|A Review of
By William A. Dyrness
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
I have long-admired William Dyrness’s work; his The Earth is God’s, for instance, is one of the finest works on theology and culture. I was therefore excited to learn of his recent book Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, a work that “seeks to connect poetry and theology.” This is an extraordinarily important book, and (following in the vein of Ragan Sutterfield’s recent review of The Achievement of Wendell Berry) I must confess that I have not yet given it all the attention that it deserves. Allow me here to give just the tiniest taste of why this is such a crucial book.
First, Dyrness – following in a similar path as Jamie Smith’s superb work Desiring the Kingdom – has a deep sense of the liturgies that shape our everyday desires. He says:
What I have discovered is that works of art – painting, poetry, architecture – do not function independently of the context in which they are experienced. And for most people most of the time, this context reflects the complex arrangements of modern life. The poetry that matters to most people, then, is what we might call the poetics of everyday life. So in this book I have broadened my focus to include many kinds of symbolic objects and practices – those projects that embody the desires and dreams around which people orient their lives. For some these center on specifically religious practices, but for many others these include commitments to various aesthetic, recreational, and even political causes that engender their own special devotional practices (x).
Over the course of the work, Dyrness does a great deal of historical exploration in literature and theology, but the book’s final two chapters – which for me were what made this book extraordinary – turn to the ethics of how this aesthetic vision of the poetics of everyday life get worked out in our local church communities. The first of these chapters builds upon the work of Miroslav Volf, Stanley Hauerwas and Gerhard Lohfink (now there’s a trio of theologians!) to flesh out a vision of “The Aesthetics of the Church.” Dyrness concludes: “We interpret Scripture by our corporate life together, the social space that is formed by the Holy Spirit; we construe the text in ways that reflect the historical place that we find ourselves in (or that we have chosen) and which we will do our part to enlarge and elaborate; but above all we make our interpreted witness by the shapes and objects of our worship.” From this point, he proceeds into the final chapter “Aesthetics and Social Transformation,” in which he explores the church’s role in community development, i.e., the aesthetics of practices that nurture the health of a community. Dyrness focuses here on three facets of community development: play, celebrations and rituals. For those who have been involved, as we have here at Englewood Christian Church, in the work of community development, these facets might initially strike us as peculiar. Dyrness recognizes this peculiarity and reminds us that the life into which God calls us goes is deeper and broader than bare necessities: “Asserting the aesthetics is essential to human flourishing is simply affirming that one does not live by bread alone [; …] a house is meant to be made into a home; food is provided for the sake of mounting a feast.”
Poetic Theology is a book that I undoubtedly will be spending more time with over the coming months and years. And if you are one who has a sense that the Kingdom of God is marked by its beauty, you would do well to do likewise!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com