Seven hundred years ago, a 35-year-old poet embarked on a journey into the interior that took him through hell and purgatory to heaven. His account of that journey became a spiritual guide for a culture in transition, its vocabulary and imagery providing a new architecture for the soul, as art should do.The poem begins:

In the middle of our life's wayI found myself in a dark woodWhere the right way was lost.

It was in the year 1300, Dante Alighieri tells us, that he took that journey, though he needed the rest of his life to recount it in his great poem, La Commedia. We know it now as The Divine Comedy. Seven hundred years later, we again find ourselves in a dark wood of confusion and ambiguity where the right way needs to be re-discovered by a new generation.I was a 35-year-old minister when I discovered Dante through Alan Jones's excellent book, The Soul's Journey. Floundering in what I perceived as a midlife crisis, I had gotten stuck and needed someone to show me the way out. I was also struggling with how to tell the story of God to a post-modern world that no longer trusted language. Dante became my historical contemporary—a colleague centuries removed, but one who seemed to be in sync with my world and its transition out of rational arrogance and into something that isn't quite there.The world has been through mega-paradigm shifts before, but this may be the first time that we are aware of the transition as it unfolds around us. We have been calling this shift "postmodernity" and the resulting mindset "postmodernism," because the world that we are leaving behind was so thoroughly shaped by modernity, as was much of my evangelical Christianity.Modernity's creed was that man could understand anything and everything through rational inquiry and therefore master his world. Despite its enormous successes, this grand story or "metanarrative" ultimately collapsed under the weight of its hubris. The "universal" knowledge prized by modernity, we discovered, favored some knowers at the expense of others. Knowledge was used to dominate and violate.One of postmodernism's weapons of resistance against this tyranny is irony, a strategy to which Dante was no stranger. Irony is admitting that our most noble attempts to describe and explain reality by means of our finite language are doomed to failure. The ironic Elihu pointed out the same thing to Job's three friends who thought they had uncovered the mystery of God's ways.Irony is accepting the fact that we see through a glass dimly, at least on this side of heaven. Our "constructs" of reality only point to the truth; they themselves are not the truth and should not become idols. We stay committed to truth-telling but remain somewhat unattached to our own version of it, knowing it is weighed down by our own baggage and distorted by the words we choose.Richard Rorty calls these words our "final vocabulary" and contrasts irony with common sense, or the unselfconscious assumption that expects your final vocabulary to describe and judge the experiences of others who employ an alternative final vocabulary.Dante went as far as to call his poem una bella mezogna (a beautiful lie). Dante's bella mezogna, Alan Jones confesses,

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appeals to me because it speaks as much to my need to disbelieve as to my need to believe. My need to disbelieve is … for me, part of what it means to be a person of faith. Disbelief helps set up protocols against idolatry. … The uncertainty invoked by The Divine Comedy … is not the divinizing of ambiguity (summed up by the inane comment "Everything is relative") but the placing of humility at the center of all our attempts to capture meanings in language.

Walter Truett Anderson describes this way of thinking as "postmodern-ironist": truth is socially constructed or "made," rather than "found," as in world-views that find truth through heritage, scientific inquiry, or attuning to nature and inner self.A "made" truth is like the canopy that was made to cover Truman in the movie, The Truman Show, a world that Truman discovers is fake through piecing together a "mosaic" of a different world. "The most astonishing thing of all about man's fictions," writes Ernest Becker in The Fragile Fiction, "is not that they have, from prehistoric times, hung like a flimsy canopy over his social world, but that he should have come to discover them at all."Being ironic, however, does not mean submitting to cynicism. The two are different, as pointed out by Gen-X author Douglas Coupland in a recent interview. "I'm ironic. I admit that. I'm Joe Ironic. But people confuse irony with cynicism, which is like battery acid. It just wrecks everything."An ironic, but uncynical view of our attempts to grasp the mystery of God may prove to be the starting point for a journey toward a new intellectual posture.Dante's poem is, like the postmodern transition, a journey from the hell of stuckness to the heaven of homecoming, which he likens to a white rose. Dante uses metaphor and allegory much as Jesus did to describe the Kingdom of God.I am beginning to see that expressing the eternal story in a postmodern world demands creativity as well as faith. Or, in the words of Alan Jones, "We need a way of dancing around those truths that cannot be spoken. That's why Dante wrote a poem."

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Andrew Jones is the Project Director for The Boaz Project.

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Visit Books & Culture online at or subscribe here.Those interested in Dante will likely also enjoy Robert Hollander's essay " Dante: A Party of One" in the April 1999 issue of First Things.A quick overview of Dante's life and works is available at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Digital Dante, Renaissance Dante in Print, and are much better, but be prepared to be sucked in for a while.Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:Who in Hell? | Theologian John Sanders considers the eternal fate of non-Christians. By John Wilson (Apr. 10, 2000) My Cab Ride With Gloria | Meeting a legend, tearfully. By Frederica Mathewes-Green (Apr. 3, 2000) I Read the News Today | Finding the most important story in headlines' sum. By John Wilson (Mar. 27, 2000) Peace Be With You | Looking beyond naivete and cynicism about peacemaking at Wheaton's Christianity and Violence conference (Mar. 20, 2000) Putting the Poor on the National Agenda | Ron Sider's timely proposals. By Amy L. Sherman (Mar. 13, 2000) "To Know the Universe" | Well, sort of. By John Wilson (Mar. 2, 2000) Guelzo's Lincoln Book a Winner | Established by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman to honor the best historical work each year on Lincoln and the Civil War era, the prize is now in its tenth year. By Allen C. Guelzo (Feb. 21, 2000) Nancy Drew and the Wine-Dark Sea | The importance of good literature—and how to get young people to read it. By Sarah Cowie (Feb. 14, 2000) Spring in Purgatory: Dante, Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a Lost Masterpiece | The most popular illustration of Dante's "Divine Comedy" has remained effectively "lost" for 500 years—although millions have seen it and admired it. By Kathryn Lindskoog (Feb. 7, 2000)