Poetry, Practical Theology and Reflective Practice

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Mark Pryce
Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2019.
     196 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472484253.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mark Pryce has provided a truly practical theological offering in his book Poetry, Practical Theology, and Reflective Practice. The project originated as a dissertation for a professional doctorate written at Birmingham University in the UK. This is an important piece of information for the reader, because the author’s work is deeply located inside the British discussions of practical theology. In fact, it is an excellent example of the important work coming out of the UK. What particularly gives the project its distinctive British flavor is its autobiographical starting point, qualitative empirical attention, ethnographic interest, and overall usefulness. It’s a work of convergence, equal parts idea construction and personal engagement. Pryce writes as a way of integrating the hats he wears as priest, researcher, continuing ministry educator, and importantly, poet.

The whole project argues that reflection on poetry may be an important way of inviting pastors into thoughtful engagement and further vocational formation. In the flavor of UK practical theology Pryce seeks to defend this claim through empirical study with a deep ethnographic bent. He creates groups inside his continuing ministry education program to examine directly how reflection on poetry impacts the priest’s vision of her or his vocation.

Yet, unlike Continental European practical theology, this attention to the empirical is freed from stiff science. The attention to the core artistic engagement of poetry allows the scientific empirical methods to blend nicely with more expressive, experiential dispositions and therefore breathe much deeper into human experience and personal ways of knowing. This nuanced empirical approach, which incorporates the artistic, has been a UK-based practical theological path nicely cleared for the likes of Pryce by other theologians like Heather Walton and Elaine Graham, whom Pryce acknowledges. The projects of these practical theologians, now including Pryce, bears the feel of both science and art.

Chapter 1 begins with an autobiographical discussion of the importance of poetry to Pryce. The chapter starts very much with the artistic, as he not only expressively names the importance of poetry for himself, but shows what poetry itself is capable of doing. The author touches on a number of important theological and philosophical points, dabbling in philosophical anthropologies around language and biblical conceptions of poetry in scripture. Yet none of these important directions is developed as much as this reviewer would have wished. Pryce is clearly aware of what’s at stake in his claim of poetry’s philosophical and theological importance, but he soon moves on to more methodological discussions to show how his project fits in the discipline of practical theology. He does note, for instance, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s conception of the poetic and highlights other philosophical discussions.

However, I yearned for the space used to locate the project in practical theology to be spent instead on more theological/philosophical discussions. Practical theology as a discipline, because of its fluid boundaries, has a sneaky way of making people justify their project’s location within these fuzzy boundaries. I understand this project originated as a dissertation and therefore this kind of methodological locating was necessary, but it does raise more meta questions for the field. The field must ask if such a need to justify a project in the bounds of practical theological actually wastes the good thinking of projects like these. Shouldn’t such intellectual energy and talent be spent somewhere more directly theological?

The second half of chapter 1 gets too caught up in this methodological work. Pryce is talking about a deeply expressive art, poetry, but too often these early chapters feel ploddingly methodological. For instance, Pryce asserts that his approach will be to follow a critical correlation method. This method is a revision of Paul Tillich’s correlational approach and therefore has Tillich’s deep apologetic interest lodged within it. But it’s hard for this reviewer to directly see how this method is put in action in the important and beautiful chapters that follow. Along these lines, one wonders how this correlational apologetic approach that has classically been used by American practical theologians to justify more political or liberation oriented bents connects to poetry. This isn’t developed enough. It seems that a more kerygmatic disposition (which, for instance, is so clear in Balthasar) might more easily and profoundly connect the pursuit of practical theology and poetry.

But the author leaves such questions behind to turn to other matters; so, too, will the reviewer. Chapter 2 reflects on poetry itself. Pryce makes a number of large claims about what poetry can do and justifies them well. Even the reader uninterested in poetry will find themselves draw to the medium. As chapter 2 unfolds the writer begins moving toward a more pedagogical discussion, readying the reader for what the next chapters will hold. The second half of the second chapter slides back into methodology, as Pryce describes how poetry connects to practical theology and more importantly how it can be researched. This moves us into chapters 3 through 5.

The practical becomes central in these chapters, in which the reader is invited to join in and listen to the groups that made up Pryce’s research. These chapters are the reporting and reflecting on the empirical work. But they also do much more than serve as wooden recounting. They provide direct and helpful visions of what a reader could do with poetry. The discussion on poetry resisting instrumentality and giving priests new language and dispositions for their practice is worth the price of the book itself. The ramification for this discussion, and how it could be placed within larger conversations about modernity, could birth another project or two. Thinking about poetry as a return to transcendence and mystery is something other thinkers have pondered, and Pryce has provided ways to see how this could be done.

The concluding chapter 6 is rich but truncated. It serves as the interpretation of the research. Helpfully Pryce’s “five reflective stanzas” frame his own learning: 1) poetry as a place of encounter; (2) poetic knowing; (3) poetic seeing; 4) poetic gravity; and (4) poetic challenge: self and other. (see pages 140-147) The short discussions of each of the five provide the reader with much to chew on. This reviewer yearned for each of these stanzas to be its own chapter. Overall this is a good sign in a book. It’s a rare occasion that a reader leaves an academic book wishing the book were longer. When this happens the reviewer should conclude by recommending the book to others. This review will close by doing just that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Root is Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary St. Paul.

Date of Review: 
March 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Pryce is Director of Ministry for Church of England in Birmingham.

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