Piper’s Newest and Most Different Book Ever

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Of the books I have written, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully may be the one most different from all the others. It is less about the God we see and more about how to see him.

For decades, I have wondered about the relationship between the natural, creative process of the mind and the supernatural, spiritual process of the mind.

By the natural creative process, I mean the mysterious workings of the mind as it attempts to see in anything more than meets the eye, and then to say it in ways that awaken the wonder of others. By the supernatural spiritual process, I mean the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit as he enables the mind to see the glory of God in all things.

The Power of “Poetic Effort”

It seems to me that one of the paths of the Holy Spirit’s illumining power is the path of “poetic effort” — that is, the path of pondering how to express the glories of Christ which we have seen in the cross, or in the clouds. Along this path of poetic effort, he opens our eyes to see more.

Perhaps a more familiar way to say this would be that one method which the Holy Spirit uses to open our eyes is the method of meditation. In my understanding, one aspect of meditation is the attempt to say in words (even subvocally) the wonders we have seen.

An example might help. When I hear my daughter singing worship songs in her bedroom, my heart is glad. But when I attempt to put into suitable words what I love about it — in a conversation, in a birthday card, in a poem — I hear more, see more, love more. The effort to say is the path to seeing.

Seeing More in Saying It Well

This is how it is with all truth and beauty — the wonders of nature, the stunning turns of redemptive history, the glories of Christ in the gospel. In making the effort to find fitting words for these wonders, we see and savor them more deeply and speak them with more power. I call this effort “poetic effort,” even if those making it never write a poem.

Perhaps even more unusual than the theme of this book is the juxtaposition of the three men whose stories illustrate my point. They all happen to be Anglican, but that is almost incidental to what unites them. What unites them is that they all made sustained poetic effort in what they spoke and wrote — George Herbert, the pastor-poet; George Whitefield, the preacher-dramatist; and C.S. Lewis, the scholar-novelist.

So the bulk of this book is the story of how each of these men wove poetic effort into his life and ministry — the story of how saying beautifully enabled each of them to see more beauty.

Two Kinds of Creativity

There is no concealing that, as a preacher, I have been drawn to these issues because of a trembling fear. The fear that I might contradict the apostle Paul when he says, “Christ did not send me to preach the gospel with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Or when he says, “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1).

There is a way to speak the gospel — a way of eloquence, or cleverness, or human wisdom, or poetic effort — that nullifies the cross of Christ. That is a terrifying prospect. James Denney said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”

So you might say, this book is one extended effort to distinguish between the poetic effort that pervades the Bible and the kind that undermines the Bible. It is no accident that, in warning against one kind of poetic effort, Paul uses another.

Life and Death in the Balance

For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:25, he says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” He cannot be unconscious that it is shocking to say that the gospel is “the foolishness of God” and “the weakness of God.” This risks blasphemy. But no! He chose a shocking way to say it. He used irony. He made an effort to select words that would make an impact and force people to wake up and think. That is what I mean by “poetic effort.” And Paul does it while condemning a kind of poetic effort.

So this book is an effort to probe into the natural, creative process of the mind and the supernatural, spiritual process of the mind in the hopes of discerning and displaying the kind of poetic effort that exalts Christ and his cross rather than self. There is a difference, and it is the difference between life and death. Herbert and Whitefield and Lewis are good guides. I hope you enjoy the journey.

John Piper’s Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully is now available in hardcover and electronic, as well as a free PDF.