Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis, by John Piper. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 160 pp. $19.99.
In Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis, John Piper, a well-known Christian writer, speaker, and theologian, explores the lives and writings of three individuals, “a pastor-poet, a preacher-dramatist, and a scholar-novelist,” and highlights their poetic effort and how they were drawn to Christ by it and how they drew others to Christ (12). Throughout the book, Piper refers constantly to their poetic effort and its influence. He defines poetic effort as “the God-dependent intention and exertion to find striking, penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways of expressing the Excellencies they saw” (17), which leads to Piper’s thesis “that this effort to say beautifully is, perhaps surprisingly, a way of seeing and savoring beauty” (17).
The remainder of the book is spent in three chapters, with each dedicated to one of the above-mentioned individuals. These chapters discuss the life and ministry of Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis and how they were able to incorporate poetic effort into what they wrote and spoke, and how this process of “saying beautifully” enabled each of them to see and cherish the beauties of Christ. Before Piper discusses any of the individuals or their poetic effort, he raises a warning flag. Piper fears that as he writes he would contradict 1 Corinthians 1:17, where Paul states, “Christ did not send me . . . to preach the gospel
. . . with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (18). As a well-known pastor, Piper is right to fear advocating the use of eloquent speech as he examines and praises the writings of Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis. However, he uses their writings as examples of how each individual used words to give God glory and in so doing draw themselves as well as others to a closer relationship with God. Piper believes that what these three men did through their poetry, preaching, and writing is different than what Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Rather than seeking the glory in their own work, they hoped to give glory to God and influence others for Christ.
Piper does a good job revealing who Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis were as well as their impact. The chapter on Herbert seems the most supportive of Piper’s argument. Herbert is a great example of one writing in order to see the glories of Christ; he did not know if his poems would ever inspire anyone. Piper’s thesis is best supported by his statement that “Herbert discovered that poetic effort to speak the riches of God’s greatness gave him deeper sight into that greatness. . . . The writing was part of the experience of God” (61). The example of Herbert and his personal devotion to writing and being a vessel to see better the glories of Christ seems to be the greatest lesson in the book.
One concern is that Piper never defines what beauty is, and what is good in regard to beauty. Without defining beauty, the book lacks a base to stand upon. Another weakness is the relative discussion of biography and creativity. Piper could have spent more time examining the work of each his subjects, rather than their lives and background. For example, in the chapter on Herbert, Piper includes only a few of Herbert’s poems, explaining briefly the poem’s meaning without examining Herbert’s poetic techniques, which one would think would be included in a book on poetic effort. Piper’s inclusion of Whitefield in this volume alongside Herbert and Lewis is puzzling. Some of his contemporaries, including including Jonathan Edwards, warned people of Whitefield’s antics while preaching and discredited his message as purely emotional (89–91). Piper could have selected a better-suited individual to highlight in his book on poetic effort.
Many Christians today are looking back at great Christian writers and this book highlights three. The book’s discussion on seeing beauty is needed in our dark and depraved world. Hopefully, it will encourage some readers to seek to show the beauty of Christ in their own writings. With its readability and brevity, the book will be helpful to those seeking to know more about describing and experiencing the beauty of Christ through words.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX