There's a well previewed book due out in June, but carrying an intentionally mischievous title. You can read it for yourself! The sub-title helps to soften the murderous sentiment, and maybe the writer has a point. Even a devoted George Herbert fan like me would be hard pushed to defend Herbert's The Country Parson as a handbook for 21st Century pastoral ministry. (Of course Herbert was writing in his own context of time, place and ecclesial tradition - not his fault if later generations couldn't think out there own contextually valid models of pastoral care). Still, the ideals that informed Herbert's impossibly high vision of the Country Pastor as omni-competent guide in matters spiritual, medical, moral, horticultural (not kidding!), and social, now sound in our context of time place and ecclesial tradition, irredeemably patronising, paternalist and so rooted in a pre-industrial, pre-modern socially stratified society that they have little remaining purchasing power. That said, we are told this book is written to encourage those who still try to live up to expectations and styles of ministry that are simply impossible in our much more complex and hard to negotiate post-Christian culture. Maybe so - still don't like the title though!
But when it comes to Herbert's poetry, there is a different story to be told. In Seventeenth Century English poetry, master Herbert is the one whose utmost art enables him to be the secretary of praise. Yes the poems are soaked in biblical allusion, devotionally charged, admittedly metaphysical, theologically sophisticated and psychologically subtle - I see all these as entire positives. The Temple remains one of the genuine masterpieces of Western Christian Literature, as Herbert's life is one of the genuine masterpieces of pastoral devotion. The Temple is as personally revealing as Augustine's Confessions and just as autobiographical; as spiritually and morally serious as The Imitation of Christ, but without that disheartening moralism that is the preoccupation of a Kempis' devotions so single-mindedly concentrated on personal improvement. Herbert's poetry is much more diagnostic of human motives, more exploratory of the mystery and meaning of grace, more sympathetic with human sin and fallibility, more aware of the objective reality of Christ's person and work. He portrays Christ in richness and variety, in meekness and majesty, and without that pastoral hectoring that (to me at least) surfaces repeatedly in a Kempis. Ironically, compared to The Imitiation, the Christ encountered in The Temple is a much more attractive call to the Christ-like life, and to dependence on that grace and love revealed in Christ as the reality of who God is, to us and for us.
One good example of what I mean is Herbert's poem "Agonie", where the passion of the Christ is drawn with verbal precision and images redolent with suffering. "Sinne and Love" are seen as the baffling realities that have turned a good purposive creation into threatened eternal tragedy. Herbert finds the crux of all meaning, the central core of creation's purpose, in God's holy love, eternal love bearing sin. The Scottish theologian James Denney described the cross and the suffering love of the crucified God as "the last reality of the universe, the truth of who God is". Poems like "The Agonie" should be cherished and learned, not as museum pieces, but as artefacts of Christ-centred truth and authentic theology, which preserve and model that capacity for unselfish wonder and faith-filled surrender fast disappearing in our frantic pursuit of that cultural chimera, 21st Century Christianity.
Incidentally, we discussed this poem in class the other day and one of our students held to the view that the poem refers to Christ in Gethsemane and uses the image of the winepress. True enough of the second stanza, but by the final stanza Calvary is in the foreground, and just behind it the eucharistic table.
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.
Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love in that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.