Gregory E. Reynolds
Lives without rhythm are not worth living, and I’m not talking about dancing. Busy lives in the modern world often lack the most important rhythm of all—spiritual rhythm rooted in the formative exercise of Scripture meditation and prayer. By meditation I mean the prayerful, thoughtful study of Scripture.
Even more neglected than this is the reading of sacred poetry. By this I mean poetry outside of the canon of Scripture written by Christians on biblical topics. The texts of the hymns we sing from the Trinity Hymnal are poetry. Among the famous poets included in our hymnal are George Herbert, William Cowper, John Milton, Christina Rossetti, and Christopher Wordsworth, nephew of the famous William. George Herbert is no doubt the most popular sacred poet since his posthumously published book of poems The Temple was published in 1633.
The two books reviewed briefly here encourage the spiritual rhythms of the Christian life from two different angles. The first is designed to encourage prayerful Bible reading by providing a prayer for each chapter of the Bible. The second is designed to encourage meditation on some of the finest poetry ever written in English and based on biblical truth and devotion—the poetry of George Herbert.
A Book of Prayers: A Prayer for Every Chapter of the Bible, by Stephen C. Magee. North Exeter, NH: Stephen C. Magee, 2010, 267 pages, $11.89, paper, Kindle edition $0.99.
Pastor Magee has given the church a unique resource to encourage prayer and Bible reading in tandem. Writing a prayer for all eleven hundred and eighty-nine chapters in the Bible is almost inconceivable, but Pastor Magee accomplished this in a season of great grief and growing dependence on the Lord. Even the genealogical sections of the Old Testament are graced with excellent prayers.
The theology of these prayers is soundly Reformed; the spirit of these prayers is a cri de coeur from one who sees his life and the life of the church through the lens of Scripture, and the lost world around him as in desperate need of the gospel. Consciousness of sin, the idolatry of the fallen human heart, the sovereignty of God and his amazing grace, all form the fabric of these prayers. The style exhibits an elegant clarity characteristic of the best Protestant prayers.
Having used this book for some time, I have found that reading the Bible chapter and then the prayer is the most effective use of the book, because the content of the biblical chapter is essential to receiving maximum benefit from the prayers. When reading more than one chapter, the prayers may, of course, be read all at once after the Bible reading, or better still, after each chapter, thus instilling a prayerful attitude in the reading of Scripture.
Pastor Magee is the pastor of a PCA congregation in Exeter, New Hampshire. He has been a friend since we both began to be involved in planting churches in the mid-nineties. Because the book is self-published, it exists largely under the radar. But this is a sleeper that may be profitably used along with prayer books such as The Valley of Vision. I highly recommend it in either the paper or Kindle formats.
A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems, by Jim Scott Orrick. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011, 159 pages, $20.00, paper.
Professor Orrick has given us an incalculable gift—a devotional guide to the poetry of George Herbert. Herbert himself wrote his poetry to aid Christians in their understanding of Scripture and in devotion to the Lord and his church. Herbert’s poetry has been a favorite of Christians like C. S. Lewis, C. H. Spurgeon, and Richard Baxter. Of course, in Herbert’s day, when metaphysical poetry and Shakespearean theatre elevated Elizabethan English to its apogee, poetry was a highly popular form of entertainment and an intrinsic part of the fabric of public thinking. In our day, poetry has reached its nadir. Hence, the importance of a book like Orrick’s. If literary criticism and wearying college course analyses have helped poison the public’s appetite for poetry, books like this provide at least a partial antidote.
Free of technical jargon and analysis, Orrick’s book aims at Christian devotion and an appreciation of Herbert for the sheer beauty of what he wrote, a beauty inseparable from its content. Rather than a commentary on a poem for every day, he has wisely given us a week to search the meaning of each poem. Hence, the subtitle A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems.This reminds us that good poetry, like any worthwhile text, takes work, and thus time, to understand. In the age of “wit,” poets like Herbert, Crashaw, and Donne worked at what Alexander Pope said of poetry in general,
True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
As shades more sweet recommend the light,
So modest plainness sets off spritely wit.
An Essay on Criticism
Herbert expected his readers to take time to fathom what he wrote and thereby enter the riches of his sparkling soul. Orrick assists us in this endeavor by explaining each poem, in usually two to four pages, under the following headings: Topic, Thesis, About this poem, Footnotes to explain the text, Poetry notes, and Ponder. “About this poem” locates the poem in the ministry and circumstances of Herbert. “Footnotes” explain the text, where the seventeenth-century language may be obscure, or point out theological and biblical references. “Poetry notes” explain poetic elements that make the poem successful, without the burden of academic language. While I might like a bit more explanation about rhyme, meter, and poetic types, Orrick errs on the side of winsome engagement with those who may be encountering serious poetry for the first time. Finally, he asks us to “Ponder” the poem in terms of our individual lives, the church, and the world. These are very thoughtful. For example, in response to “The Alter,” which deals with sorrow for sin and repentance, Orrick asks if there is a place for such sorrow in modern worship.
Professor Orrick has spent a lot of time with Herbert and it shows. I highly recommend this book. It would be perfect for an adult study in church or in high school.
Summers, Joseph. George Herbert: His Religion and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.
Slater, Ann Pasternak, ed. George Herbert: The Complete English Works. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Wilcox, Helen, ed. The English Poems of George Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online October, 2013.