17th Century Sacred Poetry Sucked

17th Century sacred poetry, like a lot of poetry today, sucked.
Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

17th Century sacred poetry, like a lot of poetry today, sucked.

It’s not just 21st Century marketers who think it sucked.   A 17th Century Puritan pastor named Stephen Charnock wrote about the sacred poetry of his time.  He had this crazy idea that sacred poetry ought to not only be based on God, but have some amount of depth regarding Him.

Reminds me of the current lack in the average evangelical worship song.  Or, for the sake of discussion, the average evangelical film whenever it discusses theology.

Back to Charnock.  Here’s what he said and then we’ll break it down.  From The Existence and Attributes of God, reprinted by Baker Academic.  

  • “Though we have the knowledge of Him by creation, yet He is for the most part an unknown God in the relations which He stands to us, because a God undelighted in and hence it is, as one observes, that because we observe not the ways of God’s wisdom, conceive not of Him in His vast perfections, nor are stricken with an admiration of His goodness, that we have fewer good sacred poems than of any other kind.” (Volume I:143)

What is he saying? He’s saying that you cannot know enough about God by looking at a sunset, which is why we have a Bible. In order to know more of His wisdom, His perfections, and His goodness, you have to fill your mind (meditate) on the Bible. He’s saying that because Church of England hacks weren’t doing that, their poetry sucked.  

What does this mean for faith based film?

We’ve written A LOT about the sucky nature of Christian film, identifying the causes. I won’t rehash those here. One of the biggest causes of bad writing or bad story in ALL film is filmmakers writing about God who have no idea Who they are talking about!

I watched a really horrible Christian film the other day that dropped theological conversations into the middle of dialogue which made no sense in the context of the script. That was bad enough (really, an unforgivable sin in writing any story) but what was far worse (other than the lines being delivered without conviction on the part of the actors) was that the theology was weak, supported by nothing else in the film.  

I do not believe that the writers of that film knew much of God’s perfections, His wisdom or His goodness. They knew some. But the reason why the film sucked in this particular area is due to the fact that their knowledge of God was so basic.

Does that mean that they shouldn’t tell their stories?  NO!

It means a couple of things:

  1. It’s OK (advisable, really) for writers to consult with pastors and theologians when you are writing theology into your film. If you aren’t sure if it’s accurate or genuine, put some eyes on it. Dallas Jenkins has done that with The Chosen, but based on his conclusions regarding the Jesus of Mormonism and the Jesus of the Bible, he’s got the wrong consultants.

  1. It’s OK to write only what you know and not what you don’t. It’s not only OK.  In writing it’s an axiom.

The sad fact is that writers and filmmakers have great stories but feel compelled to write in gratuitous conversions, preachy monologue, and weak theology because that’s what Pureflix wants.  The words of the poet Don Henley about the news media apply here: “We all know that crap is king.”  Crap is king at Pureflix.  

The irony of great filmmaking is that if your theology IS sound, you have freedom to tell stories that aren’t explicitly Christian. You can have confidence in God who directed the Levitical priests to put pomegranates on the edges of their robes for no other reason than decoration (Exodus 28:33).   You can trust the Sovereignty of God to use your art to glorify Him, which is the same purpose in filmmaking as conversion is to the street preacher.

Eras of great theology gave us great literature and great drama. The Puritanical 17th Century gave us the 1611 King James translation which is the basis for modern English. It also gave us Shakespeare (the other major source of modern English).  Libraries have been written on the Bard’s Christian presuppositions. Culture is written by good storytelling and good culture is molded by Christian artists as well as Christian preachers.

On the flip side of that coin, times of great theology have occasionally produced poor art. American Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth wrote some preachy poetry which amounted to sermons that rhymed (check out his The Day of Doom).   Great theology, bad art.  It’s a lesson on staying in your lane.

Full disclosure: I like Wigglesworth’s poetry, but not for the art’s sake.  It’s a pretty interesting commentary on times like ours.  

We seek Christian filmmakers who aren’t necessarily theologians. We seek artists who want to glorify God with their art. If that’s you, let’s schedule an appointment to talk.