The buzz this week about Old Fashioned, a Christian rip-off/response to 50 Shades of Grey, has got me thinking about a genre of Christian art that’s even more embarrassing than Christian movies: that’s right, Christian Poetry. Let’s begin by looking at two interesting facts:
- Christian bookstores don’t even stoop to sell Christian poetry.
- Christian poetry has been around for longer than any other Christian artistic genre, and it’s always been embarrassingly bad.
First, let’s talk about the contemporary problem. Say you walk into a Christian bookstore (maybe you need some clearance Duck Dynasty merchandise?), and browse the aisles of books. You’ll see many genres: inspirational biographies, inspirational fiction, inspirational bible studies, and maybe even, way off in a corner, theology. You know what you won’t find? Poetry. No major Christian publishing houses even have poetry on their radar, and for good reason.
Here are some names of Christian poets you probably haven’t heard of (and shouldn’t really need to): Richard Wilbur, Franz Wright, Geoffrey Hill, Luci Shaw, and Scott Cairns.* These poets must be so embarrassing to even Christian audiences that they have to publish their books with obscure secular publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Wilbur and Wright have been known to even win prizes, like the Pulitzer, but it certainly hasn’t helped their situation with the Christian bookstores. These stores know better than to foist iambic pentameter about nuns and laundry (Wilbur’s specialty) on the Duck Dynasty crowd. Maybe if Geoffrey Hill had helped to write a CMT-award winning song, he wouldn’t have to slum it as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (his current job). When only weary British students at some obscure college read your work, you know your career is in the dumps.
There are even rumors that Geoffrey Hill could win the Nobel Prize in literature for his opaque, rambling poems that are riddled with references to someone called “Our Lady of Walsingham” and something called “The Mass”. (Maybe he’s trying to stand up against body shaming?) In any case, if Hill does win the Nobel, it would put him in the company of T.S. Eliot, a Christian poet so characteristic of the genre that both Christians and non-Christians alike ignore his religious poems. Still, one must concede that Eliot did write some successful poems about cats after his conversion to Christianity, but that’s about it. And forget about bringing up his popular and award winning verse play Murder in the Cathedral, that was made into a movie in 1951. The only thing worse than poetry in Christian bookstores is poetry in movies. Gross.
Given that we’ve let the cat out of the bag about T.S. Eliot, it seems like we should move on to the historical kerfuffle that is Christian poetry. We should probably pass over David’s Psalm’s entirely (Honestly: shepherds? pastures? Way to pick horribly dated imagery David! Someone should have told him that no one – I mean NO ONE – is going to resonate with Psalm 23 after 500 BC!)
The real culprit in the sordid story of Christian poetry is this wannabe named Prudentius, who, in the early 400s AD, wrote rip offs of highly original Latin Roman poems like the Aeneid. Prudentius had a fatal notion that one could write poems that had both allegorical and literal significance, and this notion infected such failures as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spencer, and even—gasp!—Shakespeare himself. Check out this gem from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.
High school students who complain about Shakespeare have a point, it seems. Not only are the butterflies inexcusable, but the cliché Christianization of the whole shebang with the final “God’s spies” is just a bridge too far. We’re not inventing names for cheesy CCM pop groups here Shakespeare!
At least John Milton gives us some hope in his seeming celebration of the Devil and his avoidance of allegory, but by the end of Paradise Lost you get the idea that even he might actually believe in a literal Genesis and a real, actual God.
And this brings me to the real point. It’s all well and good to find out how contemporary Christian beliefs ruin the artistic endeavors of today’s religious folk, but it’s even more important to show that Christian belief couldn’t possibly motivate good art. We all know that transgressive anarchism is the essence of art. This is why it’s best to use our critical writing to aid people in forgetting that there ever were Christians who were successful and culture-defining in their art.
*But seriously, read these poets.