John Piper. Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis; from the series The Swans Are Not Silent (Crossway, May 31, 2014, 160 pages)
Two years ago, I exchanged a few emails with a popular author (Peter Roy Clark). It stressed me out. Why? Because the author has published several books on grammar and effective writing. I must have reread my emails 10 times before hitting send. And maybe it’s just me, but more stressful than writing a short note to a grammar guru would be writing (and preaching) about three men that were brilliant at those very things—writing and preaching.
And this would be only truer when one doesn’t merely try to communicate the content plainly, but to simultaneously do it with beauty. Now that would be stressful. But is precisely what John Piper did in Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. Lewis.
There is no way for me to know if Piper felt stressed as he wrote about Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis. If he did, he didn’t say so. But I do know that if the central thesis of his book is correct—and I have found it to be true in my life—then if there was stress involved, we can be sure that there wasn’t only stress. For, as Piper argues, in the effort to say it beautifully, more beauty becomes visible.
And it’s this very point that is the central thesis of the book and the unifying theme across the lives of these giants of poetry, preaching, and prose:
“The effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly… The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beauty” (74).
Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully is the sixth installment in the series TheSwans are Not Silent. Most of the biographies in the series are adapted from hour-long messages at Desiring God’s yearly conference for pastors (links below). And for my part, this is where Piper is at his best—preaching to pastors.
In addition to the biographical sketches, there is a thoughtful essay on the proper, and improper, use of eloquence. The essay attempts to answer the question of when eloquence is helpful and honorable, and when eloquence is gratuitous, or just showing off.
But I should point out, that this book, like the conference messages it is derived from, is not just for those in the biz, not just for practitioners of words. Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully is for anyone that cares about their Christian witness, anyone that knows the power of language, and anyone willing to get in the trenches with words. For them, the work comes with a promise; namely, the effort to say it beautifully, there will be more seeing.
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A Few Key Quotes
On George Herbert:
“The central theme of [Herbert’s] poetry was the redeeming love of Christ, and he labored with all of his literary might to see it clearly, feel it deeply, and show it strikingly.” (Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, 56)
On George Whitefield:
“[Whitefield’s dramatic preaching] was not the mighty microscope using all its powers to make the small look impressively big. [His preaching] was the desperately inadequate telescope turning every power to give some small sense of the majesty of what too many preaches saw as tiresome and unreal.” (Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, 95)
On C.S. Lewis:
“Part of what makes Lewis so illuminating on almost everything he touches is his unremitting rational clarity and his pervasive use of likening. Metaphor, analogy, illustration, simile, poetry, story, myth—all of these are ways of likening aspects of reality to what it is not, for the sake of showing more deeply what it is.” (Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, 135, emphasis original)
On “poetic effort”:
“The point is to waken us to go beyond the common awareness that using worthy words helps others feel the worth of what we have seen. Everybody knows that. It is a crucial and wise insight. And love surely leads us to it. But I am going beyond that. Or under that. Or before it. The point of this book has been that finding worthy words for worthy discoveries not only helps others feel their worth but also helps us feel the worth of our own discoveries. Groping for awakening words in the darkness of our own dullness can suddenly flip a switch and shed light all around what it is that we are trying to describe—and feel. Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself. Telling beauty in new words becomes a way of tasting more of the beauty itself.” (Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, 144).
[In my first blog post, Fresh Words, Fresh Language, Fresh Blood, I say something just like this (“Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself.”) It was affirming to hear Piper sing in harmony.]
Links to Conference Messages: Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis.
[Image from CS Lewis' study at his home, The Kilns; photo by Mike Blyth]