty in contemporary culture, to offer an apologetic. Why is it that humans have a desire to make something beautiful out of their lives? Dyrness identifies this poetic desire as ultimately a desire for God, a natural response to living in a “God-graced” created order (p. 296). Consequently, poetic theology recognizes the legitimate desires humans possess and express regarding the poetry of everyday life. As a result, the products of human creativity—culture—symbolize these poetic desires and indicate God’s continued presence and work within his creation. By celebrating the goodness of creation, recognizing common poetic desires, and affirming the value of culture despite the blight of sin, poetic theology offers a compelling apologetic.

Second, Dyrness demonstrates how poetic, apologetic theology generates a unique approach to theological aesthetics and aesthetic theology. After summarizing over the space of several chapters both Catholic and Protestant theological aesthetics, Dyrness suggests that poetic theology makes it possible to bring these traditions together. If Dante’s Divine Comedy represents Catholic aesthetics emphasizing form, images, vision, and affections, and if Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress represents Protestant aesthetics accentuating content, words, action, and the will, then poetic theology encompasses the best of both worlds. Although poetic theology encourages aesthetic delight and contemplative encounter with beauty, this should never be divorced from action and participation in the beautiful drama. In short, contemplation without action is empty, but action without contemplation is blind. The particular vision imparted by Christian theology is a world of broken beauty, but a world in which the poetic performance of Christ makes possible Spirit-empowered performances in anticipation of beauty fully restored.

Third, the fusion of performance and perception in poetic theology makes it an inherently active theology. In fact, Dyrness critiques ideological and reflective approaches to culture where the goal is mere understanding. He prefers holistic approaches that encourage cultural creation as well as cultural critique. In fact, if we see our entire lives as a dramatic performance of the vision that captures our imaginations, then every activity, whether making spaghetti or a sculpture, is a cultural performance and an expression of poetic theology. In addition, because poetic theology recognizes the aesthetic desires common to all humanity, expressing these desires will be central to any account of human flourishing or development. For example, Dyrness explains how healthy communities will find fulfillment to their basic physical needs but also have the opportunity to play, celebrate, and express their creativity. Transformational development should not just be concerned with providing food, water, and shelter, but with enabling communities to party and celebrate the poetry of life.

Overall, Poetic Theology is an impressive achievement and a compelling admixture of apologetic, aesthetic, and active theology. Readers may not agree, however, with the process of “reversing the hermeneutical flow” (p. 80) that uses contemporary culture to illumine Scripture rather than the other way around. That being said, Dyrness does claim “Scripture in the hands of the Spirit” as his final authority, and the paucity of biblical exegesis does not preclude a vision permeated with biblical truth, which emerged most explicitly in the last chapter (p. 286). But if Dyrness values Scripture and lectio divina so highly, it would have been refreshing to see more poetic interactions with particular passages. In addition, one might question at times if “poetic theology” is really the best moniker for the approach presented in this book, especially given the prominence of a dramatic model. In fact, there is an uncanny propensity for both Catholic and Protestant theological aesthetics to gravitate toward a dramatic model. Dyrness follows suit, pleading for an approach that links accurate perception of the divine drama with faithful performance. As such, “dramatic theology” may be an accurate description, but Kevin Vanhoozer already presented this model in The Drama of Doctrine, and there is a sense in which the poetic (in terms of all human creativity) encompasses the dramatic. These comments aside, Dyrness effectively demonstrates that theology cannot ignore beauty, and that theology is always related to everyday life. And for that, this book is not only a convincing plea for poetic theology, but is a preeminent example of poetic theology in practice.

Wesley Vander Lugt

Wesley Vander Lugt
University of St. Andrews
St Andrews, Scotland, UK

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