Review: Poetry Of Redemption: An Illustrated Treasury Of Good Friday And Easter Poems By Leland Ryken

For a long time I have noticed that I have two sides to my interests and personality. I can be very rational and analytical in my approach to faith and life. I also have a love of the arts, particularly literature and poetry. In college, for example, I majored in both philosophy and Classics. I studied David Hume and Wittgenstein as well as Greek myth and Arthurian Legends. For many years these two sides to myself tended to stay separate. They dwelt side-by-side within me, in a sort-of Nestorian fashion, but they were not well-integrated. In the last few years this has begun to change. One of the keys to connecting these aspects of myself was to immerse myself in devotional poetry (both reading and writing). The poems of George Herbert and Malcolm Guite, in particular, showed me that a love of words, images, and beauty could be combined harmoniously with intellectual exploration of theological truth. I found that imagination and intellect are two different, but complementary and intertwining ways to know God. This union is what I propose to describe and explore as I review Poetry of Redemption by Leland Ryken.

What Is This Book?

In the opening sentence, Ryken, who is a professor of English Emeritus at Wheaton University, literary stylist of the ESV, and author of dozens of books on reading the Bible as literature, states: “This book is an anthology of poetic devotionals on the events of Holy Week and their meaning.”1 The anthology includes Scripture passages, Holy Week songs, and “classic literary poems, written by the ‘greats’ of English poetry, on the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.”2 Selections come from a wide array of authors and sources including, both the Old and New Testament, the Book of Common Prayer, John of Damascus, John Donne, George Herbert, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Crosby.

Ryken arranges his selections by theme, according to the chronology of Holy Week. He describes the genre of the anthology as “devotional literature” and states that it “is designed to fix our thoughts on God and the spiritual life and to awaken our religious affections.”3 Each text is followed by an explication, that is, “a literary analysis and explanation of the form and content of a poem.”4 In these, Ryken carefully and methodically unpacks the texts in a way that makes them clear and relevant for the Christian life. After each explication, Ryken includes a verse from the Bible “that brings the entire poem and explication under a unifying umbrella, stated with the authority that only the Bible can offer.”5 This feature, in particular, helps the reader to center their response on God’s revealed truth.

Finally, it should be noted that Ryken includes corresponding visual artwork with each mediation. These works come from a variety of artists including Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Maximilian Wolf, Thomas Moran, Rembrandt, Totoya Hokkei, Edvard Munch, Raphael, and Vincent van Gogh. These images enhance the reader’s ability to engage with the poems and Scripture passages. It should be mentioned that there are very few images that depict Christ in the entire book. Those that do either are a detail of a larger painting and, for example, only show Christ’s feet, or are more impressionistic than realistic.

Having described the book, I will now turn to my main argument. I believe you ought to buy and read this book. Why? You ought to own this book because it will help you to engage and worship our triune God afresh as you meditate on the truth about him by engaging the imagination in harmony with the intellect.

An Overview of the Argument

First, I will show that the imagination is a truth-bearing faculty. I will briefly consider the counterclaim that seeking to know God through the imagination leads to false or erroneous beliefs. Next, I will demonstrate that Ryken’s anthology effectively engages the imagination through word and image. Finally, I will conclude that through focused, repeated readings of Poetry of Redemption we can engage God as we meditate on the truth about him, using our imaginative faculties in harmony with our intellect. 

The Imagination Is a Truth-Bearing Faculty

The first point to establish is that through the imagination, we can arrive at true beliefs. Christians should have little difficulty assenting to this assertion given the fact that Jesus teaches theological truth through imaginative stories (i.e. parables). Yet, this is a claim that must be defended in a post-Enlightenment world. The Enlightenment prized reason and the intellect as the only way to arrive at truth. The result was that imagination became marginalized, ignored, or outright rejected. Poet and scholar Malcolm Guite argues that this created a horrible dilemma: “We were left torn between an increasingly bleak reductionism which gave us data but no meaning, and an increasingly dislocated and orphaned imaginative and intuitive life crying endlessly for meaning but finding no actual purchase on the facts.”6 The Enlightenment divorced reason and imagination. As children of the Enlightenment, we cannot escape the effects of this. We may feel that we have to choose between always saying what is technically most accurate about God, and communicating a more expressive, emotional faith. We may feel that theological rigor in our doctrine does not lead us to any clear or obvious application for life. These dilemmas can be exposed as false dichotomies when reason and imagination are united as faculties that both lead us to the truth. The key point for Christians is that we must consider how we know God with our imaginations. This will become clearer as we work on defining the imagination. In order to do so, we must consider an objection.

An Objection: Imagination Constructs Falsehoods

We need to dispel an inadequate understanding of the imagination. Someone might object to the claim that imagination is a truth-bearing faculty with the rebuttal that imagination cannot lead to truth, because imagined things are not real. Imagination is the realm of make-believe, fantasy, and myth. It is true that many imagined things do not exist. However, this does not lead to the conclusion that using our imagination only leads to falsehood, myths, and lies. A fuller understanding of our ability to imagine realizes that even imagined stories can alert us “to important truths we had missed or had been denying.”7 Jesus often uses parables to this effect, choosing for example, to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with the story of the good Samaritan rather than a definition. But more than that, the imagination “allows us to grasp the whole, the meaning, the pattern in what we perceive, to draw the lines that connect the dots, to glimpse the pattern that suddenly makes sense of disparate and apparently random things.”8 The imagination is able to see the meaning, significance, and purpose of things in a way we cannot, merely through the intellect, by reciting the known or perceived facts alone. We must make sense of the facts, and the imagination enables us to do so. In fact, imagination can allow us to engage with and enter into the facts in a more meaningful manner.

The Marriage of Imagination and Intellect

In the introduction to Poetry of Redemption, Ryken describes a “contemplative paradigm” from the Middle Ages.[9] This paradigm consists of three phases. First is “composing the scene, which refers to recalling an event from the Bible and imagining oneself being present at it.”10 In this phase we not only read or hear the words of Scripture; we also see the events described in our mind’s eye. Second comes analysis of meaning, which “consists of analyzing the details that make up the scene and event.”11 Here we see the marriage of imagination and intellect in devotional contemplation of the Bible. Ryken explains, “Whereas composing the scene is based on memory and imagination, the second phase—analysis of meaning—is rooted in understanding.”12 Poetry of Redemption is a carefully curated selection of texts and pictures that invite the reader to join together their imagination and intellect as they learn about God. The third phase of Ryken’s contemplative paradigm is response. This phase entails that the marriage of imagination and intellect is fruitful: “It activates our will to respond with thanksgiving, resolve, and the expression of other feelings by petitioning God.”13 The offspring of an imagination and intellect focused on God is obedience and worship. When theology is done through the arts, they become an aid in living a doxological life. Just as theological art seeks to praise God, when we engage with art through a contemplative, devotional paradigm, our ability to extol him is encouraged and expanded.

Encountering and Engaging God Afresh through Art

The first phase, composing the scene, can be quite difficult for many. This is what good Christian art helps us with. Ryken’s treasury is most helpful in enabling us to compose the scene. The poems and images he includes, along with his invaluable explications, awaken, guide, and augment our ability to imagine the biblical scenes of Holy Week. Consider just one representative example with the poem The Agony by George Herbert. In a few short lines Herbert transports us to the Garden of Gethsemane,

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.14

Ryken notes that these lines “makes us feel the pain that Christ experienced in the garden of Gethsemane and during his torture before and throughout the crucifixion.”15 The invitation to understand sin is not only through the intellect, but through a vision of Christ in anguished prayer on mount Olivet. By entering into this image through our imaginative faculty, we are actually able to come to a deeper and truer intellectual understanding of sin than a dictionary definition would allow us to. We feel how serious and awful sin is. Because it is the cause of Christ’s horrific suffering, our sin must be truly horrific. We arrive at this intellectual truth as a result of analyzing the meaning of the imagined images (the second phase). Finally, we consider our response. In this case, repentance, gratitude, and renewed conviction to follow Christ by laying down our lives for others would all be appropriate responses. Examples that show the value of this contemplative paradigm for the Christian life could be pulled from every page of Poetry of Redemption. For this reason, I contend that through focused, repeated readings of Poetry of Redemption, we can engage and worship our triune God afresh as we meditate on the truth about him by using our imaginative faculties along with the intellect. 

In Conclusion

To sum up, contrary to the claims of the Enlightenment, the imagination is a truth-bearing faculty. Ryken’s anthology is an excellent aid for us as we seek to engage our imagination through the poems and images he selected. They are a reliable guide through the events of Holy Week and of their significance for our theology. In fact, this is a book I would, and do, pick up throughout the year to aid my daily walk as a Christian and to provide fuel for a life of worship. For this reason, I whole-heartedly commend Poetry of Redemption. It deserves a place, not merely on your shelf, but on your coffee table, your nightstand, or wherever you will be able to easily and frequently pick it up and read. It is, furthermore, a book that bears careful, repeated reading. As you do so, I believe you will engage and worship our triune God in fresh ways as you meditate on the truth about him by engaging both imagination and intellect.

Notes

  1. Leland Ryken, Poetry of Redemption: An Illustrated Treasury of Good Friday and Easter Poems (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023), 11.
  2. Ryken, Poetry of Redemption, 11.
  3. Ryken, 11.
  4. Ryken, 14.
  5. Ryken, 14.
  6. Malcolm Guite, Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2021), 15.
  7. Guite, Lifting the Veil, 12.
  8. Guite, 13.
  9. Ryken, 12.
  10. Ryken, 12.
  11. Ryken, 12.
  12. Ryken, 12.
  13. Ryken, 12.
  14. Ryken, 64.
  15. Ryken, 66.

©Andrew Menkis. All Rights Reserved.

Leland Ryken, Poetry of Redemption: An Illustrated Treasury of Good Friday and Easter Poems (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023).


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Posted by Andrew Menkis | Thursday, April 25, 2024 | Categorized in Books, Reviews. Andrew Menkis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Andrew Menkis

Andrew is a Theology & Rhetoric teacher with a passion for helping others see and experience the truth, beauty, and goodness of God and his creation. Andrew's poetry and prose has been published by Core Christianity, The Gospel Coalition, Modern Reformation Magazine and Ekstasis. You can find more of his writing at andrewmenkis.com.

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