‘I Am Continually With You’ : A Review of L. Callid Keefe-Perry’s “Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer”


Church services are poetry from beginning to end; they just are poetry.
…Religion is serious poetry — which is not to say religion cannot be light-
hearted. But at its highest it turns important; and important involvement with language, use of language for significant human experiences,
merges inevitably into poet.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from Wipf & Stock.

This book outlines the historical development and contours of theopoetics, a theological discipline, or even style, that has emerged since the 60’s. Prior to reading Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer, I knew next to nothing about this unique approach to theology. In a way, as a pastor and theologian, I’m a good test case for the book, which aims at being an introduction but is certainly not entry-level. If you have interest in knowing more about theopoetics and the potential uses for it within faith communities, this is book is really is a perfect place to start.

To put it as plainly as possible: theopoetics is not suggesting that:

“theology ought to be glibly poetic or rhyming in form, but that it might be better if it possess some of the radical quality of poises [to make, poetry], of a ‘formal thinking about the nature of the making of meaning, which subverts the -ology, the nature of the logic, of theology” (22).

Drawing on poetry as ‘radical metaphor’ allows the straightforward structure of language to be subverted in a way that allows for a space where deeper meaning can emerge (ibid). There are many who have developed this style of communicating including Stanley Hopper, Amos Wilder, Rubem Alves, Melanie Duguid-May and Scott Holland, Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Peter Rollins, John Caputo, Richard Kearney and Karmen MacKendrick, all of which are introduced within this text.

There are many points that I could expound upon from Way to Water, and I can already see that I will be drawing insights from this text for some time, but for today I want to focus on the connection between the poetic and empathetic.

Much of theology today, and preaching as it’s corollary, has struggled between the poles of the literal and the symbolic. Bultmann’s “demoythologization” of the biblical text has become a (misunderstood and misrepresented) short-hand for the immense pressure that language and narrative come under in modernity (21).

Our communities have too often been crippled by overly simplified teaching models, biblical interpretations, and historical accounts of God within human history or we have been taught to flatly dismiss these texts in the face of changing scientific, archaeological or cultural evidence. God is either all backbone or has none. Instead, theopoetics offers a model for “deep aesthetic recalibration,” as Keefe-Perry calls it, where “the terms of the discussion would be reconfigured to shift from a kind of scientistic mechanicalism toward an organic and embodied surplus of meaning. Language – even, or perhaps especially, language about God – is not a black and white affair” (28).

Stanely Hopper puts it this way:

“Christians must reclaim the power of myth and imagination, moving toward a poetic perspective of the divine instead of a prosaic, theo-logical approach that results in the ‘progressive reification of doctrine, squeezing the myth out, trying to contain the symbolic in a science and to reduce mysteries to knowledge'” (26).

What I take away from this is that there are ways of writing and speaking about God that leave room open for surplus of meaning, interpretation and encounter. As Jesus said, “I am always with you,” which signifies this surplus, this ever-expansive, incarnate God in human history. How one speaks about the God of ‘always with you’ in the Pacific Northwest in 2015, is going to sound and look different from a theological account of this same God in Cuba or Palestine in the same year. There is no way to finalize or “capture” once-for-all this God who is ever present. As Keefe-Perry puts it, “Trying to propositionalize God and God’s actions is like trying to summarize a symphony.” We can, and I believe, ought to – within the academy and the church – be working at bringing more metaphor, story, and the very craft of poeisis [to make, poetry], which subverts the logic of theology (22).

Following a similar line of thought, in my own work, I have drawn heavily on Quaker theologian, T. Vail Palmer’s work around reading the bible empathetically. Palmer argues that early Quakers fell neither into the literalist camp of fundamentalism or the symbolic camp of moden-liberalism, because they understood themselves as key participants in the biblical narrative. The bible for them was not a handbook or an encyclopedia of revelation finalized once-and-for-all but a narrative to enter into. They read, understood and lived the text empathetically.

I see a connection between theopoetics Keefe-Perry is offering here and Palmer’s work around empathy, the Bible and Quakers. Early Quaker approaches to writing and reading were very poetic, not just in their use of language that was often colorful, full of metaphor and biblical imagery, but in their “sideways” approach to truth-telling.

George Fox was well-known for stringing together three and four-word phrases quoted directly from the biblical text without ever mentioning where these phrases came from. Copyright laws be damned! This method was used to inspire and invite readers into truth, in Dickinson’s words, at a slant. Images, familiar phrases, and important biblical texts were woven together like tapestry into a new fabric of Christian community. Just like poetry, the Quaker tradition is rooted in the invitation to participatory imagination.

We don’t have to look far to find connections between poetry and empathy. In fact, poetic empathy is one lens used to explore the work of various poets. For instance, here is Kwame Dawes writing about the connection between empathy and poetry in her own work:

So, in many ways, the poems are as much about the people I met as they are about me.  And this is important.  It is that lyrical part of things, that “personal” if you will, that demands sincerity, and above all, empathy.  Empathy is the answer to your question.  Empathy as a function of the imagination.  As an artist, as a writer, I have to master empathy, and to do so, I must imagine, imagine fully and imagine with discipline and commitment.  If I fail to understand, feel, convey, express what the other person is going through, then my imagination has failed, and my art has failed.  So for me, the instinct to empathize, which is a very human and morally critical act, existed in my relationship with these people long before I thought of writing a poem about them.  And when I came to write the poems, I drew on the lived experience of empathy, which is an act of the imagination (I repeat) to create these poems.

Way to Water is an extended argument for this same lens used to explore theologians and pastoral ministry. I found in an invigorating and inspiring read and one that add fuel to the imagination.

You can order the book from Wipf and Stock here.

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