The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts, by Douglas Bond. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2013. 163pp. $16.00.
Few poetic considerations are given to Christian worship music in the twenty-first century, and yet poetry is one of the greatest art forms through which to express the glory of the Lord. The beauty of poetry is often overlooked and belittled today, which allows worship songs to be written with lyrics that are all too frequently shallow. There is a great need to reclaim the theology and doctrines of Christianity expressed through good poetry in hymn-writing. One way to recapture this vanishing art is by studying great hymn-writers of the past. In his book The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts, Douglas Bond examines the life and poetry of Isaac Watts, a great man of faith. Bond is the head of the English department at Covenant High School in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of several young adult novels of Christian fiction, and he often gives lectures on literature and church history. Bond’s book contains a timely message as the church struggles to find an anchor in the storm of conflicting messages about worship music. This book argues that studying the hymn texts of Watts is “intensely relevant to what and how we are to sing in worship today and throughout the ages” (26). Bond shows that following the example of Watts can help hymn writers recover a “sanctified understanding and imagination” (xxviii) in the poetry of hymn-writing, which is key to reforming worship today.
Bond emphasizes three themes in his book. First is his belief that there is a great need for Watts’s poetry not just in the church worship setting, but also in the everyday life of the Christian. Modern poetry has adopted a free-verse style that allows anyone to write anything and call it poetry. Poetry like this, with no literary merit or depth, is what Bond calls “flarf poetry” (xxii). Flarf has caused a change in the way people think about poetry. Bond claims that flarf poetry is a product of postmodern culture, and “the result is that the rich literary legacy of the past is on the verge of being forgotten—and Watts with it” (xxii). Flarf poetry becomes a vehicle for self-expression rather than an orderly poetic form that expresses the majesty of God.
Bond’s life was changed, and he became fully committed to the Lord, while singing Watts’s hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross as a teenager. This seemingly simple hymn is truly great poetry, containing the lofty themes of the cross, sin, salvation, the love of God, and the surrender of the whole self to the Lord. Watts used simple language in his hymns, but the words are not “flabby or pedestrian” (63). Instead, he uses “vigorous verbs, an essential key to good writing, poetry or prose” (63). This is the kind of poetry needed, not just in the church, but in the Christian’s everyday life. Poetry of this caliber guides the mind into deeper thought about God, rather than just skimming the surface of shallow self-interest.
Bond’s second theme is the need for Watts’s poetry in modern worship. Many church worship services have become concert-like events, rather than a community of believers singing together. The focus of worship has become the musicians on the stage who do the worship while the congregation observes. It is often so loud that even if the congregation tries to participate, it goes unnoticed. This format for worship actually discourages congregational participation. The lyrics of many modern worship songs are superficial and repetitive. Bond believes that shifting the church’s attention back to a poet like Watts can help the church return to a deeper level of worship as a community of believers.
The third theme Bond emphasizes is that Watts glorified God even in his weaknesses and infirmities, and Bond encourages every Christian to follow Watts’s example. Watts suffered illness for most of his life and was often not able to preach or sing the hymns he wrote each week to support his sermons. He was not a physically attractive man, and he never married. He grew up as a Nonconformist, and his father, a deacon of a Congregational church, spent numerous days in prison for his beliefs. This meant that Watts did not attend the “right” schools and did not have the same opportunities others had who were members of the Church of England. In the world’s eyes, Watts did not have much in his favor, but God had given him a great gift. The gift of poetry was evidenced at an early age, and he loved to rhyme everything. Indeed, his father was “annoyed by his incessant rhyming and . . . forbade him to do it” (7). However, later his father encouraged Isaac to write a good hymn for the church when Isaac complained that all the hymns they were singing were bad. Bond clearly shows how Watts’s family life, education, gifts, and talents all contributed to his becoming one of the most excellent hymn writers in the history of the church. Watts’s life story is inspiring and shows how God worked through him in spite of his weaknesses.
Bond points out that not everything Watts wrote was of supreme excellence, al-though he does not dwell on it. He contends that some of Watts’s hymns are “gawky and crude,” (58) and not all of his Psalm paraphrases were improvements over earlier examples (108). It would have been helpful if Bond had included at least one example of one of these poorer quality hymns as an instructive comparison.
Watts’s legacy lives on today, and his hymns can give the church “an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered” (134). Watts was a poetic genius who used his God-given gift to create hymns that were filled with scriptural truths as well as poetic beauty. The response of gratitude and wonder only comes after the truth of the gospel has been stated. “For Watts, the doxological always followed the theological” (135).
The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts is not an academic book, but it is a powerful one. It has short chapters and uses language that is easy to understand. It is a book for Christians of all ages and walks of life who are interested in reclaiming the poetry of traditional hymnody in order to worship God more scripturally and with more heart. Anyone who desires to write hymns today should place this book at the top of their reading list. The need for good hymn writers is great, and the message of this book is timely. Douglas Bond has succeeded in his efforts to inspire Christians to reclaim the art of poetry in hymn-writing.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX