Poets, and Me, at Duke Divinity’s Theology and the Arts Conference

Spending 3.5 days in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, listening to some of the brightest minds discuss theology and the arts is among one of the finer weekends I’ve had this year.

A Conference

Duke’s Initiative in Theology and the Arts (DITA) exists to promote “a vibrant interplay between Christian theology and the arts by encouraging transformative leadership and enriching theological discussion in the Church, academy, and society,” and it does so by encouraging “rigorous scholarly work and effective, imaginative teaching that fosters the biblical vision of a new creation in Jesus Christ.”

You understand, then, why I was completely excited to secure my ticket months ago to its 10-year celebration this September. On Thursday evening, director Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke to us on the conference’s theme: Creation and New Creation, reminding us how this is the plot line of the entire Bible, whereby God makes and remakes (a process known by anyone who chips mortar, mixes paints, or plucks strings, over and over, hours on end).

The Mastermind Behind It: Jeremy Begbie

Begbie continues to be a leading figure in the field of theology and the arts, especially at Duke where he’s known for concert lectures, his theological lectures bring interspersed with piano performance. (You can get a sense for those here.)

Begbie quoted Rowan Williams who was once asked what it is that seminarians should teach, to which he replied, “I’d like them to sense the pressure out of which Christianity burst.” This kinetic pressure, so creational, lived in each of us this weekend, as we sat spell-bound to Malcolm Guite and Micheal O’Siadhail reading poetry, or to Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Awet Andemicael singing “Witness.”

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Notes from Begbie on Bach in the First Plenary Session

Bach is Begbie’s eternal hero, and Begbie spoke of the way that New Creation appears in Bach’s work, in which New Creation doesn’t flow out of the old; it is, in fact, new. He also remarked that the New Creation doesn’t flow out of artists living in the “cheerless gloom of necessity.”  (All the more interesting to remember, then, that Bach lived surrounded by death, as it were, as he buried 10 of his own young children.) (Also exciting to read these things into Bach’s Singet Dem Herrn, which I’m rehearsing for an upcoming concert.)

Begbie also encouraged artists to avoid reductionism, or to avoid that “nothing-buttery,” which is the tendency toward implying things be “mere” or “nothing but,” which breeds a sort of unimaginative skepticism for our enchanted world.

He also conceived artists as witnesses, witnesses to something they didn’t invent, or witnesses to Someone.

Everyone Meets Malcolm Guite, Inspired Writer of Sonnets

Before DITA, I had only heard of Malcolm Guite in passing, and I knew plenty of my friends greatly enjoy his poetry. To be sure, I wasn’t disappointed. Malcolm Guite’s morning homilies were an absolute pleasure, each ending with a transcendent poem. I do not know which it was that brought me to tears, the light of Goodson chapel, Guite’s bearing, or his enchanted verse – the kind that feature “an imagined world in which you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone.”

Guite’s first homily was a jolt, a spark, like the delight of passing through the wardrobe. He reminded us that anyone, at any moment, is in the first morning. In God’s grand picture of time, we’re so close to the beginning of things. God is creating at every moment, and in the scheme of things, the cosmos is just now being created.

Guite has finished a book on the theology of Coleridge, and he quoted Coleridge as saying, “The primary Imagination I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” Guite also imagined poems as a veil between the poet and the reader. He then reminded us how God lovingly brings us into the act of creation, and that the Principio is here, right now! (By the way, most of Guite’s poetry is available on his personal blog where you can listen to recordings of him reading his work. Try “Trinity Sunday” which he read to us on this first morning.)

Guite & Wolfe Discuss the Inkings

After morning worship, Guite was joined on stage by Scotland’s own Judith Wolfe, the inimitable Inklings scholar, for their plenary session titled “Inklings of Heaven: Creation and New Creation in the Work of Lewis and Tolkien.” Wolfe is the director of the graduate program in Theology and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, holds multiple degrees from Oxford, has published works on Martin Heidegger, and is the general editor of the Journal of Inklings Studies. (!) (Even better, she’s the most articulate woman I’ve ever heard speak, live or recorded.)

To begin, Wolfe borrowed Neubuhr’s notion of “metaphysical dreams” to suggest two compelling ways of intending the world which we see today in many political landscapes: conservativism (a dream in which we do not know the future, so we shore everything up for ourselves) and liberalism (a dream of progress, in which our world is eternally progressing, and it is the worst possible thing to be left behind). Wolfe suggested we raise two pillars over and against these dreams – Creation and New Creation – for a third way of intending the world. In this metaphysical dream, art, then, is one of the most basic human expressions.

Wolfe went on to quote Tolkien from his “Mythopoeia” poem which addressed C.S. Lewis in his state of unbelief in order to demonstrate Tolkien’s conviction that unless we see the world as created by God, we do not see it all. Our imaginations only come fully alive when we imagine a Creator, and become co-creators in his story. We do not see the reality of earth, unless we see the Person who created it.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Wolfe argued, then, that for Tolkien, the ability to see the world at all *has* to be through the imaginative.

Guite quoted Lewis’s “On Ways of Writing for Children” in which Lewis responds to the question: do fairy stories promote withdrawal and send “you back to the real world undividedly discontented, the pleasure consisting in picturing yourself the object of admiration?” “Do fairy tales,” asked C.S. Lewis, “teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment… instead of facing the problems of the real world?” Are fairy stories nothing more than compensation to which we run “from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world?” Guite, like Lewis, responded with a firm “no.” “By contrast, it is in imagined worlds that you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone. This is literature of the New Creation, not stories where we’re briefly compensated by shock, and, returning to the surface, we find ourselves unprepared to live life well.”

Creation and Creators in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Wolfe and Guite contrasted the dissimilar creation stories in Tolkien and Lewis, Wolfe citing Tolkien’s creation story in the The Silmarillion. While some of the creation work is reserved for Eru himself, some of the creation is Eru and the angels singing together. (It’s to be noted that song is a means of creation; he gives them a theme to sing, a sort of music that becomes the world.) So creation has two dimensions in Tolkien: some is reserved for God himself, but some is reserved for us. Wolfe notes how this preserves the freedom of the co-creators and the creator. On the other hand, Guite noted how Lewis worried of idolatry in the language of “creating.” Lewis does, though, like Tolkien, draw on the idea of song in his creation story in The Magician’s Nephew. (Imagine. Imagine Malcolm Guite reading you passages from The Magician’s Nephew on a random Friday morning.)

Wolfe expounded how Lewis shies away from particularities and the body, toward a Platonism, demonstrated in his remarks about Milton in his A Preface to Paradise Lost:

“The naif reader thinks Milton is going to describe Paradise as Milton imagines it; in reality the poet knows (or behaves as if he knew) that this is useless. His own private image of the happy garden, like yours and mine, is full of irrelevant particularities—notably, of memories from the first garden he ever played in as a child. And the more thoroughly he describes those particularities, the further we are getting away from the Paradisal idea as it exists in our minds, or even in his own. For it is something coming through the particularities, some light which transfigures them, that really counts, and if you concentrate on them, you will find them turning dead and cold under your hands. The more elaborately, in that way, we build the temple, the more certainly we shall find, on completing it, that the God has flown. Yet Milton must seem to describe—you cannot just say nothing about Paradise in Paradise Lost. While seeming to describe his own imagination he must actually arouse ours, and not to make definite pictures, but to find again in our own depth the Paradisal light of which all explicit images are only the momentary reflection. We are his organ: when he appears to be describing Paradise, he is in fact drawing out the Paradisal stop in us.”

This fascinates me as a writer and a poet, for writers constantly think of perfecting the image of a work, of recreating glimpses for audiences to carry with them, but Lewis here questions throwing one’s energy into that part of the work, and he does so due to a sort of Platonism. (Hmmm, what do I think of Platonism?)

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Tolkien, though, sees creation as a much more humble act, as described in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

A strong claim of Tolkien’s, despite his cautious moments: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien thus departs from Lewis’s misgivings of the created (seen in the scene of the painter arriving to heaven in The Great Divorce, in which Lewis’s character rebukes the eager painter arriving to the heavenly scene, eager to paint, and the heavenly character indicates that, no, “looking comes first,” to which the painter, not a little miffed, says that he isn’t much interested in a place where they haven’t got much use for painting.) You see, for Lewis, the imagination is a means by which to break out of this world which is unfinished. (Why would one need to paint, then, once in the presence of the Real?)

But for Tolkien, he sees the imagination and creating as an act by which we usher in the New Creation: “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the happy ending. …[I]n Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

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Next We Meet Micheal O’Siadhail – Ireland’s Poet

Mind you, this was one whirlwind of an hour, after which the intensity quickened, for Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar Richard B. Hayes introduced Ireland’s Micheal O’Siadhail, who according to Hayes has recently published the most important work in the English language that will be written in our lifetime. It is hard not to scoff at such grandiose magnanimities, yet he went on to describe the scope of O’Siadhail’s work: “In his poetic work, he holds a conversation with the key figures in art, politics, economics, science, and philosophy of the last 400 years of modernity in order to answer the question, ‘Where are we going?’” Me: THIS IS NO SMALL TASK, ARE WE SERIOUS HERE?

O’Siadhail took to the stage and outlined the utterly dazzling structure of his 600-page tome. Riffing on Dante’s three cantos, he chose instead a five-part structure (in part because T.S. Eliot has already done The Four Quartets) and besides, O’Siadhail needed a fifth circle. There are five sections of the book, each outlining significant figures in the five disciplines of the arts, politics, economics, science, and philosophy.

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Each quintet is then divided into five cantos. These cantos and their characters represent for O’Siadhail movements within modernity: Canto 1 characters are traditional figures (Milton, Ruben, Handel, and Donne), Canto 2 figures are those liberated from traditional strictures (Goya, Wordsworth, Beethoven), Canto 3 (representing hell) are those characters fixated on ideologies and “isms,” exacting extreme control (Margaret Thatcher, Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, and Stalin), Canto 4 characters are those who envision a new future, who try to fix things and seek a new direction, however imperfectly (Dostoevsky, Rothko, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot), and Canto 5 represents perhaps a bit of the New Creation which the entire conference celebrated – those saints and stars, and the New Creation of heaven itself (Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marc Chagall, and Messiaen.)

O’Siadhail thus creates conversations between these characters and himself as he questions them on their life and work. And of course, each quintet celebrates its own poetic structure, the first being sonnets interspersed by haiku, or “saikus.”

After O’Siadhail read his epigraph, a poem to Madame Jazz (in the manner of invoking the Muses), he read to us from various characters, after which Hayes questioned him regarding his work. Among other things, he asked:

“Who is Madame Jazz?”

“The life force that we all want to dance to.”

“Perhaps the Holy Spirit?” Hayes smiled.

“That, too,” O’Siadhail replied.

Hays specifically asked O’Siadhail where it is that Jesus appears in his work, since O’Siadhail seems to envision the New Creation, and had even remarked that T.S. Eliot belongs for him in the fourth canto category because “he gets the fire, but the not the Resurrection.”

O’Siadhail responded, “Christ is not there overtly, but I allow every character the last word, which is their redemption, and my compassion. That is my Catholic faith.”

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The conversation quickly turned to O’Siadhail’s use of form. O’Siadhail remarked that he used tradition and innovation, which is what we need in our world today. “Form is freedom.” There is tradition and spontaneity, and O’Siadhail remarked that it is very American to think that nothing is authentic unless it’s spontaneous. (!) He also explained, “The Beatniks allowed us to leave and now return to the form.” Besides the patterns of feet and rhyme, O’Siadhail also remarked that using persona poems in some ways allows us to say what we could not say. “Truth,” he quoted Coleridge, “is the divine ventriloquist.”

Friends, we’ve only arrived at lunchtime of Day 1. As I’ve said before: this event was a match that sparked something inside me that hasn’t burned for some time. It was completely humbling to sit at the feet of these scholars (in such an intimate space – maybe 300 guests), and in another blog post, I’ll chat a bit about Christian Wiman, Bruce Herman, Natalie Carnes, and that other great old chap, N.T. Wright. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “Poets, and Me, at Duke Divinity’s Theology and the Arts Conference”

  1. Wow! This event sounds utterly soul-filling. Thanks for sharing your synopsis. And I’m enjoying adding titles to my reading list!
    Can’t wait to hear what N.T. Wright brings to the table…..

    On a side note, you sure you don’t want to consider University of Saint Andrews’ School of Divinity? 🙂

  2. A friend pointed me toward your blog, and I especially enjoyed this post. I hope you follow up with some highlights of other sessions.

    Judith Wolfe’s idea of the twin pillars of Creation and New Creation as the framework(?) through which we “intend the world”–what an odd turn of phrase–resonated very strongly with me.

    Your comment about Platonism reminded me of how much I LOVED the idea of it when I first learned of it. I didn’t know if it was true or not, but at some level it felt like it ought to be true! I have not thought this through rigorously, but it seems to that the reason it feels true is because as Christians, we recognize that Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Right, etc. exist in this world because they are inseparable parts of God’s character and nature. God IS love; God IS truth. We see God’s character fleshed out (as it were) in His Creation first (Rom. 1:20), then ultimately in Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, the first man of the New Creation (though He is more than just this of course).

    1. Welcome to Shasta’s Fog!
      Mmm, yes the “intending” word has probably gotten into my vocabulary from James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and his notion that our social imaginaries (rather than worldview) are largely the director of our actions (Smith, of course, commenting on Charles Taylor.)

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