Reality Written in Cursive

The Power of Christian Wordcraft

A-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin. “Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world. . . . Did you say what you call it?” . . .

“Hill?” suggested Pippin.

Treebeard repeated the word thoughtfully. “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 465–466).

Names are powerful realities. But one thing names do is abridge. They shrink down. In haste, they label realities larger and deeper than themselves — things too wild to be caged by consonants and vowels.

Do you ever linger over what others label and discard? This world needs more Treebeards, repeating words thoughtfully in their minds, “Hill” (or “grace” or “wife”), concluding that these are hasty words for things that have stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped. Do you ever ache to pass the title to explore reality’s pages, to bring down with every pass what Coleridge once called the “veil of familiarity”?

Making the Familiar Unfamiliar

Our modern world seems comfortable with dull familiarities and hollow names. As its idols, it has eyes but does not see, ears that cannot hear creation declaring God’s glory. Oh, that? That is just a hill, an ocean, a mailman. Oh, that? That is a church, a pastor, a religious ritual called “communion.” Two-dimensional words thrown at realities that shall outlive the sun. Its metallic voice denies this world is enchanted, laughs to think that God’s eternity presses down upon us.

Against this veil, beautiful writing is a battering ram. Shelley put it this way:

Poetry [and poetic language] lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; it makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. . . . It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. (Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry)

The most imaginative Christian preachers and writers employ their lyrical hearts and prophetic powers to stir and awaken us to war with the hasty and bland word as an act of resistance against seeing this life as a hasty and bland reality. They stare. And stare. And see. And say, hill: “Earth pregnant with history.” “A pimple on the ground’s face.”

Then they delete. Reread Scripture. Stare again, and say, hill: “A place pagans climbed to reach their gods.” “A place once crowned with Jerusalem, God’s own city.”

When you ask and seek and knock for new doors into what is, you employ what John Piper calls “poetic effort.” But we dare not stop at the name. Poetic effort moves beyond the initial way of saying it, to soar higher, swim deeper, alight upon that “sweetness of speech [that] increases persuasiveness” (Proverbs 16:21). It is a hunt, an expedition, an obsession for words fitly spoken — apples of gold in settings of silver (Proverbs 25:11). It is salty speech, an apt answer, a poem, a parable, a labored and lovely sentence. It is a turn of phrase that we hope the Spirit uses to turn the reader’s heart from sin to the Son.

It is to bend the bowstring back, straining to send the arrow farther, deeper. Poetic effort is lexical sweat, keyboard calisthenics, the reworking of a sentence and paragraph again and again, arranging and rearranging twenty-six little letters that form little words that grow into little sentences and little pages and little books, each reaching, straining to grasp even the hem of his garment. Poetic effort.

Man’s First Words

Let’s travel back to behold the first time a man pushed past a name to describe more beautifully (and thus, more fully) the enchantments he felt and saw.

Gazing upon Eve, Adam’s heart vented beautifully:

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:23)

Don’t overlook the significance: From the very beginning, music stirred within man. The first time we hear the voice of man in the pages of Scripture, it’s lyrical. Let us finally put to death the Neanderthal man grunting monosyllables beside his fire — when the first man’s heart overflows with wonder and gratitude, it cascades forth as poetry. When Adam sees Eve, he doesn’t go and measure her height and weight. He doesn’t stop at a name. He serenades her.

He exclaims,

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh . . .

At last. This marks the closest thing to exasperation unfallen man can achieve in paradise. Adam’s journey to Eve was meandering.

God appraised, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and he promised, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Creature after creature, God brings before Adam for inspection. Imagine Adam staring at the duck — and the duck staring back. The duck did not fit the bill (neither would the rhinoceros, the eagle, or the lion). Did his heart begin to sicken from hope deferred? He names them and sends them away.

Exhausted, Adam falls into a strange night. God wakes him to a dream, the fulfillment of the promise. Who is this, fairer than moonlight, sweeter than Eden’s fruit? Her eyes, caves unexplored. Her cheeks, new meadows. Her voice, soon to be his favorite song.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh

She is him, but not him. His bones, his rib — enfleshed, reshaped, beautified.

Oh, she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.

He from dust; she from him. He staggers beneath God’s kindness. His wife, his helper, taken from him to fit with him on mission. Eve, the mother of all living, his wonder in paradise.

Eyes of the Poetic Life

The first words out of man’s mouth in Scripture form a poem. Man is poetic because his God, in whose image he is sculpted, is the Highest Poet. God is the Great Lover of beauty, and the Great Beauty Triune.

Expressive Adam, we may not necessarily say, practiced poetic effort — he seems to simply wake to sing his final draft without the thorns and thistles we encounter in our own composition. What he seemed to do seamlessly, we say and write with first drafts, deletions, edits, scouring for that word, that phrase, that image, that captures the naked reality God sets before us. A reality seen and marveled at by all who know and love the truth.

But let me further clarify. What I invite you to is not simply to add some color to your preaching or prose or evangelism — more metaphor and more creativity to your writing. I invite you deeper into the poetic life, to reclaim that due wonder at the world and her God.

This is often what we love most about those enchanted Christian writers, isn’t it? We don’t return to them so much for their pens, as for their eyes — eyes that saw the unseen, beheld God and his glory draped over all the world. The poetic life, the Godward life, is not just for artsy types who like that sort of thing, but for those who know they live in the concluding chapter of the best tale that could be told.

When Names Fall Away

Dumb idols cannot enrapture like our God. Even out of Eden, his cursed world still boasts of vivid blues and deep reds, still grows mangos and whispers sunsets. Our God upholds the galaxies with a word and then bends down to paint the cardinal red.

And we know that this is all but a stage to unfold the story where God’s Beloved Son spoke the galaxies into existence by a word and then bent down to paint a cross red. Hill, that is a hasty name for Queen Golgotha as she stooped low to enthrone her Creator. And at the end of this story (and in another sense at its beginning), the higher husband, the New Adam who slept a darker sleep and woke to a better dream, will sing with higher significance to his perfected Eve:

This at last is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called the church,
Because she was taken out of the Son of Man.

We refuse to stop at names until names flee into irrelevance when we see him face to face.