Readers & Believers
Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters
reviewed by Louis Markos
Donald Williams does not mince words. After reminding us that every culture "has had a mode of speech that is more rhythmical, more formal, more suggestive, more intense . . . than the normal ones it uses for everyday discourse," he hits us with a true zinger: "There is only one society on record in which it [poetry] is considered unmanly, in which its more artistic forms are practiced only by an isolated elite who write, only for each other, texts which would be utterly incomprehensible to the general public. And that is our own, though only in the last century."
Williams is a man on a mission, and his mission is a noble one. He is convinced, and he goes a long way toward convincing his readers, that poetry need not be marginalized, but can (and should) play a vital role in the way believers interact with God, their neighbor, and the world. By means of a whirlwind tour of key English-speaking poets, theologians, historians, and critics, Inklings of Reality constructs a distinctly Christian aesthetics that puts meaningful, focused reading of the Bible and the classics at the center of a wide-awake Christian life.
Literature as Divine Gift
That and something more. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church as well as an English professor at Toccoa Falls College, Williams takes special pains to convince his fellow Evangelicals that we cannot fully love God with our hearts and minds if we do not seek, through reading, to achieve "biblical consciousness" and "wholeness of vision." We gain the former by learning to read "the world through words, with the Word of Scripture in the central, controlling place." We gain the latter by breaking down the artificial, Enlightenment split between head and heart, intellectual and aesthetic, secular and sacred.
The absence of one or both in the Evangelical community accounts not only for the general lack of Evangelical interest in the arts (none of the major systematic theology books, Williams perceptively notes, has a section on Christianity and the arts), but also for the fact that Evangelicalism has yet to create a great poet, artist, or composer. Evangelicals, bemoans Williams, "have had great zeal, large movements, grand organizations, royal battles; but no Bach, no Spenser, no Milton, not even a Tolkien or a C. S. Lewis."
In order to remedy this missing element among Bible-believing, Word-respecting Christians, Williams invites his readers to review with him "the story of Christians thinking consciously as Christians about the nature and significance of literary art." Along the way, literature (especially poetry) emerges as a divine gift that (1) affords a shared experience with writers who lived in a different time and place, (2) provides a powerful lens for bringing the mystery of life into focus, and (3) instills
"But," the Evangelical replies with frustration, "can't we learn all these things from the Bible?" Well, technically speaking, yes, but that is not the whole story. Ironically, writes Williams, "the Bible cannot have its full effect in people who read only the Bible." He confesses that he himself could not grasp the fullness of the Scriptures until he fell in love with poetry and then returned, fresh and rejuvenated, to the Word—until, that is, he learned to use the Bible as a touchstone for testing secular truth rather than as a bushel for hiding the lesser (but still real) light of non-biblical literature, history, and philosophy.
Creatures Impelled to Create
Although Williams offers a number of different arguments to defend and develop his aesthetic Christian vision, they are all grounded finally in the imago Dei: in the fact that we were made in the image of a creator God and are therefore creatures impelled to create. Williams locates this uniquely Christian, firmly biblical apology for the arts in Sir Philip Sidney's "The Defense of Poetry," and then traces its 400-year development until it culminates in J. R. R. Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories."
In tracing that development, he offers three excellent chapters on John Calvin's Institutes, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and George Herbert's The Temple. Calvin, Williams demonstrates, was a child both of the Reformation and the Renaissance. He valued the writings of the ancient world and sought to understand them on their own terms. Along with such key humanists as Petrarch, Erasmus, and John Colet, Calvin desired "to get to know ancient writers as real men and to understand their writings as real messages to actual historical situations, rather than as takeoff points for fanciful allegorization." By carrying this "grammatico-historical" approach into his reading of Scripture, Calvin was able to open up the Bible and tap its fuller meaning.
What Calvin did for theology, Foxe did for history. Because most of us have read Foxe's Book of Martyrs in a "severely truncated form . . . leaving the impression that the whole is a mere catalog of cruelties," we often fail to grasp Foxe's greater goal: to present a unified vision of the history of God's elect Church as it struggled for survival in an often hostile world.
Herbert, meanwhile, set himself a humbler, but no less vital task: to unite the most exacting poetic craftsmanship with a pastoral commitment to promoting spiritual growth. Herbert's poems never sacrifice art to didacticism on the one hand, or Christian edification to aesthetic excellence on the other. He praises God with the fullness of his poetic gifts, while challenging his human audience to mature in their faith. Further, like Calvin and Foxe, he takes reading seriously as a means of gaining biblical consciousness and wholeness of vision and of expressing and celebrating the imago Dei.
This is a provocative but not a perfect book. While Williams's chapters on Calvin, Foxe, and Herbert are richly detailed, his other chapters on poetry and poetics tend to be rushed and are less incisive. He also includes too many parenthetical phrases that interrupt the flow of the narrative and should have been confined to footnotes.
Still, there are many compensations. Williams laces his book with a selection of his own well-crafted and challenging-but-accessible poems (mostly sonnets and villanelles), thus incarnating the lessons he so passionately conveys in his chapters. And he offers as well three annotated bibliographies and a number of helpful appendices on literary terms, aesthetic periods, and grammatical rules that will prove helpful to students and invaluable to homeschooling parents.
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“Readers & Believers” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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