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Volume 13, Issue 5: Poetics

Carnal vs. Poetic

Douglas Jones

"golly," said edmund under his breath. "he's a retired star."

"Aren't you a star any longer?" asked Lucy.
"I am a star at rest, my daughter," answered Ramandu. . . .
"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."
In this famous exchange and others, C.S. Lewis presses upon us the clash between two ways of perceiving the world—the scientific and the poetic. Is a star just a ball of flaming gas?—(scientific). Or is it much more?—(poetic). Lewis is, of course, a master of poetic and aesthetic vision, who invites us to see the world as lit up with life and mystery and meaning, not just measurable quantities and angles.
A poetic vision of the world certainly includes the scientific, but the scientific doesn't automatically include the poetic. Here I'm speaking in the broadest senses of poetic and scientific. I'm not focusing on particular academic disciplines; I'm speaking of ways of viewing the world that each and every one of us partakes in daily, whether we know anything at all about electrons or iambic rhythms.
A purely scientific or technological approach to the world sees only what can be measured physically. It sees only surfaces and materials. It counts as truth only those things that are literal, precise, efficient, and exhaustively defined. It focuses on physical domino causations whether in physics, biology, politics, ecclesiology, or the family. It shows up everywhere.
Poetic or aesthetic experience includes all this but doesn't limit the world to material surfaces and causes. The poetic perceives the visible and the invisible. It sees surfaces and the patterns that bind them. It asks about the meaning and purpose and symbolism behind everything. It denies that algorithms capture human life or causality. The world changes by grace and mystery and Spirit, not material pushing alone. Aesthetic vision perceives more deeply than any other way of seeing, and it also affects every corner of life. The difference between these kinds of perception stands at the center of Christian living.
Some of the most intriguing rebukes from Christ are directed against those who can't see poetically. He recognizes this as a spiritual problem, not a poor literary education. It's much deeper than just being able to understand a sonnet. It's a way of life. When Christ rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees for lacking poetic discernment (Mt. 16:2, 3), he also had to chide His apostles for the same dullness. They heard Him speak of the leaven of the Jews, and they "reasoned among themselves, saying, `It is because we have taken no bread'" (Mt. 16:7). Christ says that their misinterpretation of His poetry is due to a lack of faith—"How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?" (Mt. 16:11). They couldn't discern the patterns and symbols; they were stuck on the material surface of the bread, and this was a failure of character. Christ also rebukes Nicodemus along similar lines. Nicodemus can't grasp some of Christ's poetry about water and birth, so Christ throws in some earthly observations about the nature of wind. Nicodemus still lacks poetic discernment, and Christ chides him for his inability to see His meanings (Jn. 3:12; cf. Mt.13:10_13).
To use other biblical language, Christ rebukes them for being carnal rather than poetic. We so readily read the New Testament charge of being carnal as if Scripture were a Gnostic tract, dividing asunder body and spirit. We say the carnal are backslidden Christians overtaken by their biological lusts or those people more concerned with the body rather than pietistic spirituality. But the Bible doesn't divide things in that way.
The carnal mind is an unpoetic mind, like those Christ rebuked above. The unpoetic carnal mind can't perceive meanings, patterns, images, and symbols; it can't see the invisible; it can't see divine beauty and narrative—"the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him" (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. 1 Cor. 3:1_3). It sees only the carnal, only the material—"for those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh" (Rom. 8:5). The carnal mind is stuck in the scientific mode. The purely materialistic vision cannot perceive the things of God. It is too narrow. But the spiritual mind embraces all the patterns, material and immaterial; it embraces the material creation and reads its language (Ps. 19:3; Mt. 13:16).
Notice that in most of the above passages, those trapped in a unpoetic mode are believers (apostles even!), not unbelievers. In other words, we can be regenerate but still lack the daily aesthetic vision needed to commune faithfully with God, not just in calculating theology but in the way we celebrate, decorate, cook, teach, love, labor, worship, and go through trials. Do we discern the beauty behind the moment? Can we grasp the meanings that weave daily life together? Scripture's rebuke to our materialism is clear and strong: "the carnal mind is enmity against God" (Rom. 8:7). The materialistic mind cannot see what is really going on in life. And it trashes Christian living. In the end, to fail at the poetic, to see only a huge ball of flaming gas, to complain about surfaces, in all these, "to be carnally minded is death" (Rom. 8:6).

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