A Call For Clarity
by Lindsey Corter
George Herbert, a British poet born in the 16th century, is one of my favorite authors. Herbert’s poems are deeply theological, but they are also deeply experiential. Herbert’s poetic gifting was such that he could find precisely the right words and phrases to make Christian experience and theology clear and to move his reader with the weight of the concepts he described. Some of his thought on the use of words is conveyed in his poem, “Jordan I.” Here is the text of “Jordan I”:
WHO sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse ? Is there in truth no beautie ?
Is all good structure in a winding stair ?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair ?
Is it not verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines ?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves ?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes ?
Shepherds are honest people ; let them sing :
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime :
I envie no mans nightingale or spring ;
Nor let them punish me with losse of ryme,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.
Do you see what Herbert is saying in these lines? He is asking why it is that people apparently think that superfluous details are necessary in order to make poetry beautiful. He is questioning the view that poetry must be filled with artistic trappings in order to be lovely, and countering this view with the profound question, “Is there in truth no beaut[y]?”
As Christians, we should most certainly be able to answer Herbert’s question. Of course there is beauty in truth! Can we ever separate God’s beauty from His truth? No, for they are inherently bound up in each other. Might we separate the truth and beauty of His Word? No, for the same reason. What is beautiful is also good, true, and real, and this unity of what are called the “transcendentals” is centered in God Himself (see Dr. Mohler’s talk “The Nature of True Beauty, and/or his article, “A Christian Vision of Beauty”).
And if someone says to us – in words with simplicity akin to Paul’s insistence on Christ crucified – “My God, My King,” can we spurn that person for lack of artistry? By no means. There are in the teachings of the Scriptures beauty and truth that make excessive artistry in relating them not only unnecessary, but unhelpful. We so often cloud what we hope to convey.
What do these thoughts prompted by Herbert’s words have to do with us as students of theology today? They have much to do with us, for they remind us that our task in putting biblical truth in writing is not to produce gaudy art, but to be faithful to that truth and its own inherent beauty. This is a matter of faith – faith that the Word of God itself, by the power of God’s Spirit, is compelling.
And it is a reminder that, when we as writers work with the Bible, we face a unique task. Literary standards and ideals will help us to an extent, but there are also far greater privileges and responsibilities at play. Artistry can be helpful, and we do well to pursue excellence in writing to the glory of God (see for consideration Pierce Hibbs’s article, “Poor Prose Is Poor Theology”), but we must not exchange the clarity of true beauty for a tawdry substitute.