Poets & Saints:
Eternal Insight. Extravagant Love. Ordinary People.
Paperback: David C. Cook, 2016
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Reviewed by Lynn Domina
In Poets & Saints: Eternal Insight, Extravagant Love, Ordinary People, Jamie George has undertaken an intriguing project. Partly memoir, partly religious history, partly devotional, the book links the past with the present, the extraordinary with the ordinary, the public with the personal. Traveling through Europe with his children and a film crew, he reflects on the lives of several writers and saints (some canonized, others not) affiliated with the regions they explore. He pays particular attention to the characters’ flaws in order not only to humanize them but also to provide specific detailed examples of individuals who did what was theirs to do, trusting that God will show contemporary readers what is their own. George’s project is ambitious, but his style is hospitable. He writes conversationally, including sufficient detail for readers unfamiliar with his material but also with sufficient energy to keep readers with a stronger background in religious history engaged.
George devotes chapters to religious writers (William Cowper, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis), to reformers (John Calvin, Martin Luther), to popular saints (Patrick, Francis of Assisi, Peter, Augustine), and to one saint who may be new to readers from evangelical traditions, though she is well-known to Roman Catholics (Thérèse of Lisieux). This range of figures permits George to discuss such varied Christian concerns as call, poverty, evangelization, and trust. They permit him to cover the sweep of Christian history, from its earliest era preceding the organization of an institutional church to the twentieth century. They permit him to include representatives of multiple denominations and ethnicities, from north African to English, though I do wish he had included more than one woman (Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich would have fit well in his geographic range).
While presenting these figures—with all of their virtues and foibles and even sins—as companions for contemporary Christians, George is careful not to accept doctrine or creed naively or uncritically. He relies on reason and experience as well as tradition and scripture to reach his conclusions. His critiques of contemporary Christian culture, though, are gentle and hence more likely to be received rather than rejected defensively. For example, within a discussion of Paris architecture which evokes melancholy as well as awe, George says, “Sometimes in evangelical subculture, there’s a tendency to use hype as a mechanism for minimization and denial. If we can get pumped up enough, we can forget at least temporarily that life is hard, that we have doubts, that we struggle with sin, and that we’re a far cry from Eden. In some circles there’s no room for lament. No space for sorrow” (125). Evangelicals aren’t the only people for whom religious emotionalism can serve as a temptation rather than an authentic call, but George’s willingness to cite his own tradition speaks to his honesty and clear-sightedness.
I most appreciated George’s choice not to simply rehearse familiar legends but to try to understand these people realistically. In the chapter on Patrick, he describes the long years between Patrick’s enslavement in Ireland and his return as an evangelist. In the chapter on William Cowper, George also explores the life of John Newton, famously the author of “Amazing Grace” and reformed slave trader—but his reformation was more gradual than the sudden epiphany frequently described in the legend of the hymn’s composition. In the chapter on Francis, he examines Francis’ ambivalent relationship with his father, a man whose expectations were rigid and whose manner was often dogmatic.
I also appreciated the presence of George’s family members and colleagues in this book. Although their presence influences each chapter, their primary roles are to enhance the book’s themes and support its purpose. Poets & Saints could easily have become weighted with the details of travelogue, and it could easily have incorporated too many dangling anecdotes. George avoids both of these perils. Although readers remain aware that real people have taken the trip George describes, the central characters are the title characters.
When the book turns most directly toward devotion, the writing becomes less original. On the one hand, this is understandable, for how many options does a writer have to say, “God loves you”? Yet some religious expressions have become so worn that readers can no longer hear them; they drop from a writer’s pen as they can seem to drop from an evangelist’s lips, more through habit than thought. George’s tone in these passages is convincing, though, and sincere, and he most often exploits metaphor or other figurative language to connect his devotional messages to the stories he’s told of writers and saints.
Finishing this book, I renewed my desire to create my own path of pilgrimage. My route will not entirely duplicate George’s, but I’ll inevitably think of him along the way.