by David Williams
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

The latest book by the poet and author Dinah Livingstone offers an engaging yet provocative study of the relationship between poetry and theology as sister arts, based on the premise that poetic vision and kindness are the making of humanity.

It also has a recurrent theme that poetry offers a shining (or revelation) of meaning which derives from its form.

The book consists of a loosely structured introduction, which nevertheless has some keen insights on the nature of poetry and poetic form and purpose in relation to theological expression. This is followed by three short studies of ‘Divine Descents’:

  1. The Reign of God, which draws on a miscellany of Biblical texts;
  2. Embodiment: the Christ epic, with a more focused study of the kenosis poem in Philippians, and the Prologue to John’s Gospel; and
  3. The Beautiful City, which consists of a rather diffuse study of the chapter on the New Jerusalem in Revelation, set alongside Blake’s Jerusalem and the Oracle upon Managua by the contemporary radical Nicaraguan priest-poet-politician Ernesto Cardenal, illustrating the author’s attraction to liberation theology.

There follows a series of five challenging but rather inchoate studies of times and seasons in the Church’s calendar: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity, the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Advent, in which the author seeks to present the Biblical presentation of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection and the action of the Holy Spirit as little more than poetic epic and myth. The books conclude with a more concise essay entitled Towards a Kindly Humanism.

As befits the editor of Sofia, the magazine of the Sea of Faith network, Dinah Livingstone’s perspective is both theologically and socially ultra-liberal, and while this reviewer does not find himself at one with her theological standpoint, he nevertheless acknowledges the integrity of her writing.

Dinah Livingstone is a noted and highly productive poet, whose own publishing imprint Kantabasis points to her concern for a down-to-earth poetic reality. She has produced two earlier books on the relationship of poetry and natural theology: The Poetry of Earth (2000) and Poetic Tales (2010). A common theme of her work in the social and ethical responsibility of the poet, who she sees as a catalyst for social cohesion

Dinah Livingstone ran the Camden Voices Poetry Group from 1978 to 1998, and has received three Arts Council Writer’s Awards. She is also a translator with a special interest in Latin American writing. Her scholarship as shown in The Making of Humanity is quite impressive, with a careful, albeit angled study of the Greek texts of the New Testament passages on which she focuses, coupled with a strong sense of poetic structure, form and rhythm.

It is however disappointing that she does not explore further the poetic form and content of much of the Old Testament, particularly the book of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and most of the minor prophets. The relationship between Biblical poetry and hymnic and liturgical form and usage is a further area on which she is sadly silent. Nor does she explore the Tractarian hypothesis that poetry is a literary form which brings one closer to the divine. These are all areas which merit further exploration.

Nevertheless, I found this book a stimulating volume to read, at times provocative, occasionally frustrating, but always imbued with a spirit of humanity of which Dinah Livingstone speaks so eloquently. However, I was ultimately left with the impression that poetry and theology were presented not as sister arts, but rather as theology subordinated to poetry.

David Williams is Vicar of the Badbury Group of Churches and Area Dean of the Vale of White Horse in the Diocese of Oxford, a theological college tutor, a former Clerk to the General Synod and Head of the Archbishops’ Council’s Central Secretariat.