In Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, John Piper outlines how George Herbert, George Whitefield, and CS Lewis “made poetic effort to see and savor and show the glories of Christ.”
Piper starts the book by asking a thought provoking question: “Does the Bible warrant poetic effort?” He then quotes from I Corinthians where Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” If poetic effort is a poor use of time, then the entire book would be a waste!
Piper counters his own question by saying, “God has designed the world and human beings in such a way that his ultimate and highest aims for humanity come about through human words.” And yet, despite God’s use of human words, “no amount of poetic effort or expertise in the use of words can bring about the great aims of life if God withholds his saving power.”
Piper’s introduction is a powerful and compelling argument for the value of eloquent words. And, as is the case with every book I have read by him, it is an argument that is firmly grounded and extensively cited as an argument derived solely from Scripture. With this introduction in place, let me briefly introduce you to the subjects of the book.
George Herbert was an Anglican minister in the 17th century who died before reaching his 40th birthday. While he never had more than 100 people in his church, Herbert’s work continues to impact generation after generation. His enduring legacy is his mastery of poetry and his ability to communicate Christian truth through poetry.
George Whitefield was an evangelist during the 18th century and travelled back and forth between England and America by ship some 13 times. For 30 years, Whitefield averaged 3 speaking engagements per day. 3 per day for 30 years!!! Piper highlight’s Whitefield’s accomplishments not for his volume of preaching but for Whitefield’s profound commitment to speaking the beauties of Christ in an engaging and powerful manner.
Finally, CS Lewis was a literature professor at Cambridge and Oxford in the 20th century. His writing is wildly popular today across a variety of genres. His fictional works in particular vividly engage the imagination of the reader and yet, they also speak of deep spiritual realities.
Reading this book was a joy because it helped me to see the connection between striving to communicate God’s infinite beauty and actually seeing that beauty for myself. In the words of Piper, “The effort to say freshly is a way of seeing freshly. The effort to say strikingly is a way of seeing strikingly. The effort to say beautifully is a way of seeing beautifully.” It was also helpful to see how the same basic desire had taken different forms for different men of God in years gone by. My writing will never compare with theirs and it may be a totally different style of writing, but the effort to say well is still an effective tool to see well.
I’m no expert in literature, so some of the technical aspects of Herbert’s poetry were tough for me to understand. Piper quotes from each author heavily, and as a result, the Herbert section was a bit cumbersome for me. At the same time, it broadened my understanding of poetry and gave me a new appreciation for that form of literature. If you are not an avid fan of poetry, you will likely find this section difficult as well, but press on! It is still well worth the read.
The unifying theme that drove these three men to speak so beautifully was the unmatched glory of Christ. Herbert’s poetry was published posthumously, yet on his death bed he asked his brother to publish it if “it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul … if not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” George Whitefield’s humility was seen through his high view of bringing glory to the name of Jesus, “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.” Lewis argued that beauty itself points us to our Maker, “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.”
If you desire to see Christ more accurately, know him more intimately, and speak to him more fondly, you should read this book. If you have tried to write and wondered if it was worth the time and effort, you should read this book. If you enjoy hearing stories of God’s work throughout history, you should read this book. But the main reason you should read this book is because Piper’s premise is true:
“The effort to put the excellencies into worthy words is a way of seeing the worth of the excellencies. The effort to say more about the glory than you have ever said is a way of seeing more than you have ever seen.”
Buy it here!
 John Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, pg. 17.
 I Corinthians 1:17.
 Piper, 18.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 46.
 Ibid, 97.
 Ibid, 127.
 Ibid, 76.