Is it good to strive to express ourselves beautifully and strikingly in the way in which we use language? Yes indeed, according to John Piper in his recent book Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully (subtitled “The Power of Poetic Effort: George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis”). After justifying “poetic effort” biblically, Piper devotes a chapter each to the ways in which Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis respectively saw beauty and said beautifully. I’m not going to provide a full-fledged review, but rather share what struck me most from the chapters on each of these men.
Two things struck me here. One was Herbert’s poetic humility. I didn’t realise that none of his English poems were published during his lifetime. Herbert was a truly great English poet, and people didn’t even find out until after he died. When he was dying, he passed his poems to a friend asking him to publish them if he thought they would help anyone, but otherwise to burn them. People with a lot less talent have grasped for fame during their lifetimes. Herbert didn’t.
The other thing that struck me—and really, this is Piper’s main point in his book, but it struck me most in connection with Herbert—is that “the effort to put the excellencies into worthy words is a way of seeing the worth of the excellencies. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen” (emphasis original). Do you want to appreciate something—God, your lover, a sunset—more than you do right now? Try describing it with fitting words, Piper says. Saying beautifully can be a way to seeing more beauty—whether that “saying” is a poem or a journal entry or an email to a friend or something else again. Piper says somewhere else that the pen has eyes. If the eyes of your heart aren’t as wide open as they should be, see if using the eyes of your pen doesn’t help.
The part I liked here was the story that Whitefield told in a sermon of a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and an actor. This is the crucial quote: “’We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’” This was emphatically what Whitefield did not wish to do, hence the drama and power of his preaching. Piper says, “For him the truths of the gospel were so real—so wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real—that he could not and would not preach them as though they were unreal or merely interesting. He would not treat the greatest facts in the universe as unworthy of his greatest efforts to speak with fitting skill and force” (emphasis, in this case, mine).
The thing that struck me most in relation to what Piper was saying about Lewis struck me forcibly as I read it, but being foolish enough not to write down my thoughts at the time, I have not yet been able to regrasp it with the clarity that I experienced shortly after reading the book. But let me fumble my way through anyway….
Here is a quote from Piper:
“Unless we see that this world is not ultimate reality but is only like it, we will not see and savor this world for the wonder that it is.”
Piper then goes on to quote a passage from Lewis’ Miracles, from which I will pull some snippets:
“The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature…. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her”.
Piper goes on to comment, “The only people who can know the terrifying wonder of the world are those who know that the world is not the most wonderful and terrifying reality.”
Later, he says this:
“Thus Lewis provides us with a deeper foundation for the point of this book. Saying beautifully as [a] way of seeing beauty—saying surprisingly and imaginatively, speaking in terms of ‘the other’—is rooted in the fact that God and nature are ‘other’ from each other. Nature is not what it is apart from ‘the other’ (God), and God is not known for what he is apart from ‘the other’ (the world he made). This foundational truth trickles all the way down to our everyday speech. The words “just as” and “like” and “as if” are echoes of this foundational truth. We see more of what is when we describe it in terms of what it is not.”
I love metaphors. I love fantasy like Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. I knew from a book I once read that the world is made in such a way that metaphors work. I knew that taking readers imaginatively out of this world and into a fantasy one can help them to see in that world the challenges, or the beauty, that really are in this world, but which, weighed down by the apparently boring and normal everyday, we fail to truly grasp. In fact, I read an insightful article on that here which includes the following:
“… I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
… The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.”
(HT: Suzannah Rowntree)
After reading Piper, and through him Lewis, I have stepped closer to grasping how all this actually works, although my thoughts are still somewhat fuzzy. You cannot see something for what it is until you can compare it to something else: “The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well.” The fact that God and nature are distinct—that there is more to reality than what we can see—means that metaphors are part of the way this world works. That we can understand things better by comparing them with things that they are not. That by stepping out of our world and into a fantasy world, we can see our own world more clearly. Piper quotes from Lewis’ preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress: “’All good allegory exists not to hide but to reveal; to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.’”
So use the beauty of words, the power that they have to describe things in terms of what they are not, to see reality better. Because what is real really is real, not imaginary. And because when we make the effort to express beauty and reality in the way in which we write, we will gain a deeper awareness of both ourselves.