Here’s another break from my Anabaptist Spiritual Guidance series (which I promise I’ll continue) in order to review a book that has a lot to say to that topic. Callid Keefe-Perry, a talented colleague of mine at Boston University, has written a primer on theopoetics and invited several people to participate in a blog tour of it this week. You can get the book here, and catch the other wonderful blog posts here (more to come tomorrow, too!). I got a review copy for free from Wipf and Stock Publishers for this purpose (yay for free, new, really good theology books!).
Do you remember the children’s poem that begins “we’re going on a bear hunt”? In it, we go on a bear hunt and meet obstacles – tall swishy grass, squelchy mud, a gi-normous mountain, and a dark wood. In each case, the poem continues, “we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we’ve gotta go through it!”
Somewhere along the line, I began to take up the practice of “going on a God-hunt” periodically in my life. During those times, I go tiptoeing through dark woods, sploshing through deep mud, swaying through tall grass in my faith, always on the lookout for signs, always expecting God to be around the next corner or behind me or right beside me… expecting to be surprised by joy in my encounter with the divine in just the place I wasn’t looking.
This posture is a big part of what I hear Callid pointing toward in his book, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. He interacts with thinkers and writers who have been instrumental in the upwelling movement of theopoetics throughout its history, and makes a compelling case for theopoetics as a full-bodied way of knowing and approaching an untameable God – as a whole epistemological framework.
In theo-logic, we too often look for systems, categories, boxes to stuff God into. In theo-poesis, we seek to interact with the God that keeps breaking out of those boxes, that keeps becoming and creating.
One of the striking things in this book is the tension and oscillation between cataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing, between words and silence, thought and experience. Our theological God-hunt, if we are doing it well, says theopoetics, tips us into awe and wonder at the unnameable-ness of God. But that awe and wonder calls forth fountains of words, stories, songs, dances, art….
Callid himself, in the midst of this book, struggles with this paradox: on the one hand, theopoetics is a slippery subject that keeps wriggling out of academic conventions; on the other hand, Callid’s passion for the topic, his conviction that it has something important to offer theology and the world, has him searching for words; but as soon as words are put to the page, God has moved again, requiring endless unsaying and resaying, and tipping us again to art and silence.
Given this tension, Callid has done brilliantly in assembling a “bricolage” of thinkers and approaches, of poems, essays, testimony and vivid images alongside more systematic academic language.
The way of knowing (aka, epistemology) outlined in this book, both through the writers Callid engages with and through his own perspectives and interpretations, has much to offer the world of theological study. As someone who is passionate about nonviolence, I see this as a way of getting at a nonviolent truth-seeking akin to Anabaptist ways of knowing, but with more grace and rhythm. This kind of process and propositioning is antithetical to coercion, while fostering a creative openness to individual and communal revelation.
And this book spins into some really interesting questions. First, if theopoetics is at least in part about making space for voices and ways of speaking that don’t sound like the typical academic theological voice, I find myself wondering where theopoetics is already being done in congregations and among laity.
In my own denomination, I sometimes stumble upon a kind of farmer-poet, with her hands in the dirt, who has a straightforward way of truth-telling that has its own poetry. I think also of hymn writers and liturgists who craft their words with care and prayer.
While it is true that this is a helpful corrective for many congregations, pastors, and academics, I wonder about how to lift up and celebrate the places where it is already happening. This is resonant with an underlying premise of theopoetics that we must remain open to being surprised by wisdom from any source – we must expect God to show up in exactly the places we aren’t looking. In that way, theopoetics is a posture that is always pushing past itself.
My second question is more a matter of emphasis. The Pietist in me loves the sense of seduction, devotion, and mystery that theopoetics entails. The Anabaptist in me wants to push toward the sweaty, earthy, communal particulars: how do we do that kind of devotion and poetry on a communal level? To this, Callid begins to provide answers through taking a look at possible implications on the pastoral, congregational, and public levels. There are some exciting possibilities here that are certainly worthy of further exploration. I look forward to reading the next book someone writes on this!
This was a great book to read to both encourage a God-hunt posture, and also to provide tools for squelching through the mud on the way.
The end of the child’s poem has us meeting the bear and running away, eventually vowing to never go on a bear hunt again. I think theopoetics might caution us that the God we might eventually find on our God-hunt is an untameable and ultimately unnameable reality. We might be tempted to run back to our boxes and systems and categories when we encounter that mystery, or we might be tempted to give up the God-hunt altogether.
But the God that surprises us on our search is also a seductive and wonderous God that calls us back, again and again, to the search. The God that surprises us with joy and wisdom where we least expect it, leaving a wafting smell of delicious wholeness in the air, also seeks communion with us, so that at the same time we imagine ourselves on a God-hunt, God is also on an us-hunt.
And so our saying, unsaying, dancing, searching, yearning, creating, calming, laughing, resting, and reaching continues…