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2016, vol. 70


by Karen Sheriff LeVan

Karen Sheriff LeVan is a Bethel College graduate and a Professor of English at Hesston College.

Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace challenges readers with theological quandaries, poetic contemplations, ongoing intellectual and faith pilgrimages, tales of mistake-making and recoveries, and lessons from cracked driveways, wood grains and more. Jeff Gundy’s style is characteristically candid, curious, bold, informed, and caring. Relentless receptivity characterizes the manner in which Gundy joins his voice with a myriad of others – living and late, lauded and irreverent, well-known and unnamed theologians, poets, critics, philosophers, songwriters, colleagues, students, and former senses of self. In such conversations, he has one main purpose: to tease out opportunities to encounter theopoetics or, in other words, to experience aspects of the divine through language’s fecundity and through the transformative potential of the writer-reader, speaker-listener relationship.

Theopoetics applies poetic methods and possibilities to theological inquiry. The hope is that through such renderings humans might find ways to make increasingly salient the kind of “sympathetic imaginations” Jesus encouraged, to make radical love more accessible and to love their neighbors more fully (141). Songs is an invitation to a theopoetic perspective of lived experience, and Gundy intends it for practical application.

In 16 essays, Gundy offers precisely what he encourages readers to create: “art that stretches our sense of what language is and can do, that offers experience as well as information, that makes us think and feel in new ways about what we as human beings are capable of thinking and feeling and saying” (133). Songs is such art and more. One of its practical purposes is “a larger call for all artists – especially skillful, Anabaptist-influenced ones – to share responses to questions such as ‘How can we teach, and learn, to live in the world with skillful passion, with smart love?’” (130).

With these calls in mind, I asked the writers featured here to respond to, rather than review, Songs: John Tyson, a pastor at Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas; Jennifer Sears, a creative writer and professor in the Brooklyn branch of the City University of New York; and Daniel Shank Cruz, a literary critic and professor at Utica (New York) College.

Tyson, a Mennonite not “by virtue of birth, but by gentle persuasion,” as he puts it, reflects on his at times uncomfortable and unwelcoming journey into Mennonite identity. In the spirit of Gundy who gathers voices together to expose and create gaps for new ones, Tyson adds his own shining theopoetic voice(s) to Gundy’s mix and characterizes how Songs guides him to consider what the work of pastors may look like alongside the work of theologians, poets, and theopoets.

Much of what shapes Sears’ response to Songs are celebrations of the contrasts and wild connections between lived experiences and literary and theological beliefs, between what happens in her CUNY classroom and in the poetics of writers she esteems. Like Gundy’s, her reflection is filled with the voices of others across time, genres, demographics, locations and belief systems. She highlights some of Gundy’s most memorable riffs and creates quite a few of her own, including one with a daring closing line that stops us short with its reference to John Howard Yoder.

And finally, Shank Cruz, a self-professed Gundy “fanboy,” explains why and how Songs, and Gundy’s writing in general, keeps him connected to Mennonite community. Other than offering praise, Shank Cruz draws helpful parallels concerning the interplay of literary criticism, theology, poetry and theopoetics.

For all three respondents, Mennonite theology is a part of their identity to varying degrees and levels of choice. Given their vocations, I suspected they were likely to agree with Gundy that art is a way of seeking, finding, and experiencing the divine, but I still wanted to know more about how they might use a theopoetic lens in their professional lives. Gundy’s text made me yearn for the theopoetic renderings of others, and I am grateful for the ones offered here.