Book Review

‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis’ by John Piper

Jeremy Larson
John Piper
Saturday, October 31st 2015
Nov/Dec 2015

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully by John Piper is the sixth book in a series titled The Swans Are Not Silent, taken from the words of Augustine’s successor Eraclius. Eraclius preached a sermon immediately after the mantle had been passed, and sensing his own inadequacy to fill Augustine’s shoes said, ‘The cricket chirps. The swan is silent.’ Piper’s series is a testament to the lasting influence that Augustine and others have had throughout history. Whereas the preceding five books focus on issues such as divine sovereignty, suffering, perseverance, truth, and missions, Seeing Beauty focuses on George Herbert’s poetry, George Whitefield’s sermons, and C. S. Lewis’s imaginative writing, all of which display ‘poetic effort,’ which Piper defines as not necessarily writing poetry but selecting ‘words that’¦make an impact and force people to wake up and think’ (23).

Piper uses a lengthy introduction to unpack one of the most important topics of the book: the appropriate use of eloquence. The character Socrates in Plato’s Republic provokes discussion by proposing absurdities (for example, let’s banish poets and anyone over the age of ten from the ideal city), and Piper argues that Paul provokes discussion when he denounces eloquence. Therefore, just as in Plato’s case, anyone wanting to readmit the poets to ancient Kallipolis (‘the good city’) must work hard to justify their existence there, so also in Paul’s case anyone using eloquence must have biblical reasons for doing so. As careful readers discover, the problem with Paul’s eloquence-denouncing claims (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1), similar to the problem with Plato’s poetry-denouncing claims, is that he proves too much. Just as Plato is too poetic for readers to take the banishment of poets absolutely, so also is Paul too eloquent for readers to take the denunciation of eloquence absolutely. Thus the issue is to determine not only what kind of eloquence Paul is criticizing but also what kind he is not criticizing. Piper concludes his introduction by enumerating criteria for appropriate eloquence (self-humbling and Christ exalting), a subject that may be equal in importance to the thesis of the book.

Piper’s thesis is that someone who makes the effort to express God’s goodness sees even more of God’s goodness than would have been possible by simply experiencing God’s goodness: ‘This effort to say beautifully is, perhaps surprisingly, a way of seeing and savoring beauty’ (17). Each of the main chapters provides a biographical sketch (in which Piper manages to address their failures gracefully), and newcomers to the life of George Herbert (seventeenth century) learn that he ‘never published a single poem in English during his lifetime and died as an obscure country pastor when he was thirty-nine’ (43). None of his sermons have survived, but the poet-priest’s influence extends to figures such as Richard Baxter, William Cowper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, and Simone Weil.

George Whitefield (eighteenth century), who was not a poet, was perfectly suited to be an actor: his voice projection was uniquely powerful, and he had a natural flair for dramatic performance. Piper emphasizes the fact that this enormously popular evangelist’s ‘acting’ was intentional, which even caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin. Whitefield wanted his hearers to understand the urgency and reality of his message.

C. S. Lewis (twentieth century) was probably the foremost expert on medieval English literature in his day, yet he was an expert in many other areas as well, impressing readers with his logic, making them long to experience his fantasy worlds, pointing to significance beyond this world in such a way that readers saw deeper meaning to this world, and translating Christian doctrine into the vernacular.

Piper concludes by urging Christians to ‘first taste, then tell’ (147). If in Think! (2010) Piper is pleading for Christians to think better, in Seeing Beauty he is pleading for Christians to say better.

On the critical side, the book contains many repeated block quotations, which seem unnecessary in a relatively short book; and Piper spends a fair amount of time on the subject of Calvinism, which seems tangential to his overall aims. Two areas of improvement for the ‘Swans’ series as a whole would be, first, to include others besides dead white males who have done great things for God, and second, to cover some Christians from the medieval period. Of the eighteen individuals covered in the six-book series, two died before AD 430, and sixteen were born after AD 1483. Even contemporary Reformed thinkers have rightly pointed out that if we believe the Holy Spirit did not go on vacation for a thousand years, then we should pay attention to what God was doing during the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, Piper is qualified to point readers to others who have been careful with language in an attempt to see, savor, and show beauty. Piper, who has published his own poetry, writes poetically in his prose, and throughout this book the writing constantly awakens readers to appreciate both what Piper says and how he says it. Furthermore, the structure of the book makes for a quick read as each chapter is divided into short sections, often only half a page long. Keeping in mind that Piper is not a specialist on any of these men, the depth of scholarship is considerable.

Saturday, October 31st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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