A Taste of the Banquet: Hopkins’ ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’

 

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist tells us. We wish to invite others to the great banquet of the Kingdom, where they will experience for themselves the goodness of God. This is no easy task. We must, for one thing, be able to a strong case that the Kingdom is real, and that we’re not inviting people to sit down at a fairy banquet where the food is only illusion!

But knowing that we are invited is only half the battle. We must also want to attend – and not just ‘one of these days’ or ‘maybe sometime,’ but now. And it is no easy task to make the invitation properly inviting.

Tell me – what does coffee taste like? What about chocolate? A ripe plum? A slice of freshly baked bread? Can you do it, well enough that someone who has never so much as smelled or seen these foods would have an idea of what they’re like, and would want to taste them?

That’s one of the tasks for which imaginative and literary apologetics is especially well suited. (If you are wondering what ‘imaginative and literary apologetics’ is, read Dr Michael Ward’s excellent piece here.)

There are as many different ways to approach literary apologetics as there are writers and artists; our Christian faith is endlessly rich and inspiring, and we have a great diversity of forms and genres in which to express it – but it’s no good saying that without giving an example, is it?

Let me guide you through a single poem, a sonnet by the Catholic poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, that gives the reader a taste of what it’s like to be a Christian – to be united with him, and find our identity in him.

Here we see two complementary aspects of literary apologetics – the creative side (Hopkins’ poem) and the critical side (our careful attention to the poem’s meaning and effects, as apologists and teachers.) Good literary criticism is a significant way that Christians can and do contribute to the work of cultural apologetics, and to the renewal and recovery of goodness, truth, and beauty both in academia and in popular culture. It’s important work, and I’m glad to be seeing signs of its growth, both in my own field of Inklings studies and elsewhere.

I’m going to look at the poem with a detailed literary-critical analysis precisely because I want you, my reader, to see both the beautiful things that Hopkins does, and how he achieves them. To use C.S. Lewis’s terms, we are going to Contemplate the poem so that you will then more fully Enjoy it (and help others to do the same). My “Creative Writing and Apologetics” students might also get some ideas for their own writing!

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

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.

“Kingfishers” is a deeply experiential poem. Consider, first, how both the octet (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the next seven lines) flow from beginning to end with pauses but no full stops; like water flowing downhill, we fall from one image to the next in sequence, ending up pausing at the opening phrase of the sestet: “I say more.”

It is almost impossible to explain the music of this poem without reading it aloud. First, Hopkins makes extensive use of alliteration throughout the poem, with the effect that it carries us onward from one phrase to the next as well as highlighting particular words and thus bringing certain images into sharper focus:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells…

He also uses end rhyme, a fascinating drawing-together of two strands of English poetry, for unrhymed alliterative verse is the Old English tradition, and end-rhyme is a French-influenced Middle English innovation. Hopkins uses only two rhymes here, yet his musical pattern sounds natural and unforced; the pattern is ab ba ab ba, which gives us an underlying structure that nonetheless feels entirely natural and unforced:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Not only does he use end rhyme, but also internal rhyme, sometimes within and sometimes between lines:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…

Considered in this analytical manner, “Kingfishers” can begin to seem artificial, but the point here is not to pull apart the auditory effects of the poem for the sake of analysis, but rather to indicate the way that Hopkins has crafted what is in effect a musical composition in English words.

When this poem is read aloud, it sings. Even reading it silently, it draws us in to pure music—and joyful music!

Not only does the poem sound beautiful, but this music is paired with images of beauty. Kingfishers: brightly colored, fast-moving birds; dragonflies: elegant jewel-toned insects whose name itself echoes fantastic creatures of medieval myth. The created world, made by God through Christ, is faithful in being what it was made to be.

Then on to the human interaction with God’s creation: wells, evoking fresh water, but also mystery and magic (think of tossing coins down a wishing well), and a child’s playfulness in tossing a stone into a well just for the pleasure of hearing the ring of the falling stone. Bells: the swinging bell, that flings out the note in joyful exuberance. The stone makes its sound as it tumbles down a man-made well; likewise, Hopkins gives us the image of the hung bell, the work of human hands, ringing out its name.

These lines draw us into an experience of pure, unmediated joy—and then Hopkins tells us what that joy is. First he hints it with the bell that “finds tongue to fling out broad its name”: the bell speaks not just any word, but its name. Then he follows with the larger conclusion: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same… myself it speaks and spells; / Crying What I do is me.” All things naturally express their own identity – and the poem’s first lines have helped us feel, deep in our bones, that this identity is a joyous one. Hopkins goes a step further: following “what I do is me” we have “for that I came”: he takes us in one beat from identity to purpose.

Having introduced the idea of purpose at the pivot-point of the poem, Hopkins says “I say more,” declaring that he will unfold the meaning behind all of this.

However, he does not immediately name Christ; rather, he turns first to the human experience, “the just man justices”; by making a verb out of the noun justice, Hopkins makes the connection of identity and action concrete. This just man “Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces” – a play on words that emphasizes that God’s gift of grace is what allows the man to have all that he does unfold in grace. By including the word “grace” here, Hopkins helps the reader make the connection between beauty, joyful identity, and Christ before Christ is named, so that the name of Christ will be heard not as an evangelizing add-on, but as the piece that makes all the rest fit together perfectly.

And now Hopkins points to Christ who is at the heart of all of this: the man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ.” Here we have a clear and robust statement of Christian identity: it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Hopkins closes the poem with words that express the joy of living out that identity: “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.”

The fact that “Kingfishers” is beautiful purely as a poem draws us deeply into the heart of this experience: as poet, Hopkins takes us through a lived moment of pure, joyful Christian identity. We feel the joy of the kingfisher, dragonfly, stone, bell, and man each being exactly what it is meant to be – and we get a little taste of what it means to “put on Christ.”

 

Faith, Hope and Poetry

When I tell people that I teach ‘Imaginative and Literary Apologetics’ I am often met with a non-plussed look.

Some people are simply unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologetics’. They presume it must have something to do with saying sorry for Christianity – when, of course, it actually means giving reasons why Christianity can be considered credible.

And those people who are familiar with the term ‘Apologetics’ often assume it has just one dimension: that it’s all about giving reasons for Christianity’s credibility by showing the rationality of its claims to truth. But ‘Apologetics’ means more than that, – and for good reason. To concentrate solely on the ‘truth claims’ of Christianity runs the risk of turning the faith into a mere system of thought, a set of reasonable propositions to which its adherents intellectually grant assent.

Of course, belief in Christianity does include assent to certain propositions, and those propositions need to be grappled with by our intellects working logically and rigorously. But Christianity is more than a set of propositions. It’s not just something that’s true, it’s also something that’s good and beautiful. There are moral and artistic dimensions to Christian faith as well as philosophical dimensions. If apologists are to show how Christianity is fully credible, it needs to be demonstrated as the answer to ethical needs and aesthetic desires as well as to intellectual enquiries.

These three dimensions – the ethical, the aesthetic, and the intellectual – can’t be treated in hermetically sealed compartments when it comes to Apologetics. Indeed, part of the credibility of the faith resides in the fact there is connection and overlap and interinanimation between these three areas; the Christian life is an organic and integral whole. However, for the sake of clarity we can usefully divide Apologetics into the rational, the moral, and the artistic. Continue reading

Practical Advice for Christian Writers

Being a Christian writer means, on the one hand, no more and no less than to be a Christian who writes; we are called to honor God in any and all work that we do. But there is something special about writing as a Christian vocation. Language, both spoken and written, is part of God’s creative action and His interaction with humanity. In the beginning, God said, ‘let there be light,’ and the first work God gave Adam to do, before the Fall, was to name the animals. God inspired the writers of the sacred Scriptures – which include a great deal of poetry. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he taught in parables. To be a creative writer is to imitate, in our own way, God’s divine creative action. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Furthermore, writers are in a unique position to help present the Christian faith in a compelling way. We need to be able to defend the truth of the Christian faith with strong, clear rational arguments, but the words we use in our arguments are of little use if they aren’t invested with meaning, which only the imagination can provide; and we won’t get people engaging with us unless they feel interested by or (even better!) drawn toward Christianity. Imaginative literature can help the apologist in many ways.

But how does one become a writer? I have found that many Christians are eager to write, but are unsure how to go about it, or have habits or ideas that are getting in the way of their growth as writers.

Without further ado, here are five pieces of advice for writing as a Christian… and an invitation at the end of this post to come join us if you’re intrigued by this as a vocation in apologetics!

  1. Pray, but don’t wait for inspiration.

My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to discouragement when a burst of creative energy subsides. God gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.

Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”

Then write.

“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).

  1. Write. Learn. Revise. Write more.

Writing is something you learn by doing. Your early work won’t be any good; that’s okay. How else are you going to learn? Think of sports or playing a musical instrument, and how much time and effort you would have to put in before you can play well in a big game, or do a solo at a recital.

The key is to learn from what you’ve written. That means you need to develop the ability to assess your work objectively, and to see where and how to improve. Feedback from a writing group, fellow writer, mentor, or teacher is extremely helpful in this regard.

  1. Read.

Writers write. They also read! Reading both widely and deeply will help you grow tremendously as a writer. You’ll see the different ways that great writers tackled the same sorts of challenges you’re facing, and you’ll get a deeper and more intuitive grasp of what you can do with language and form.

Don’t just read modern works in your favorite genre. Read the classics; it will break you out of imaginative ruts you didn’t even realize you were stuck in. Go upstream: read what your favorite authors read. And don’t just read Christian authors, either!

  1. Make time to write.

If you want to be a writer, then write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media, then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. Writing takes time and effort and, above all, practice. Find a routine that works for you. Many blog posts and books recommend getting up early to write in the morning, for instance – if that works, great, but if it doesn’t, find what does work. (For the record, I am not a morning person, and I do not write in the mornings. No way.)

  1. Learn the craft.

Too often Christians take the “good enough” approach. If it has the right values… if it presents the Gospel… if it has Christian ideas in it… then it’s good enough, even if the writing is so-so, the plot is weak, and the characters a bit cardboard. This is a terrible mistake and a terrible missed opportunity. Christian writers are called, as creators, to show forth the truth and beauty of our faith both in what we say and in how we say it.

Put in the time and effort and attention to learn how to communicate well – how to use the right word in the right place at the right time; how to set a scene, how to create a compelling character, how to explore a difficult theme. Learn how to write so that your work is both true and beautiful.

Let me quote here from Dr Michael Ward, writing on this very subject:

“When there is so much apologetic work to be done in a world desperate for the good news of God in Christ, it may be asked what could be more important than to strain every sinew in the service of the Gospel – and to forget luxuries like beauty and think only of utility. Isn’t beauty an extravagance? Shouldn’t we think only, or at least chiefly, of effectiveness, of usefulness?

“Questions worth asking, to be sure. But what is the Gospel? It is not just a message, something said for the achieving of a particular utilitarian purpose. It is also a life, indeed ‘life in all its fulness’, something made by God to be received and enjoyed by us for its beauty, as well as for its goodness and its truth. […] In other words, it is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to make room for the aesthetic category. Pointless, ‘useless’ beauty is essential to the good life lived under God.”

(Read the whole piece here.)

What now?

This advice comes from my own experience as a writer – which is quite varied! In addition to my academic writing and popular apologetics writing, I’ve written a memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). I’m also a published poet; my work has appeared in the journals Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal; Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature; Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith; and Californios Review, and most recently in the anthology Word in the Wilderness (Canterbury Press, 2014).

So, it’s with great pleasure that I can announce that starting in Fall 2015, I’ll be teaching a new elective course: “Creative Writing and Apologetics.” This course aligns perfectly with Dr Michael Ward’s “Literature and Apologetics” to provide a particular niche in the Cultural Apologetics MA for literary apologetics. (These courses are in Online format, so both our Houston and our Online students can take them.)

You see, we’re serious about imaginative apologetics. Some of our students will be teachers and pastors and ministry leaders – equipped with a deep understanding of culture and with an integrated approach to apologetics that uses both reason and imagination. Others will practice apologetics in the context of the workplace or the home. And some will work creatively – writing novels, screenplays, blogs, poems, graphic novels, children’s and young adult books…

I’m excited to think of the impact our students will have by being producers of culture. Want to join us? Check out the MA in Cultural Apologetics, and feel free to be in touch with me.

Write on!

Truly Effective Apologetics: Using Reason and Imagination

Conversion involves the whole person: the mind, the heart, and most importantly the will. Apologetics strives to remove obstacles to faith, so that the person can respond to God’s call. Some of those obstacles are conceptual, or factual. Some are obstacles of sin. But some of those obstacles are the walls that exist between the different parts of the human being: so that the Gospel call is heard only in the mind, or only in the emotions, but not in the whole self. When Imagination and Reason are paired in apologetics work, we can tear down many more strongholds than with either imagination or reason alone.

Rational apologetics

Theologian Austin Farrer sums up the role of Reason in apologetics: “Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

Rational apologetics includes philosophical arguments, such as the arguments from contingency and from morality; evidential arguments, such as the arguments for the Resurrection based on historical evidence; and scientific arguments, such as the argument based on the fine-tuning of the universe for human life. However, no argument is complete in itself. For instance, while the Kalam cosmological argument and arguments from design suggest that it is reasonable to believe in a Creator, these arguments do not in themselves suggest anything about what that Creator is like, or draw people to desire a relationship with Him. Scripture-based arguments can show more of who God is and how He has acted in history, but these arguments are only helpful if people care about what the Bible says – if they are interested and willing to listen. We can’t automaticallly assume that people are interested, or that they have the adequate context to understand Scriptural references.

The best approach for the challenges of the 21st century is to provide a holistic argument involving different, complementary, mutually supportive arguments, which build up to a convincing overall picture.

Imaginative apologetics

We live in a post-Christian age. Non-believers today know that Christianity is an option: there are churches in every town, Bibles in every bookstore, web pages just a click away. But all too often people think they know who Jesus is and don’t want him. This reaction is seldom one of reasoned disagreement; no matter how one addresses the specific flaws in their arguments, the hostility remains.

Many others think they know who Jesus is, and don’t care. This is a challenge for apologists; apathy is far more difficult to overcome than anger.

Logical arguments can make an impact only if the listener finds the terms and ideas meaningful, and worth considering, whether or not he or she agrees with the claim.

How can the Imagination help to establish meaning? One mode in which it can do so is through literature and the arts, which can help the skeptic to ‘imaginatively realize’ the meaning of the words that Christians use.

As an example, to say “God loves us and will forgive us our sins if we repent and turn to Him” is a propositional statement that may not have real meaning for the skeptic. The words “God,”“forgive,” and “repent” are abstract to those who have not experienced the reality. How can those words be invested with real meaning?

Our Lord shows us one way it can be done when he tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This story would be a wonderful piece of imaginative literature even if it were not also an expression of life-changing truth about God’s love for us. The imaginative connection that we feel between ourselves, and the prodigal son comes from the organic reality of the story: the rebellion and downward spiral of the son, the moment of clarity when he hits bottom among the pigs, the emotions he feels on returning, the wonderful image of the father running to meet him. After hearing or reading the parable, we know something of what repentance and divine love mean in a way that cannot be reproduced by analytical argument, but that can provide the basis for further rational discussion. If the skeptic can invest words like ‘repentance’ and ‘love’ with the meaning they gain from this parable, the conversation with an apologist will be very different – and very much more fruitful.

Neither Reason alone, nor Imagination alone, suffices as a way of knowing. Relying solely or too heavily on one, without the counterbalancing and corrective action of the other, leads to a disordered culture and reduces the effectiveness of apologetics.

A truly effective ‘imaginative apologetics’ will resolutely refuse to separate Reason and Imagination and will work to use both in a holistic way.

This is the work we are doing here in Apologetics at HBU.

 

C. S. Lewis as an Imaginative Apologist

Why was C.S. Lewis so successful as an apologist? Why does he continue to be so influential?

One of the reasons C. S. Lewis was successful as an apologist because he recognized the necessary place of the imagination in the defense of Christianity – and because he was able to draw on his work as a literary scholar and literary critic in his apologetics work. In these short interview podcasts, HBU Apologetics faculty Dr. Michael Ward and Dr. Holly Ordway explore some aspects of Lewis’s imaginative apologetics.

Dr. Holly Ordway discusses Lewis’s essay “Is Theology Poetry?”  and in another essay chat, Lewis’s famous essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.”

And, Dr. Michael Ward talks about Lewis’s important contribution to English literature, in this interview about the Lewis Memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Enjoy!

Putting Christ at the Center: CS Lewis and Apologetics

When I was in Oxford this past summer, I had the opportunity to collaborate on a podcast series with Dr. Michael Ward, who is our Visiting Professor in Apologetics — he will be teaching “C.S. Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics” in the first semester of our MA in Apologetics program, this spring. The podcast series was hosted by William O’Flaherty of EssentialCSLewis.com.

I enjoyed interviewing my colleague and I hope that you will enjoy the podcasts! (Links are below.) Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: