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Book review: The Lyric Voice in English Theology by Elizabeth S. Dodd

19 April 2024

Lyric theology can be found in many places, says Richard Harries

IT HAS been usual to think of three literary forms: the epic or narrative, the dramatic, and the lyric. The great Hans von Balthasar sought to relate his theology to the second or dramatic form. Elizabeth Dodd is concerned with the third one, the lyric. She has not, however, tried to construct a systematic theology along the lines of Balthasar, but, rather, she has looked at various lyrical texts to spell out the theology implicit in them.

It has been fashionable in the past to reject the lyric as a way of thinking about theology on the grounds that it is individualistic and pietistic. Dodd corrects this and argues that the lyrical voice can speak for the community as a whole and represent the world with all its concerns. One of the ways in which she does this is by including in her discussion not just poets from the past whom we read, but modern poets who are performance artists.

In addition to theologians and a wide range of poets and performers, Dodd is concerned to relate theology to recent secular lyric theory. The main defining feature of the lyric is, of course, is musicality, but Dodd goes beyond this in identifying other features as well. A significant theme in her book is that the lyric is, above all, the work of the Holy Spirit turning babble into meaningful and musical sound that unites heaven and earth.

Dodd’s book is wide in its range. It includes not just theologians and exponents of lyric theory, but a good number of writers who are little known or who are outside the genre familiar to students of literature. For example, besides discussing Herbert and Donne, she writes about Ann Lok (c.1533-90), a devout Protestant who migrated to Geneva and wrote an extended poetic reflection on Psalm 51. Also included is Mary Carey (c.1609-80), who lost all her seven children, and who expressed her grief in private poems addressed to her second husband.

In addition to her discussions of William Blake (1757-1827) and John Clare (1793-1864), the author writes about Kae Tempest, a contemporary poet and recording artist with a strong social message. Dodd’s book includes not only the hugely difficult Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016), but also Grime, which she defines as a musical British art form largely in multicultural London English, which celebrates Black British poetry and its Caribbean and African roots.

This is a book designed primarily for scholars in the field. In this regard, it is rich in content and widely encompassing. There are often half a dozen footnotes per page, and it includes 16 pages of works cited. There are often suggestions about where more work might be done, or an argument followed. Even for those for whom this is not their field, it is an Aladdin’s cave of insights into particular writers.

For the general reader, however, I would take out of this book two things in particular. One is that those who listen to popular music or engage in popular art forms of whatever type might like to listen, as Dodd does, for any theological resonances. Her work at Sarum College and at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture have immersed her in wider worlds than are normally inhabited by academic theologians.

The other point is the challenge to preaching and prayer in our time. Old-fashioned rhetoric in the pulpit today just comes across as hollow theatricality. We are more responsive to the more personal and conversational tone. But this has a rhetoric of its own, in that it seeks to convince, persuade, and draw the listener to God. In its own way, this will be linked to praise and joy and have a lyrical quality that speaks for the community in its reach for God — or it can have. After all, the greatest lyrical theology of all, St Augustine’s Confessions, does just that, as do some of the sermons of Austin Farrer.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is
Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II (SPCK, 2023).


The Lyric Voice in English Theology
Elizabeth S. Dodd
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