- Reformation of the Arts and Music

Poetic Ministry
© 1999 by John Barach

A Review of the Community Evangelical Fellowship Ministerial Conference 1999

Every year, Community Evangelical Fellowship (CEF) in Moscow, Idaho, puts on a ministerial conference. This year's conference was held on September 29 through October 1, and featured lectures from Douglas Wilson, Douglas Jones, Roy Atwood, and Peter Leithart. Wilson is the pastor of CEF, and all four are Fellows at New St. Andrews College, a Christian and classical college in Moscow.

Past conference themes include "The Unity of the Church" and "Evangelism." This year's theme - "Poetic Ministry" - was much harder to define, and perhaps that was deliberate. Not all knowledge is analytic and not everything can be reduced to definitions or put into words.

There is another way of knowing things, a way which philosophers have called "poetic knowledge." For instance, someone who lived on a horse farm might know a lot about horses without being able to define a horse. His knowledge of horses, then, is not analytical but "poetic."

Douglas Wilson's first lecture introduced the concept of "poetic knowledge" and related it to what the Bible says about wisdom. "Wisdom isn't neat and tidy," Wilson said. It can't be reduced to a number of propositions. "Wisdom is oblique, imprecise, and metaphorically accurate." It requires age and experience, knowledge plus love.

"Thinking biblically isn't just a matter of *content*; it's a matter of *method*. We need to think as creatures. The man of wisdom is content with his finitude, and delights in being dinky."

In his first lecture, Doug Jones spoke about "The Centrality of Imagination." Imagination is sometimes downplayed in Christian circles, but that is to our hurt. The Bible reveals that imagination is "at the center of revelation, faith, and ministry."

The Bible speaks of a husband "knowing" his wife, and that is not a euphemism. Instead, it is a description of a kind of knowledge, a kind which is far from rationalistic! True knowing involves the whole body, the whole person; it takes time and love. "A rather simplistic rationalism lies at the heart of so many battlegrounds within the church." Think for instance of legalism, which desires rules but no reflection.

Doug Wilson's second lecture presented "A History of Hellenism in the Church." Hellenism or Greek philosophy preferred "the abstract over the concrete, the disembodied over the incarnate, and the idea over the word." The church fathers smell of Hellenism because they were always battling it. We can look back and see too many remnants of Greek thought in men like Augustine or Athanasius only because they won the battle against Hellenism. Although the decisive battles against Greek thought are over, there may still be some elements of it in our midst for instance, in charismatic mysticism or (interestingly) some forms of Reformed amillennialism which downplay the relevance of Christ's work for history and life in this world.

Peter Leithart spoke about "The Great Code: The Bible's Poetic Worldview." God has created the world in such a way that there are similarities between very different creatures, so that we can use metaphors and similes. "Metaphor, on a creationist view, is not imposed on reality" by the poet or writer. "Our use of metaphor," Leithart said, "is a discovery of God's original poetry."

Doug Wilson's third lecture, "Preparing the Mind," again addressed the issue of wisdom. He drew several passages from the Proverbs to show what the Bible says about our pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom is rare, but it is not hard to find. It is bestowed by authority the authority of God, but also the authority of parents.

Wisdom is presented in Proverbs as a woman: a schoolmarm, a wife, a wealthy patroness. "Many modern men do not understand women because they do not understand wisdom," Wilson said, "and they do not understand wisdom because they do not approach her as a woman."

A minister, said Wilson, ought to live "a full Christian life" before his congregation. "This means a love of music; it means going to your kids' basketball games. It means learning how to garden; it means working with wood. It means getting your violin out of the attic. It means living as though you have a body."

Furthermore, ministers ought to read "deeply and broadly," enjoying great literature of all kinds and from all time periods: "If your reading is just the handful of commentaries related to sermon prep, you are ripping your congregation off."

Doug Jones picked up on Leithart's discussion of metaphor in his second lecture, "The World of Metaphor." It is sometimes thought that metaphors and figures of speech are just ornamental, as if any metaphorical statement could be reduced to a plain proposition. But metaphor, like music, expresses things you can't express in mere propositional statements. "God is our Rock" says something more than "God is dependable." Rationalism has no room for metaphor, with its appeal to emotions and heart-attitudes. But the Bible is full of metaphors and we need to work to appreciate them and to let them shape our thinking about God and His world.

Leithart's second lecture was entitled, "Many Things in Parables: Poetry and Preaching." People come to sermons with certain views of themselves and of their situation, many of which need to be challenged by God's Word. Preaching sets our individual stories in a biblical framework, subverting false views of ourselves and teaching us to recognize reality.

Roy Atwood's first lecture concerned "Ruling with Wisdom." Church discipline is a messy business; elders need wisdom to see through half-truths and to make judgment calls when there are no clear Scriptural precedents. Atwood spoke, in particular, about wisdom in connection with legal procedure in the church and with the fencing of the Lord's table. "No administrative procedures or Books of Church Order can substitute for wisdom in the rule of elders."

Doug Jones's final lecture outlined "Other Traditions of Poetic Knowledge" the Thomistic, Romantic, Nietzschean, Postmodernist, and Experiential paths. Although this lecture was the most philosophical of them all, it provided helpful insights for protecting a biblical approach to knowledge from the influences in the world around us and especially from the dangers of postmodernism today.

Roy Atwood's second lecture called for the preservation of "Oral Tradition in the Local Church." Very few communities beside the church still rely on the spoken word for imparting knowledge. We need to work to maintain preaching and catechizing and teaching in the church, but also poetry, song, storytelling, and good conversation in our lives as Christians. (Atwood certainly wins the award for the most interesting suggestion: the recovery of the Christian pub, where men can engage in public discourse on civil and ecclesiastical matters.)

Peter Leithart lectured next on "The Beauty of Holiness." Worship is the primary place where we are shaped personally and as a body. Worship teaches us a new language, a distinctive way of speaking about reality. Worship teaches us history as well, the stories that define who we are as God's people. "Worship trains our bodies in the choreography of reverence and joy": Scripture speaks often about bodily postures and physical actions in worship (bowing, kneeling, clapping hands). Worship also teaches us how to live with one another as Christ's body.

"Beauty is not the ultimate standard of worship," he warned. "Beauty is not necessary to genuine worship; beauty is excessive. But all genuine love is excessive." We ought to cultivate beauty in worship within the bounds of God's law.

Doug Wilson closed the conference with a lecture on "Fruitful Labor." There are no simple formulas for success in the ministry. Fruitful ministry is a gift from God, and often it comes about slowly. But when the Lord blesses, what will we see? Among other things, we will see "a recovery of full-orbed masculine leadership," a love for the psalms, gladness and simplicity of heart, and no tension between the Word and the sacraments.

Like wisdom and metaphor, this conference on poetic knowledge and its application in the ministry cannot be reduced to a number of simple statements. In fact, Wilson said at one point that the whole conference could be summed up in these words: "It's not that simple." To put it in other words: as Christians and in particular as officebearers we need to learn to appreciate the depth and the beauty and even the imprecision of Scripture, to pursue wisdom and love and not just knowledge, to move past being simplistic to being biblical.

One of the highlights of the conference was the psalm singing before the lectures began. The songleader, Duck Schuler, introduced us to a number of psalms, including some with Genevan tunes (and Goudimel's harmonies!). It was a joy, as well, to see so many people who were newly Reformed, travelling the road from generic evangelicalism to the riches of biblical Christianity.

Originally published in the November 1999 issue of Christian Renewal. Reprinted by permission.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum