Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Review: Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by Malcolm Guite

For as long as people have written, sung, and told stories about God, literature has been a means by which the Holy Spirit has moved individuals to draw closer to Christ. However, the role of the imagination in apologetics and theology has received, until lately, little attention from Christian scholars and apologists. Fortunately, this situation is now being remedied by a number of gifted scholars working on what is being called “imaginative apologetics” or “literary apologetics.” Malcolm Guite’s brilliant book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination is absolutely essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject.

Guite is opening a door into quite new territory for most apologists, and thus he begins, rightly, with an extended introduction setting out the issues that he will address, and why they are important. To begin with, he notes that a cultural shift is underway. We now have a “wider debate in modernist and post-modernist times about the relations between imagination and reason as ways of knowing.”1  At least in the American Evangelical world, this debate has often played out simply as a critique of postmodern influence in the church, but the larger issue of the role of the imagination in apologetics, theology, and Christian experience is much more significant. Guite argues that “if renewed claims are to be made for the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, we need both to understand why it came to be marginalised and also to ask in what ways it is consistent with, and complementary to truths arrived at by other means.”2

Why poetry? The questions that Guite is asking could be addressed through the study of other literary forms, but he argues that poetry is “peculiarly fitted” to answer these questions: “[Christian] theology depends both on written scriptures and also on the radical idea that the Word behind all words and scriptures has been made, not more words, but flesh. Poetry may be especially fitted as a medium for helping us apprehend something of the mystery embodied in that phrase ‘the Word was made flesh.’”3
The introductory chapter is worth the price of the book all by itself. Guite addresses the question of what, exactly has been lost in modern Western culture, examining the effects of the Enlightenment and post-modernism on faith and poetic language. Over against the reductionism of the Enlightenment and the inevitable descent into meaninglessness of post-modernism, Guite argues that “a full understanding of the mystery of language and the truth-bearing capacity of the poetic imagination requires a critical approach to language which is alert both to the immanent and the transcendent, and indeed to the unique power of imagination to move between the two.”4  Faith, Hope and Poetry is precisely an attempt (and a successful one) to take such an approach to poetry.

Guite is well aware that the imagination is viewed with suspicion in some areas of the Christian tradition, noting that “A fear of imagination as being fallen and degraded leads to theology being “pursued and presented in highly syllogistic and logical form, as pared of imagery as possible.”5  However, “The problem with this approach is it privileges one faculty over against another, as though reason were itself somehow less ‘fallen’ than imagination... the ‘ideological argument’ of syllogistic theology is no less ‘fallen,’ provisional, and seen through a glass darkly than any of the resonant and mysterious images available to the imagination. But there is this difference, that abstract language pretends to a precision, a finality which it cannot deliver, and this, ironically, is what makes it potentially more idolatrous than the images of which it is so suspicious.”6

Neither imagination nor reason, then, is ‘better’ or ‘less fallen’ than the other: it is the imbalance between them that is the problem Guite seeks to address here. He makes it very clear that he does not wish to turn the tables, “exalting imagination at the expense of reason,”7  but rather to see the ways in which “these two ways of knowing are mutually enfolded and depend on one another.”8

Still within this first chapter, Guite moves to demonstrate his approach with a brilliant, careful reading of two poems: George Herbert’s “Prayer” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick.” As part of this reading, Guite gives a cameo portrait of what poetry can do: to provide an “entering into experience, that coalescing of observer and observed, which was so dreadfully and dryly missing from the Enlightenment perspective.”9  Poetry can thus create shifts in perspective, moments of transfiguration.

Having laid out the territory, shown the reasons why the material is important, and demonstrated his approach to the material, Guite then takes the reader in the following chapters through a number of important works of poetry. The chronological structure of the book, which includes poetry that may be overlooked in the modern day, helps us see the shift in thinking that occurred at the Enlightenment and realize that we need not (and indeed must not) buy in to the Reason-Imagination / Knowledge -Faith split that is simply assumed in most modern culture (including within the church).

Guite starts with The Dream of the Rood, that marvelous Anglo-Saxon dream-vision poem in which the Cross itself narrates the events of the Crucifixion, with Christ depicted a warrior figure. The subject of the Crucifixion, and its implications for human beings, is an example of precisely the kind of material that requires the involvement of the imagination to grasp. As Guite explains, reason alone cannot account for the mystery of Christ as fully human and fully divine: “It demands a more subtle and complex response. In fact only the imaginative arts – certainly poetry, but also painting and music – have come anywhere close to embracing simultaneously both parts of the paradox and expressing the mystery adequately.”10

He goes on to give a marvelous close reading of the way that the poet, in The Dream of the Rood, in fact imaginatively brings us into a full understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. In the poem, Christ is depicted as a young warrior-hero who climbs up onto the cross, and is described as having ‘stripped’ as if for battle: Guite shows that this word choice “alludes to, but at the same time reverses the emphasis of the gospel account of the forcible stripping of Christ before the crucifixion. For in a paradox the poet is saying that, although to the outward eye others were stripping Christ for humiliation, in truth, to the inward eye that sees reality, Christ was stripping himself for action.”11

Guite notes that “Though this poem might be seen as the most remote from us in time, in culture, and from the language of the other poems we shall study, I do not think it is remote at all. It was written in an age of transition, of tension between the old and the new, and we live in just such an age again.”12 He goes on to give an intriguing account of the way that this poem influenced the imagination of C.S. Lewis on his journey of conversion to Christianity; the poet of The Dream of the Rood gives us a vision that integrates imagination and reason – and it was precisely this integration that Lewis struggled with and finally was able to achieve, with the help of his friends Tolkien and Dyson in the famous “Addison’s Walk” conversation. 

The re-gaining of the “integrated vision,” with imagination and reason no longer compartmentalized but now cooperating in presenting truth in all its richness, helped move Lewis from atheism to Christian faith; we would do well to look carefully, as Guite helps us to do here, at the way that vision appears in literature.

Guite continues this careful, attentive reading of poetry throughout the book, moving next to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest; he argues that “Shakespeare’s account of the poetic imagination as the bodying forth in earthly terms of heavenly apprehension provides us with a model for understanding the Incarnation as the supreme act of divine poesis. If this is so then it has rich implications for our understanding of humanity as made in God’s image; for it means that we are made as makers ourselves, as imaginative ‘embodiers.’”13

He next addresses Sir John Davies, showing how this Elizabethan-era poet has something extremely important to say to twenty-first-century Christians whose modes of evangelism and apologetics are often more deeply influenced by secularism than they realize. Davies’ poetry invokes Christ “not simply as a sign of personal salvation or as the climax of some drama of private piety, but as the fons et origo of objective truth about man and the cosmos. One could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of some evangelistic rhetoric and practice, that Jesus was no more than a magic name assuring salvation and a quick fix for emotional crisis. This is because for a long time Christians have ceded the whole world of so-called objective or scientific truth to humanist atheism and contented themselves with a Christ who survives only on the Bantustan of the ‘subjective realm’ as a ‘personal’ Lord and Saviour.”14 Guite’s thoughtful discussion of Davies – a discussion, I might add, makes the poetry understandable to modern-day readers – shows us that “To read Davies is to breathe another atmosphere altogether, where we are concerned to discover universal truth not simply to defend a personal life-style option.”15

In short, Guite shows us that reading the work of a 17th century poet might be exactly what Christian apologists of the 21st century need: a bracing reminder that this culture that presses us to concede ground to humanism and naturalism is not the way it has to be. Davies can serve to refresh the weary or discouraged apologist, and provide an example of a “counter-vision” in the midst of our own cultural crisis. 

Next, we get a chapter on John Donne and George Herbert, in which Guite shows how these two metaphysical poets enable us to experience a shift of perspective, one that “leads to the deepest perspective shift of all, the movement from our own vision and gazing to the transfiguring gaze that God casts on us.”16  Henry Vaughan and John Milton follow, in a chapter on “Holy Light and Human Blindness.” 

Chapter 6, on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is one of the longest in Faith, Hope and Poetry, and for good reason: here Guite marks a major shift in modern culture and our relationship with the imagination. Coleridge is notable not just for his imaginative poetry, but also for his working out in his critical writing of a kind of “theology of the imagination.”17 Coleridge, Guite argues, “never ceased to be amazed by the fact that nature is intelligible, by the fact that we not only perceive it in a coherent and ordered way, but that its very coherence and order provides us with a vocabulary of symbols with which to explore a similar coherence and order, both within ourselves and beyond or through the veil of nature.”18 As ever, Guite makes the vital connection between the poetry he is discussing and the vital work at hand for the Christian today: “As we come to the end of the Enlightenment project, whose shortcomings Coleridge so strongly attacked whilst he was in the midst of it, we may find in his writings very useful guides for the seas we have to navigate in the new ‘post-modern’ era.”19

The book ends with two chapters on modern poets: Chapter 7 on Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill, and Chapter 8 on Seamus Heaney, in which Guite draws together many of the themes and ideas that he has been unfolding throughout the book. 

Chapter 7 is likely to be a challenging chapter for most readers, for none of the three poets whom Guite discusses are believing Christians. In this extraordinary chapter, Guite shows that a non-believing poet who is faithful to his work can also show us a powerful glimpse of truth: “if their integrity in their own circumstances prevented them from professing faith, the same integrity also prevented their poetry from degenerating into mere atheist propaganda. Instead, like the poets before them, their poetry expresses a doubled, or transfigured vision. Not simply, as we have seen in poets so far, a simultaneous vision of the natural and the supernatural, but also a simultaneous apprehension of doubt and faith, despair and hope.”20

Here we have a model first of all of genuine charity in dealing with a non-believer, a model that apologists today desperately need. It is clearly evident in this chapter that Guite respects these poets and finds much to appreciate and value in their work. His own robust Christian faith is not weakened by showing respect to those who do not share that faith. His gracious, thoughtful handling of this material is a valuable reminder that our conviction that the fullness of truth is only found in Christ needs not be shaken by the recognition that some glimpses of that truth are available to atheists. Guite models for us what it means to be humble and loving toward the other, pointing out the places where a Christian can indeed learn from an atheist.

In fact, Christian apologists desperately need what poets like Hill and Larkin can show them: what it is like to struggle with faith, to be unable to accept it – a glimpse of the inner life of doubt and despair that is equally valuable for understanding doubt as experienced by Christians. Guite deftly brings out the places in these poems where we can see the struggle, played out as it were before our eyes. In one poem by Larkin, for instance, Guite shows that “Larkin the poet is compelled to say far more than Larkin the sniggering atheist would like to concede.”21 Guite’s treatment of Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet sequence Lachrymae is equally insightful, showing how these poems, which include poems directly addressed to Christ upon the Cross, draw us into “the tensions and polarities between the necessity and the impossibility of an encounter with Christ.”1

Faith, Hope and Poetry is an essential book for anyone hoping to work with literature as a mode of apologetics – an endeavor which is critical for evangelism in our postmodern, often post-Christian culture.

The book’s importance for literary apologetics is twofold. First, it is a compelling argument for the importance of Imagination in the pursuit of Truth; Guite helps us see clearly and deeply how poetry allows us to know truth in a different but complementary way to propositional, rational argument. Second, the specific close readings of the works provide a model for apologists of how to interact with poetry on poetry’s terms, and thus enter into an imaginative experience of great power.

Guite is a perfect guide here because he truly understands, experientially, the power of poetry to shape, convert, and baptize the imagination. Poetry has changed his life, as indeed it has changed the life of this reviewer. He is a faithful Christian and a brilliant academic; a priest and a poet himself (and an extraordinary one). In other words, Faith, Hope and Poetry is valuable not just for its specific insights, but also for its model of how to think, feel, and respond with both heart and mind as a Christian in the modern world.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Dr Holly Ordway is a professor at Houston Baptist University. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an MA in English from UNC Chapel Hill, and an MA in apologetics from Biola University. She is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith and speaks and writes regularly on literature and literary apologetics. Her website is

1 Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010. p. 1.
2 ibid.
3 p. 2.
4 p. 10. 
5 p. 11.
6 p. 11.
7 p. 12.
8 p. 12. For another, and complementary, analysis of the relationship between Reason and Imagination, see Michael Ward’s essay “The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: CS Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics” in the recent book Imaginative Apologetics
9 p. 19.
10 p. 43. 
11 p. 44.
12 p. 48.
13 p. 60-61. 
14 p. 90. 
15 p. 90. 
16 p. 104. 
17 p. 146. 
18 p. 153.
19 p. 145.
20 p. 179.
21 p. 191. 
22 p. 197.


Quintessential said...

Thanks for the interesting review. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction from Christian and secular publications. While I enjoy the writings of, say for example, Ted Dekker, not very many of his works are especially spiritually compelling (with the exception of the Circle Trilogy which is absolutely excellent). Sometimes it is the secular venue that surprises me with works such as The Prometheus Deception by Robert Ludlum and John Grisham's The Testament. While neither should be considered apologetic, I consider them to be powerful arguments for Christianity against the competing secular worldviews.

Josh McDowell, Hank Hanegraaff, Paul Maier and other Christian apologists have had their try at fiction, but they often times come across a little too strong and lack the quality of imagination to enrapture the reader. Deception by Randy Alcorn was an excellent attempt at introducing C.S. Lewis' arguments but came across a bit too much like a lecture whenever he tried to make such an insertion.

Stephen R. Lawhead (Pilgrim's Guide to the New Age) is a serious Christian fiction writer and he makes great strides to not be confined to a Christian audience, but if there are any apologetic points, I must have missed them. With such excellent Christian thinkers and writers, I anticipate the work to come.

Quintessential said...

I got the wrong Robert Ludlum book, it should have been the Bancroft Strategy. What I found particularly intriguing about the story, is that after Todd Belknap, a field agent for Consular Operations (a fictional intelligence agency), becomes completely disillusioned with the government and his only trusted friend, he finds himself working as a private contractor, protecting the pope from an assasination threat. I'm not a Catholic, but the point was well taken. Life's meaning cannot come from the government or a friend, it must come from something higher than mere man. There's more, but you'll have to read it. :)

piupaupija said...

Oh man! The book sounded totaly amazing. But how on earth the price is so high? You can't get it under 65 euros? That's 25 cents per page! I have heard books which worth its weight in gold. I thought it was saying. I was obviously wrong. Fortunately there is gift for booklovers... with noodles you can double your book budget!

Walter.t said...

Ooh, big mistake. Geoffrey Hill is actually a profoundly believing Christian. He says as much in some of his essays.

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive