Christian poets, poetry students, and all lovers of poetry won’t want to miss this highly recommended anthology by Paraclete Press.
Edited by Edward Hirsch, this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry, 2016, astronomically abounds with rising stars and a constellation of brilliant poets.
Remembering Softly: a life in poems
Review of poetry book by Catherine Lawton
Having trouble seeing the too-small print that most Bible publishers have been using? The new giant print reference Bible from Holman comes in an easy-to-read 14-point font on nice paper with a long-lasting leather cover.
In the new poetry book True, False, None of the Above, which Cascade Books kindly sent me to review, poet-author Marjorie Maddox shows how literature opens doors into people and worlds unlike our own, helping us to emphasize with others and better understand them, ourselves, our faith, and the type of literature we would like to write.
If you have heard the Christmas story your whole life, as I have, you might think, as I did, that you have considered almost every aspect of the Nativity. Nevertheless, I requested a review copy of the new book, Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does), published by Image books. I figured that if anyone would have new insights or a fresh perspective into this vital, 2,000-year old story, it would be Bible scholar, Christian author, former pastor, Catholic theologian, and university professor Scott Hahn.
From the first chapter “A Light Goes On in Bethlehem,” we receive this insightful light:
“The Christmas story has an unconventional hero – not a warrior, not a worldly conqueror, not an individual at all, but rather a family…. We see the swaddling bands and know they’re for a baby, but someone had to do the swaddling…. We hear tell of the manger-crib where he lay, but someone needed to place him there…. The family is the key to Christmas. The family is the key to Christianity….
That, indeed, is one of the most profound implications of the Christmas story: that God had made his dwelling place among men, women, and children, and he called them – he calls us – to become his family, his holy household.”
Today, many people have no family. Many, including children in this country, have no home. They’re homeless, lonely, and alone.
“Without Christ, the world was a joyless place; and anyplace where he remains unknown and unaccepted is a joyless place. Everything has changed since Christ’s birth, but everything remains to be changed, as people come to receive the child in faith.”
With the joy of Christ in the world, no one needs to be without home or family. In the church, we can find loving, forgiving fellowship with one another as the Family of God. We can be grafted into Jesus’ family tree.
As Dr. Hahn points out, “The New Testament begins not with a discourse or a prophecy, not with theology or law, but with a simple declaration of family relationships.”
So the book of Matthew begins with a genealogy or, in Greek, a geneseos, which gives the root for genes, genetics, genomes, or generations and can be translated as “beginning” or “origin.” Therefore, “…the evangelist was suggesting a new Genesis, an account of the new creation brought about by Jesus Christ.” Likewise, “In the fourth Gospel, Saint John accomplishes something similar when he begins by echoing the first words of the Torah: ‘In the beginning’.”
In the book of Luke, we get Mary’s perspective and Jesus’ family line going back to Adam to show how Christ came for everyone. Matthew, however, wants to show his Jewish readers how they’re connected to Christ through their family heritage, and so his long list of begats begins with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people.
“As the roll draws to its close, however, it identifies Joseph not as a father, but as ‘the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born who is called Christ’.” Dr. Hahn goes on to say, this “final link breaks with the preceding pattern. Joseph is not called father, but spouse. The evangelist wants to be perfectly clear that Joseph had no biological role to play in the conception of Jesus.”
When time came for the infant to be born, what a birth announcement! One angel visited the shepherds, as messengers from God often did in Old Testament Times, calming fears and announcing Good News. But this time, a multitude of heavenly hosts then appeared, singing “Glory to God in the highest,” and lighting up the whole sky with angels!
Later, when the magi visited the Holy Family, Matthew 2:10 reports, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Dr. Hahn then asks us to “linger on that single line. For it captures the very moment when God gave ‘Joy to the World’ – not merely to Israel, but to the whole world: the nations, the foreigners, the Gentiles.”
In the Family of God, the church Body of Christ, love holds us together, and joy radiates from the center. Or, as Dr. Hahn says:
“If we truly celebrate Christmas, we’ll exude a joy that people will want to share.”
To be realistic, though, “there are those who would steal our joy by trying to steal our Christmas – by snickering at the lot of it: the Trinity, the virginal conception, the incarnation, the shepherds. How should we respond? By inviting them to the feast. By enjoying the feast ourselves, and by enjoying it for all of its infinite worth.”
May your Christ-mass be filled with love and overflow with joy, joy, joy in Jesus’ Name.
Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does), hardback
As an active Christian poet, writer, and occasional poetry editor, I know how important imagination can be. More often, however, I heavily rely on prayer and observation – listening for God’s guidance and paying attention to the details that make a poem or post or book come alive. So I have to admit: I often think imagination is over-rated or, worse, a way to conjure up unlikely thoughts or inadvisable ideas!
Reportedly, God’s people have had similar concerns from the beginning as Genesis 6:5 reminds us, saying, “…the imagination and intentions of human thinking is continually evil.” Ouch! But wait!
What if Christ has redeemed our imaginations along with everything else about us?
I love that idea, don’t you? So, when I saw that Crossway had recently published Imagination redeemed by authors Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Matthew P. Ristuccia, I immediately requested a review copy, which the publisher kindly sent.
The subtitle reveals even more about the authors’ intentions: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind. Excellent idea! But, how do we do that?
Second Corinthians 10:4-5 gives us the short version:
For the weapons of our warfare
are not of the flesh,
but empowered by God
to bring down strongholds.
Therefore, with God’s help
we can bring down everything opposed
to what we know of God,
– that knowledge that comes to us through the Bible, our experiences, our conscience, and our God-given ability to think and reason –
taking every thought captive
in obedience to Christ.
Authors Veith and Ristuccia fully develop that idea in their book Imagination redeemed, beginning with this definition from Gene:
“Imagination is simply the power of the mind to form a mental image, that is, to think in pictures or other sensory representations…. Imagination lets us relive the past and anticipate the future. And it takes up much of our present. We use our imaginations when we daydream and fantasize, to be sure, but also when we just think about things.”
In providing biblical examples from Ezekiel throughout the book, Matt had this to say:
“It is hard to imagine a more difficult faith crisis for Old Testament people of God than what Ezekiel and his fellow exiles faced. The combined loss of hope and reassurance of divine presence were overwhelming. God’s people were in desperate need for something bigger than an oracle. Their thoughts had wandered too far astray to be called back by prophetic logic alone. Instead, they needed to see what they could not see: God’s loyal providence…. So the Lord went after Ezekiel’s imagination, and through him the exiles.”
As Matt goes on to say:“If you capture someone’s imagination, you capture his mind, heart, and will.”
Typing that quotation now, I’m reminded that Matthew 22:37 reports Jesus’ word to us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Our imaginations can free us to capture our love for God – in our minds, in our writings, and in our lives.
With vibrant words and poetic imaginations, prophets such as Ezekiel give us examples to consider, which this book also does throughout the text. Sometimes, though, I found the references to Ezekiel distracting and would have preferred the text divided by each author’s emphasis, perhaps in separate chapters, parts, or even separate volumes. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book and the excellent ideas behind it.
Like the authors, I believe, “…the part of the mind known as the imagination – the ability to form mental images – is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given superpower, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldview, and is the way into our heart.”
For Christian poets, writers, editors, and other communicators for Christ, I pray that God inspires us and stimulates our imaginations to write in all genres with such winsome words and creative ideas that we bring countless readers to Christ and the church. Imagine what we can do in Jesus’ Name!
Imagination redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind, paperback
By the time I discovered the poetry of Charles Wright, his work had received prestigious awards, but not the Pulitzer, which I thoroughly expected him to win, and he did. Since then, I’ve continued to follow but not study his poems beyond my own ponderings. So when I learned of The Early Poetry of Charles Wright: A Companion, 1960-1990 written by English professor Robert D. Denham, I eagerly requested a review copy, which the publisher, McFarland, kindly sent.
As the author said in the Introduction, “Each of Wright’s poems can be read as a discrete work, but each is also part of an expansive quest.”
Sometimes this quest focuses on the poet’s life, sometimes on a fitting form, sometimes on spiritual questioning. In lesser hands, such aims might make for self-absorbed writing that doesn’t connect well with readers, but Wright’s acute powers of observation and fresh phraseology connect with us on an artistic, spiritual, and intellectual level. At times, though, the poet’s subject matter can be elusive and exclusive, so I welcomed Denham’s knowledge of poems I’d enjoyed, admired, but not necessarily understood!
Again in the Introduction, the author explained: “In the present book the notes that accompany most of the poems follow the usual conventions of annotation. They identify Wright’s sources (he is a comparatively allusive poet), along with people, places, things, and events that might not be immediately obvious. They also point to perceived influences, parallels to other poets, biographical details, historical explanation, and other kinds of supplementary and expository information, and they translate the occasional foreign word and phrase, ordinarily Italian.” Yeah!
To take full advantage of Professor Denham’s explications of the poems, you do well to have a copy of Wright’s two trilogies alongside, so you can see what’s going on that you might have missed (as I did) when reading Country Music: Selected Early Poems and The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990.
In summarizing Country Music, for example, the author provides a chart to point out the “Condensed form; process of squeezing down; the pilgrimage moves upward.” Also on the chart, we see that Hard Freight deals with the past in a “book of disparate individual lyrics” with “…narrative structure,” while Bloodlines focuses on the present in a “book of sequences” with both imagistic and narrative tone and structure. Addressing the future, China Trace has “movement toward a spiritual hope” in a “forty-six part poem beginning in childhood and ending in the constellation of fixed stars.”
The World of the Ten Thousand Things follows a past, present, and future timeline, too, in each of the books with The Southern Cross focusing on large concepts in the past. The Other Side of the River brings narrative-based poems into today, while Zone Journals and Xionia are concerned with what’s to come.
To give us further grounding, Professor Denham includes quotes from Wright himself. For example, in discussing “The New Poem” from the first trilogy, Wright defined that poem as “a reaction… to the idea that everything in the sixties was going to be different and make our lives different and was going to change everything.”
In “Spider Crystal Ascension,” Wright wanted to “compress the language and the thought to such a point that it stops being small and starts to enlarge…. Which is to say, rather than writing a lot to get larger and larger, you write less and less.”
References to poets, painters, and even post cards occur in the second trilogy. For example, in “Composition in Grey and Pink,” Denham says, “The instruction that Wright gave himself for this poem was to produce a watercolor in words.” How did that go?
“The souls of the day’s dead fly up like birds, big sister,
The sky shutters and casts loose.
And faster than stars the body goes to the earth.
Heat hangs like a mist from the trees.
Butterflies pump through the banked fires of late afternoon.
The rose continues its sure rise to the self.”
In my opinion, that watercolor in words went amazingly well.
For “October,” Wright just wanted to write a seasonal poem, and for “Driving through Tennessee,” we learn that “Wright’s instruction to himself was ‘to write a poem that was basically commentary’.”
“In the moonlight’s fall, and Jesus returning, and Stephen Martyr
and St. Paul of the Sword…
– I am their music”
Besides the mood music and gorgeous lines, what interests and surprises me is how Wright sets goals and guidelines for his frequent experiments with poetry! If the average poet were to say, “I’m gonna write a commentary in a poem,” the lines would most likely come out as stiff as brocade with none of the beauty. Besides, who even thinks of writing a poem just to see if you can get a verb on every line as Wright does in “California Spring”?
Are you starting to think what I’m thinking? Not only is this a writer of absolutely beautiful poetry but a poet who lives in the poem.
His poem “Ars Poetica” says it well:
“I like it because I’m better here than I am there,
Surrounded by fetishes and figures of speech:
Dog’s tooth and whale’s tooth, my father’s shoe, the dead weight
Of winter, the inarticulation of joy . . .
The spirits are everywhere.
and once I have called them down from the sky, and spinning and
dancing in the palm of my hand,
What will it satisfy?
I’ll still have
The voices rising out of the ground,
The fallen star my blood feeds,
this business I waste my heart on.
And nothing stops that.”
Oh, thank God, Charles. Thank God.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, has authored 27 traditionally published books in all genres, including 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem.
The Early Poems of Charles Wright, paperback
In the last post, we looked at “The church: where we’re coming from and where we’ve been” as individual and denominational parts of the Body of Christ. This time we’ll consider where we’re going, why, and with whom.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own assumptions and opinions. For the last couple of decades, the Barna Group has interviewed thousands of men and women with no church affiliation or ties. Editors George Barna and David Kinnaman then presented their findings in the book, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, published by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers.
As a highly ecumenical Christian who has loved Christ and the church in all of its parts since my early childhood, I welcomed the complimentary review copy of Churchless from Tyndale Blog Network. For one thing, I cannot imagine a world without the church, but more importantly, I cannot imagine – nor do I want to! – a life without Christ.
When I was growing up almost everyone “went to church.” In recent years though, Christians have begun to see and say, “We ARE the church.” So, I’m wondering: Are people falling away from Christ or from us?
In requesting this review copy, I wanted to see how other people see Christ. I wanted to know why church doors are closing and why Christian fellowship isn’t being sought. I wanted to find out if statistics can help us to assess and address relevant issues in our churches and/or our writing lives. But mostly, I just wanted to know what we can do!
Although the book did not answer all of my questions, the editors immediately laid out a statement that, typographically, slows down our reading and summarizes the situation:
“If we perceive the gap
between ‘us’ and ‘them’
as W I D E and
we are less likely
to get close enough
to offer ourselves
in real relationships.”
To that summation, the editors later added, “We hear again and again, both from the unchurched and from local churches that are deeply engaged with the unchurched in their communities, that loving, genuine relationships are the only remaining currency readily exchanged between the churched and the churchless.”
Thinking of ourselves as poets, writers, publishers, or other communicators for Christ, we might ask:
With whom will I get up close and purposeful?
To whom will I offer my poems, books, or other manuscripts?
How might my writing help draw others to Christ and the church?
To find out what we’re up against, I appreciated the quick overview of stats at the beginning of the book that offered this information:
• The Minimally Churched (8%) Attend church infrequently and unpredictably
• The Actively Churched (49%) Attend church at least once a month
• The De-Churched (33%) Were once active in church but are no longer
• The Purely Unchurched (10%) Do not currently and have never attended a church
And so, right away, we find out that 57% of the 20,000+ American adults interviewed do go to church, while 43% do not or never have. To put those present statistics into perspective with the past, only 30% of the people were churchless in the 1990s.
In those earlier years, of course, the Internet did not provide social outlets that meet or, perhaps, mask our need for fellowship. Not only that, but the “digital shift” shifted “the expectation, especially among young people, that they can and should contribute, not just consume. Online technologies… enable any connected person to add his or her image, idea, or opinion to the digital mix. If you consider how most churches deliver content – appointing one person as the authority and encouraging everyone else to sit (consume) quietly while he or she speaks – it is easy to see how that delivery system may come into conflict with changing cultural expectations.”
That same digital connectedness, however, gives poets, writers, and other communicators for Christ direct, instantaneous access to people from the proverbial four corners of the earth!
Nevertheless, we have gaps to fill and negative views to overcome. For example:
“Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22 percent), bolstering morals and values (10 percent), and helping people believe in God (8 percent)./ Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18 percent), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15 percent), sexual abuse scandals (13 percent), and being involved in politics (10 percent).”
With “one out of every five young adults… an exile who feels lost between church culture and the wider culture he or she feels called to inhabit and influence,” we can help by coming together as one Body ready to love, serve, forgive, and heal cultural differences, perhaps through communal outings or community concerts or concerted efforts to reach the underprivileged in our local areas.
We can help by forgiving one another and encouraging others to forgive.
We can help by counseling and educating people about the work of the church throughout history, for example, in establishing some of the finest universities in the world and establishing – throughout the world – orphanages, hospitals, and other missions that meet needs.
As Christians come together, our primary purpose is to worship and fellowship with God, which gives us fellowship, too, with one another. This connection makes us one in spirit and one part of the larger Body of Christ, where we then have the strength, power, and purpose – as a church – to educate, influence, and evangelize others in Jesus’ Name.
Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, hardback