Unwelcoming The Christian Poet

The New Testament clearly proclaims that Christ taught a law of love. The world is to know we are Christians by our love, and yet in Luke 14:26 Christ makes a statement that takes the form of a contradiction of that law. He says to a multitude of would-be followers, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

This apparent contradiction troubles no one, for it is easily recognized as an overstatement used to make an important point. Our love for Christ is to be so great that the legitimate and God-ordained love of a man for his family is to be as hate beside it. Also understood is the idea that only when such love for Christ exists can a proper love for the others exist.

On a very different scale, the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace recognized a similar concept when he wrote, “I could not love thee dear so much/Loved I not honor more.” In both cases the principle is clear. A meaningful love can thrive only when there is something beyond it giving it life. C. S. Lewis applies this principle to poetry. In “Christianity and Literature” he writes:

It is not hard to argue that all the greatest poems have been made by men who valued something else more than poetry—even if that something else were only cutting down enemies in a cattle-raid or tumbling a girl in a bed.

The contemporary poet, however, finds this a difficult principle to remember. Consequently his art often suffers visions of grandeur and offers itself as a substitute for religion. It is, as Lewis points out, a poor substitute, not even measuring up to venery. It demands of its initiates a continual cycle of desperate and solemn attempts to create themselves in their own images. The possibility of joy is lost, for life itself ceases to exist in the instant of the poem.

The malaise is so common that even the Christian poet is subject to it, although for him it generally takes on a less obvious (but none the less fatal) form. It occurs when the Christian poet, thinking he is maintaining artistic standards, begins to compromise the content of his art. Struck down, like Paul, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Christian poet cannot help but see his art as something of little ultimate concern. Again C. S. Lewis speaks directly to the issue:

The Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.

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It is clear, then, that for the Christian artist, art is not of primary importance. How then can he justify his vocation? The answer is simple: the same way a doctor or carpenter justifies his. The doctor must live for Christ, not healing, the carpenter must live for Christ, not building, and the artist must live for Christ, not art. But paradoxically, when a man lives in and for Christ, Christ makes him a gift of the possibilities of the creation. The doctor is freed to heal; the carpenter is freed to build; and the artist is freed to create. For the poet this freedom is the freedom to prophesy, to speak forth God’s word through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The spirit must scream

plummet down

like a bird of prey

and sit fierce

talons clenched

in your bleeding lips

and your words become

his Word

and his Word become

your words

that your speech

dead in the agony of self

might be resurrected

in self-extinction.

It is the freedom to worship, to participate in the joy of creation; it is the freedom to praise.

Glory be to God for dappled things

For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.

Probably no one will disagree that the poet has the freedom and even the responsibility to speak prophetically and to offer up worship in his art. Both functions are easily used by the Church. And as long as the poet’s doctrine remains pure, he is welcomed into the fellowship.

But the poet is also free to look critically at himself and at society. Chad Walsh, for example, is able to write irreverent limericks. Eugene Warren is free to write the politically violent and obscene “Launching Apollo 12.” With poems such as these the Christian community is uneasy, and the poet who insists on exercising his freedom to write them is likely to be regarded as a fellow to keep an eye on.

The cause for this is twofold. The first cause is obvious. We live in a society that is literate only in the sense that its members can march one word after another through a sentence. Few have actually learned to read. The second cause is more important and rises from a profound error in the very foundation of our thinking. Calling some things Christian and other things worldly, we have split God’s creation into two incompatible parts.

The error, however grievous, is understandable. We are rightly concerned with living holy lives. We take Philippians 4:8 seriously:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

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But in doing so we have stressed an ethical approach to life at the expense of a theological approach. Consequently we have ruled certain words, subjects, and literary forms immoral before we have even attempted to understand the creative process. Worse yet, we have tended to consider the process itself questionable. In all fairness, though, it must be said that this is true of the entire middle class, not just of Christians. Remember Ben Shahn’s comment to the effect, “A Van Gogh on the wall is status, but one in the family is hell.”

A theological approach to art probably should have as its starting point the creation narrative of Genesis. There we are told that man is made in God’s image. Whatever else is included in that phrase, it is clear that man is made in the image of a creator. It can be assumed, then, that when man functions as a creator he is functioning as he was intended to. The difficulty arises immediately; man has fallen. And to my knowledge no one has directly discussed the effect the fall had on his creativity. I wrote a poem about it, one that makes no pretense of being a serious contribution to the discussion: see page 7 of this issue.

The suggestion of the poem is that the fall resulted in man’s attempting to create without reference to the raw material God had provided for him. Divorced from any meaningful relationship to the real world, art becomes extraneous and subject to censure. In short, it becomes a waste of time, seducing men’s minds, causing them to believe lies.

Fortunately, in Christ not only the soul is redeemed but the whole man, and substantial steps are taken toward restoration of the condition man was intended to enjoy. The various relationships of man to the creation are also substantially restored. This restoration makes it possible for the Christian, when he functions as a creator, to function in the image of God. But it does not guarantee that he will. The restoration is substantial, not total.

It can be seen, then, that a theological approach, while of prime importance, is necessary as a foundation for the ethical approach, not as a substitute for it. The two must be employed simultaneously. Neither in itself is adequate.

The Christian writer faces another difficulty when he attempts to address an audience outside his subculture. No matter how up to date or how skillful his technique, if the content of the Gospel is present, he is charged with writing propaganda. Were the results less disheartening, the charge would be laughable. We live in an age of propaganda.

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Gary Snyder is a propagandist for Buddhism; Allen Ginsberg is a propagandist for Hinduism and pederasty; Alta is a propagandist for lesbianism; Denise Levertov is a propagandist for the peace movement; and Robert Bly is a propagandist for the Great Mother.

The reason these writers are accepted by critics, who supposedly reject propaganda, and Christian writers are rejected is not hard to find. The critics realize full well that the Christian message is unique. The Christian work cannot be discussed as an object in isolation. It is constructed in relation to eternal truths and demands from a reader either a commitment to or a rejection of those truths.

This can be illustrated by considering a discussion of Eugene Warren’s Christographia and Bill Butler’s A Cheyenne Legend in a recent review magazine. One paragraph is particularly enlightening:

The story of Falling Star’s birth, fruit of the union of a woman and a star, when his mother fell from the tree, is as fantastical as any story of virgin birth. And yet, because the narrator here is removed from his material, because this legend needs no personal logic and demands no personal commitment from us, and because the language, the imagery, and what symbolism there is, are fresh, we can accept this telling.

all the way home

bones broken

dead from the fall

not her kid

born from the shock


he was hard like stone

Meadowlark flying by

heard the bawling

took him up to her nest

stuffed him on grubs

all spring


is as fantastical as any story of virgin birth. And yet, because the narrator here is removed from his material, because this legend needs no personal logic and demands no personal commitment from us, and because the language, the imagery, and what symbolism there is, are fresh, we can accept this telling.

The criterion for evaluation has been reduced to fresh language. The poem is praised precisely because it is extraneous.

Of these three major problems, keeping his priorities in order, distrust from fellow Christians, and rejection by the secular literary world, the third is probably the easiest for the Christian poet to handle. Because of his faith and his pursuit of holiness, the Christian poet is not success-oriented. He realizes from the beginning that financial gain, prizes, and fame are not meaningful goals. He knows also that, as for him, they are unlikely. Recent literary history tells him that the prizes go to those who represent the age. Even the objection that W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot are Christian poets is irrelevant. Auden made his reputation as a socialist and Eliot as a prophet of despair. The influence of each declined after his conversion. No, the Christian artist learns very quickly that he is unwelcome.

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But wisely accepted, the rejection by the world can become the source of his success. For that rejection is freedom from the bondage of fashion.

This is part of a paper given by John Leax, assistant professor of English, Houghton College, at a colloquium of the Christian Holiness Association last October.

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