When reviewing a book written by a friend, there are two basic ways the thing could go, one of them very bad. Say that you had been duck hunting for forty years with your very bestest friend, and then, after retiring from his job as CEO of Whatsit, Inc. he gets it into his head to write a book, a novel, say, about the Amish End Times, and there are lots of apocalyptic bonnets, which is a disturbing thought in itself. He is a rich guy so he is going to have some vanity press do it up right, and he gives you the manuscript and asks you, his very best friend, to blurb it for him. Ten pages in and you are murmuring “shoot me now.” Twenty pages in and you have an inexplicable quarrel with your wife. Thirty pages in and you realize that you are already in the Amish End Times. The fiction has come to surrealistic life, and you are being chased through a spooky field in the gloaming, pursued by the Manure Slinger of Death. If you hadn’t guessed, this one is the bad scenario — when you get along famously with someone, except for that part of their brain that writes books. A part that you didn’t realize was there for all those years.
The other scenario is the happy one. A friend writes another book and you realize yet again what the basis of the friendship actually is. This was perhaps a roundabout way of introducing it all, but this month’s book selection is Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully by John Piper. This book, like John, is passionate and meticulous in equal measure, and on a topic like this it really needs to be. Without passion, poetic effort is dry and mechanical. Without meticulous care, poetic effort melts into a fairly large puddle of sensate lamesauce.
“This book is about the relationship between poetic effort, on the one hand, and perceiving, relishing, and portraying truth and beauty, on the other hand” (p. 17).
In the introduction, Piper addresses the dilemma which the apostle Paul created for all Christian wordsmiths when he rejected words of human wisdom. Does this restriction mean that we should labor to always say exactly the wrong thing the wrong way — the non bon mot? Non bon for short? Piper argues, very effectively, that the apostle was not rejecting a thoughtful use of words, but rather the sophistry that was very common in Corinth at the time.
“There is a way to speak the gospel – a way of eloquence or cleverness or human wisdom – that nullifies the cross of Christ. James Denney said, ‘no man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save'” (p. 18).
Having defended the task in the abstract in the Introduction, Piper turns to three case studies. The point of the book is to examine the artistic intentionality behind the words of three great masters of words — in poetry, in preaching, and in prose.
There is a chapter on George Herbert, one on George Whitefield, and one on C.S. Lewis. All three men were Anglicans, which John Piper isn’t. But Herbert was from the era when the Anglican church was robustly Calvinistic, Whitefield was part of a Calvinistic low church evangelical reaction to Anglican compromises, and Lewis was an anachronistic throwback, whose favorite theologians were from Herbert’s era.
Herbert was himself a thorough-going Calvinist, as was Whitefield. Lewis, as I argued at last year’s DG conference, will suit our purposes for the present as an honorary Calvinist. He thoroughly understood the graciousness of grace. One quote will have to suffice, and if you want to pursue the rest of it you may do so in my essay “Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation” in Romantic Rationalist (Piper & Mathis) — forthcoming, as they say, and which some not see as not much different from incoming.
Here is the one quote that will have to hold you:
“From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang. For it must be clearly understood that they were at first doctrines not of terror but of joy and hope: indeed, more than hope, fruition, for as Tyndale says, the converted man is already tasting eternal life. The doctrine of predestination, says the Seventeenth Article, is ‘full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons’ . . . Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes.” (Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 33-34).
While he doesn’t use this phrase, Piper’s concern in this book is to demonstrate the aesthetic and literary genius of Calvinism — the real beauty of Calvinism.
We are not going to be so foolish as to contrast the beauty of it with the truth of it, for if it is true, it must be beautiful. And if it is truly beautiful, down to the foundation stones, then it must be true. However much varnish we put on them, all lies must reveal their ugliness at some point, and however offputting the truth might initially be, like Strider at Bree, when we have grown in our understanding, we will grasp the beauty of the truth. We are to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, and getting from here to there takes poetic effort.
A lot of Piper’s argument is summed up in the title — Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully. I believed, therefore I have spoken. And if I have seen the magnificence of grace, how should I speak? There is a way of adorning speech which is trying to compete with the glory of grace, and there is another way of doing it that becomes part of the adornment of grace itself, part of its glory. We are after the latter.
I have felt for some years that the common slander against Calvinists — that we are unpoetic dolts — is not simply an unfair slander. All slander is unfair, of course, but why is this one so ubiquitous? I believe it is a strategic slander, an effort to spike some of our biggest guns. In response I have been collecting quotes on the aesthetic genius of Calvinism — I have quite a few of them actually — doing background research for a book tentatively called Puritan Poetics. Suffice it to say there will be a number of quotations from this book in there.
Every Christian preacher needs to absorb this book.