In the spirit of my post Tuesday –The Hunt for (a more widely) Read October— and on the anniversary of my first year at the Rabbit Room, I am posting this original essay which first appeared one year ago today on October 2, 2008 in a dimly lit corner of said Rabbit Room. The regulars laughed. Some walked out. But some stayed and some new chaps came and started small fires which caused hundreds of quid in damages. The original RR post is here. -sam
“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” –Joyce Kilmer
There are few finer pieces of practical theology I have read (outside of Scripture) than those tremendous words. I want to consider them in light of the Word of God, and alongside some thoughts by three guys I met at a football game -guys named Lewis, Tolkien and Milton. OK, to be honest, it wasn’t a football game. It was in books. Books are things people used to read before they invented text messaging. Sadly, these three amigos are unlikely to appear at any football games I may attend. But if my fantasy life is ever fully realized then you may see Jack Lewis coming on to kick the game-winning field-goal for the West Virginia Mountaineers with an able hold, laces out, by “Tollers.” Milton, blind as a bat, would be the long-snapper.
Like most Christians I have been through many phases and have, to my great regret, fallen for some of the most popular and foolish trends of faddish Christianity. I hope and believe, by God’s grace, that this is happening less and less. One of these phases consisted of my being convinced that I needed to know every answer to every question any unbeliever could posit. I wanted to be the apologist’s apologist. But, while recognizing and appreciating the wonderful work that our brothers in the fore of apologetics do, I now see it in a different way than I once did. I now believe much of my initial desire was to have good answers to serious inquiry so that I wouldn’t be seen as foolish. I was motivated by pride and fear of my own loss of esteem (glory). This is an improper motivation.
From there I transitioned to being worried about God’s reputation, that he might not look so good if I couldn’t say all the right things. This is better, but still far off the mark. I needed to understand that the wisdom of God is foolishness to those who don’t believe, and that God was not a kid sister on the playground needing tough older brothers like me to stick up for him. No, God reigns in power and glory, he is sovereign over all. Above all, he is interested in his own glory and is not dependent upon me to act as his press secretary to spin the daily news in his favor. We are his ambassadors, yes, we do make appeals to the world for reconciliation to God. But he does not need us. In his great mercy he loves us, and he uses us. We are his workmanship, his poems. But the idea that he needs us is both blasphemous and laughable.
I have come to believe that beauty and the arts, creation and sub-creation, are as vital in the reflection of the glory of God to an unbelieving world as is the finest intellectual answer. And not for unbelievers only, but for we who believe as well. That is not to say that we must not be people of books, of doctrine, or thinking people. We certainly must. Only we must not lay aside imagination for logic, nor logic for imagination, but use both under the Lordship of Christ for the glory of God. We will find, I believe, that each helps the other. We will be helped by both poets and preachers, philosophers and painters. We will learn, if we read our Bibles, that a man’s heart must be changed by the work of the Spirit. He may use a considered intellectual appeal to begin that work, or he may use a sunrise or a song. It does come to believing the Gospel, which is news, but how God breaks a sinner’s heart is not something we can manufacture in our cleverness.Two quotes help us in this consideration.
“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
“…God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton, from “On His Blindness”
These masters speak eloquently for themselves, so let us return to Joyce Kilmer’s poem. Yes, let’s. It concludes, after some fine, simple verses: “Only God can make a tree.” J.R.R Tolkien believed that trees were God’s crowning creation in the plant kingdom (and horses correspondingly so among animals).
Anyone who has read Tolkien can appreciate his love of trees and their centrality in his mythology, and rightly so. In his subcreative art Tolkien expressed the beautiful truth revealed to us so plainly in Joyce Kilmer’s poem. Kilmer’s artful language is lovely, the truth he reveals profound. Thank God for poets, especially for poets who help us to thank God.