Songs from an Empty Cage
Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace

Although many of us writing in the evolving field of theopoetics do not share Alfred North Whitehead’s longing for a grand metaphysics, we do find pleasure in quoting his thoughts on God as the poet of the world, “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.” For those unfamiliar with Whitehead, this overpowering rationality is not to be equated with the cool reason of static truth claims. It is instead a deep relational understanding of the interconnected web of life in which any conception of God cannot be separated from the evolutionary flux and flow of embodied life in the material world.

God may be the poet of the world but the world itself does not speak. We therefore look to poets and preachers, artists and intellectuals, scientists and gardeners, powerful uneducated persons, the young, and mothers of families to help us name ourselves and render God’s name in history. Poet Jeff Gundy has now given us his beautiful and brilliant theopoetics and in so doing offers his readers an artful spirituality, a fresh theology and a thoughtful poetics of God, world, self and other.

Although religion has always emerged and evolved within the play, work and sometimes war of the infinite multiplicity of the metaphor, thepoetics became a distinctive model for religious and theological reflection at some very generative conferences at Drew University in the 1960s. The early theopoetic writers were Stanley Hopper, David Miller, and Amos Wilder. David Miller, who grew up in a Church of the Brethren pastor’s home and graduated from the denominational seminary, reminds us that theopoetics was a response to “the death of God movement.” As such, there was a recognition, following the Brazilian theopoet Rubem Alves, that the birds had flown from their cages and that God-talk must now be uttered out of and before the void.

Gundy has seen the empty cages and understands the difference between the disciplines of theology and poetry and theopoetics. The former seeks to poeticize and underwrite a given theological tradition with great rhetorical flair. Theopoetics, in contrast, contending that religion’s nearest analogue is art, practices theology as a poiesis: an inventive, intuitive, and imaginative act of composition performed by authors. Since theology is a kind of writing Gundy looks most to theologians who practice theology as imaginative construction, such as Gordon Kaufman and Grace Jantzen, rather than those who earnestly seek to recover the primitive church paradigm for faith and practice, like John Howard Yoder. Gundy knows any ecclesial theology worth living cannot be pried apart from a cosmology of this sensuous living world.

As a practicing preacher, I can confess that Gundy’s theopoetics is a welcome word for many exiles from the established church as well for many young seekers of beauty, truth, and goodness. The polygenesis of religion, radical cultural pluralism, and the ecstasy of polydoxy have trumped the old anxieties of orthodoxy for many of us. Reading Gundy’s Songs, I smiled in delight and satisfaction at a writer whose deep soul is simultaneously Romantic, Anabaptist, and Transcendental.

Songs is a gift to me professionally. I will use it as a text in a Theopoetics class at Bethany Theological Seminary and the Earlham School of Religion. Gundy’s work has also been important to me personally. Many years ago as a pastor of both Mennonite and Brethren congregations, I was feeling that this caged bird could no longer sing the old theological songs from the pulpit. I began to experiment with a more theopoetic genre of pulpit work. Happily, at that time I became conversation partner with three strong Mennonite poets: Jeff Gundy, Julia Kasdorf, and Jean Janzen. Their work, witness, and friendship have made me a more artful theologian and a more poetic preacher. Thus, like Gundy, although my heart often leans to the heretical left, in the great romance of faith I still believe in the Communion of Saints.

—Scott Holland, Professor of Theology and Culture, Bethany Theological Seminary


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