The Soul in Paraphrase | Book Review


The Soul in Paraphrase is “an anthology of the best devotional poetry in English” edited by Leland Ryken, a long-time professor of English at Wheaton College, now retired. It takes its title from a line in George Herbert’s “Prayer,” which describes praying as “The soul in paraphrase,” among other things.  The anthology presents 98 poems from “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the oldest extant English poem) to works by T. S. Eliot. Ryken’s scholarly remarks follow each poem.

Ryken defines devotional poetry in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, it “takes specifically spiritual experience for its subject matter,” which for Christian poets can include topics such as “the person and work of God, conviction and confession of sin, forgiveness, worship of God, and the church calendar with events like Christmas and Easter.”

Subjectively, devotional poetry has an “effect on a reader.” It “fixes our thoughts on the spiritual life and inspires us toward excellence in it.” Because of this subjective effect, Ryken includes in his anthology poems of what he calls “the poetry of common experience or clarification.” Such poetry “does not signal a specifically Christian identity but is congruent with Christianity.” Because of this, it need not be written by Christian poets.

As noted above, each poem is followed by Ryken’s “Notes on selected words” and “Commentary.” At first, I thought the definitions and commentary had an unweaving-the-rainbow quality to them. However, the deeper into the volume I got, the more I valued Ryken’s scholarly remarks because they helped me better understand what I had read.

Because of that, I would recommend that you read the poem first, then read Ryken’s explanatory words, then go back and re-read the poem. Doing so will help you better appreciate the literary art and spiritual insight of each poem. These poems repay careful and repeated reading.

I should add that I took two courses on English literature from Prof. Ryken when I attended Wheaton College (1987–1991). I thoroughly enjoyed both classes, especially the one on John Milton’s poetry. If you like this volume, I would encourage you to read his books on reading the Bible as literature, especially Words of Delight, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to Books of the Bible.

One final note: Crossway is to be commended for printing an anthology of poetry in a beautiful hardcover with thick pages. Good poetry is a marriage of form and content, so it’s nice to see a publisher recognizing that good books are too.

Book Reviewed
Leland Ryken, ed., The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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Review of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Eugene H. Peterson


Near the beginning of his pastorate, Eugene H. Peterson found himself tossed about by “the winds of the times.” The 1960s were a tumultuous decade, and many voices — Civil Rights! Vietnam! Flower Power! — clamored for his attention. On top of that, he felt “increasingly at odds” with his denominational advisors, whose ideas of leadership came “almost entirely from business and consumer models.”

Then three things happened. First, he realized he didn’t know how to preach. What he was doing on Sunday morning was “whipping up enthusiasm” for the church’s programs, not preaching for the “nurturing of souls.”

Second, he heard a lecture by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, who treated patients not from a “consulting room” but from his “living room,” using “words…in a setting of personal relationship.” In his lecture, Tournier exhibited what Peterson calls a “life of congruence, with no slippage between what he was saying and the way he was living.”

Third, he came across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” whose last stanza reads:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

In Hopkins’ poetic vision, it is Jesus Christ who “lives and acts in us in such ways that our lives express the congruence of inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means.” These three things — pulpit, lecture, poem — came together and shaped Peterson’s understanding and practice of ministry, first as a pastor, then as a writer and professor.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons Peterson first preached at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church during nearly thirty years of ministry there (1962–1991). The sermons are divided into seven groups, each grouped together with the formula, “Preaching in the Company of _____,” where the fill-in-the-blank is Moses (the Law), David (Psalms), Isaiah (the Prophets), Solomon (Wisdom literature), Peter (the Gospels), Paul (the Epistles), and John (the Johannine literature). Throughout, Peterson strives to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

The result is a master class in what Scripture says about the pastoral care of souls. Peterson eschews the notions that spirituality can be pursued apart from everyday life or that it can be sought without the company of others. Instead, as he writes in a characteristic passage:

It is somewhat common among people who get interested in religion or God to get proportionately disinterested in their jobs and families, their communities and their colleagues. The more of God, the less of the human. But that is not the way God intends it. Wisdom [literature] counters this tendency by giving witness to the precious nature of human experience in all its forms, whether or not it feels or appears “spiritual” (emphasis in original).

This isn’t to deny that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship are vital. But, Peterson is saying, unless those disciplines make us better workers, family members, neighbors and friends, we haven’t yet achieved the congruence of life to which Scripture bears witness: persons who act in God’s eye what in God’s eye we are, that is, “Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).

This is not a book I would recommend to some pastors. For example, if you’re looking for a book that gives you a fool-proof three-step process to ______ (whatever it is that you’re trying to do), skip this one. Or if you’re looking on Saturday night for a three-point sermon you can preach the next morning, don’t read this. Peterson’s sermons are ongoing conversations, not plug-and-play outlines.

However, if you’re tossed about by the winds of the times or you’re tired of slapping Bible verses on business principles or if your ministry lacks congruence between the means of discipleship and the ends of Christlikeness, please read this book. It will feed your soul, and through you, the souls of your congregation.

Then read it again.

 

Book Reviewed:

Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Way of God Formed by the Word of God (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2017).

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P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.