Re-inventing prayer with poetry today: A protestant paradox

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Re-inventing prayer with poetry today:
A protestant paradox

Poetry and prayer are two different literary genres. Yet, early Calvinism tried to merge them. Does it create art or prevent #innovation? Is it still relevant for faith today? We interviewed pastor Philippe François about this.

Poems that were written by Calvinist authors are simple. They abide by the ‘five solae’ of the Reform: only God should be prayed (Soli Deo Gloria), it is enough to believe in order to be saved (Sola Fide), believers are not saved because of their good deeds, only by divine grace (Soli Gratia), Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and the church (Solus Christus), and the Bible is the supreme authority in terms of faith (Sola Scriptura).[1]

In a nutshell, Calvinist poetry consists of taking the words of the Bible and putting them in the form of a poem, using as little virtuosity as possible. Its goal is to let all admiration and thought go to God; to prompt spontaneous prayer.[2] But this kind of poetry is only simple on the surface. Its form is harsh, and its content is theologically complex. Those were deliberate choices among the first Calvinist writers.[3]  Why is Calvinist poetry deceptively simple?

There should be no poetry outside of prayer.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, poetry was a medium that supported  Christianity.[4] Poems have been written to connect their readers to God and promote the church’s point of view. This literary genre was part of ordinary religious experiences. As philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe put it:

Poetry in its essence would be prayer,
and all prayer, conversely, poem

But our relationship to texts keeps evolving. Professor of literature Véronique Ferrer draws our attention to the literary reformation initiated within the Calvinist movement.[6]

In order to tailor poetry to the needs of prayer,  John Calvin condemned aesthetic ornaments. In his opinion, the emotional and pleasurable aspects of texts were detrimental to their meaning. ‘Significance over beauty’ was the norm he advocated.[7] Preachers and poets alike were called to simplify their language and imitate the straightforwardness of the writers of the Bible.[8]

From Calvinist poetry and “the disenchantment of the world”…
Such deliberate austerity changes our relationship to the divine. Sociologist Max Weber claimed that under the influence of Calvinist theology, piety and magic were replaced with science and rationality. He called this collective disillusion ‘disenchantment’.  The ethics of work and frugality within Protestantism were deemed the main cause that the Western world to become ‘disenchanted’.[9] According to this interpretation, Calvinism provided a literature of disenchantment.

Let there be no mistake about this: Calvin was keen on poetry. Besides, it took Calvinist writers inventiveness to translate Hebraic expressions in French, using only words from the Bible. What may look like an impoverishment of  language is in fact a creative method.[10] Negating poetry as a literary form, denying it any artificial beauty, Calvinism still expected poems to connect their readers to the God of the Bible. There lies the protestant paradox: preferring reasonable meaning over beautiful aesthetic, even if “it demands that poetry sacrifices a part of itself on the altar of religion,”[11] while using it to regenerate faith and make everything about the divine; namely to enchant the world. 

… To Calvinist poetry and postmodernity.

A similar paradox can be found today, in our postmodern context. Twentieth-century artists wrote and read everything through the lens of critical thinking and irony. In this framework, presence, identity, historical progress, or meaning disappear.[12] They are replaced with simulacres: everyday life is a theater play where actors pretend that they are their characters.[13] It is only logical that postmodernity took a toll on both religion[14] and literature.[15]  The relativity of truth tends to discredit religion and art all together.

On the one hand, just like Protestants, postmodern writers doubted the power of words. Speaking words (even sacred) was not enough to make changes happen anymore. To an extreme where artists made a point of not making sense, in order to not trick anyone into thinking coherence is more than an illusion.[16] On the other hand, just like Protestants, counter-postmodernists assigned themselves the “task to fumble humbly and find back the eternal form of things.” Writers like Marguerite Yourcenar struggled to reconnect words with the truths they suggest.  They found poetry valuable for it evokes ideas.[17]

“Christian churches are a place for poetry to unfold.”
French pastor Philippe François, assumes that poetry, as well as other forms of art can “re-enchant the world.” His 2020 Protestant Anthology of French Poetry[18] results from a twenty-year research for poetic liturgical content. When excavating French culture for poems that testify to the protestant tradition, he followed the footsteps of Calvinist writers.[19]

Interviewed for EARS,[20] François explained: “The difficulty with poetry, in the classic sense of the word, is that it has become nearly inaudible in a general context of noise, speed and lies.”[21] He argues that Christian churches are a possible (if not ideal) place for poetry to unfold. Conversely, poetry contains meaning. It provides food for thought and meditation. One of his favorite examples is that of Clément Marot’s versified version of the prayer ‘Our Father’.[22] The sixteenth-century writer supplied the reformator Jean Calvin with poetic translations of the Psalms.[23] His ‘Our Father’, says François, provokes the mind to wonder, more than the classic translation.

Poetry can help re-inventing church services. 
While attendance at church seems to have declined among younger generations, private prayer[24] and punctual involvement in religious events has increased.[25] As the sociology of religious practices evolves, church services could also change.

François tells EARS: “For my part, in Lutheran and Calvinist churches, I have simplified [the service] and offer three poems in lieu of a liturgy. (…) Structured, dense, with a clear theological core, those prayers prompt meditation and thought. Pastoral work then consists in reading them in a way that gives them the density they deserve.”[26]

Many authors have provided churches with poetic prayers and praying poems; it depends on clergypeople to grant themselves the freedom to dig through sedimented rites, adds François. The protestant literary legacy is rich, and could flourish in the void left by systematic postmodern doubt.

Regaining a sense of eternity
Religion and poetry both remind us today that some truths do exist beyond our understanding. In a postmodern, sceptical context, words can help magnify religious experiences and make sense out of doubt. Conversely, churches can be a haven of slowness and silence for poetry to recover its suggesting power.

This mutual development of Christian faith and poetry is already at work on a small scale. In his Breuschwickersheim parish, François notices that parishioners are recollected and attentive during the reading of the poems. Though the pastor focuses on minimalist texts, the impression people leave his church with is that of beauty.

Is this a hint that reasonable meaning and beautiful aesthetic are not as incompatible as Calvin originally thought? Time has passed since the Calvinist Reformation. What matters to François today is that liturgies uplift believers and popularise theology. In a catch-phrase, he explains: “The ambition of Protestants is to become what they are not: clever and cultured.” That is why Calvinist poetry is only simple on the surface.

Clémence Sauty

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[1] Five solae

[2] Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[3] Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[4] Michel Zink, Poésie et conversion au Moyen Âge, Presses Universitaires de France, 2014

[5] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, De la poésie comme expérience, Christian Bourgeois éditeur, 1986

[6] Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[7] Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[8] It is nonetheless arguable that there is any common style among the numerous writers of the Bible. The Gospel of John, for example, is not ‘straightforward’. It contains multiple comparisons, allusions, and makes use of what theologians call ‘the technique of misunderstanding”’ For more detail: Direction: Literary Features in the Gospel of John: An Analysis of John 3:1-21

[9] Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der “Geist” des Kapitalismus, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1904-1905

Max Weber’s main statement was that the ‘spirit of capitalism’ first arose within the protestant bourgeoisie. Following the reflections of 16th-century reformer John Calvin, Calvinists believed in predestination. They thought that God had already decided on who would be ‘saved’ and who would be excluded from heaven. There was nothing left to do in order to change one’s destiny; but the outcome of one’s deeds could indicate if one was ‘elected’ or not. As God was deemed unknowable, the management of natural resources belonged to workers. The hope to discover what to expect after death pushed people to work, rationalise their use of resources and prosper. But in the meantime, puritan Calvinism promoted asceticism. Incomes were not spent, and progressively, capital was accumulated. All the conditions were there for capitalism to develop in the 17th century.

[10]  Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[11] Véronique Ferrer, La lyre poétique: Calvin et la réforme poétique en France, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2009

[12] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 05/02/2015,

[13] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday, 1959

[14] Yves Lambert, Religion, modernité, ultramodernité: une analyse en terme de “tournant axial”, EHESS, 2000, Religion, modernité, ultramodernité : une analyse en terme de « tou… 

[15] Aron Kibédi Varga, Le récit postmoderne, Littérature, 1990

[16] General Introduction to Postmodernism

[17] Marguerite Yourcenar, Carnets de notes, 1991

[18] Philippe François, Anthologie protestante de la poésie française, Labor et Fides, 2020

[19]  Two interviews conducted by Clémence Sauty, on 20th of January and 11the of February 2021. Philippe François was asked about the tradition of poetry within Calvinism and his own poetic practices as a pastor.

[20] Two interviews conducted by Clémence Sauty, on 20th of January and 11th of February 2021. Philippe François was asked about the tradition of poetry within Calvinism and his own poetic practices as a pastor.

[21] Original French was: “La difficulté de la poésie, au sens classique du terme, est qu’elle est devenue quasi inaudible dans un contexte général marqué par le bruit, la vitesse et le mensonge.”

[22] Le Benedicite

[23] Clement Marot — Hymnology Archive

[24] Pratique religieuse

[25] Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Le pèlerin et le converti. La religion en mouvement, Flammarion, 2001

[26] Original French was: “Pour ma part, dans le cadre de paroisses luthéro-réformées, j’ai depuis 30 ans simplifié le dispositif pour proposer, à chaque culte, en guise de liturgie, un choix de 3 prières extraites du recueil 100 prières possibles (1982) du théologien réformé André Dumas (1918-1996). Structurées, denses, avec une teneur théologique claire, ces prières donnent à méditer et à penser. Le travail pastoral consiste alors à les lire, de manière à leur conférer l’intensité qu’elles méritent.”