(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Scott Cairns, who taught at Old Dominion University in Virginia before moving to the University of Missouri, is a profoundly Christian poet, but he applies Christianity to a particularly broad range of experience, and his incarnational emphasis sometimes leads him to address physical and sexual subjects that many Christian poets have eschewed. Cairns takes the title of this collection from the Philokalia, a collection of sacred texts ranging from late antiquity to the late medieval period, cherished in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Literally, philokalia as a word in Greek means “love of the beautiful,” although Cairns clearly means to refer to the collection, not merely to the word as such. Cairns is an Eastern Orthodox believer who came to this tradition as an adult, and refractions of the qualities found in the original Philokalia—a stress on devotion, on daily acts of piety, on the religious significance of the natural world, and on religion as an ongoing, dedicated process, not an isolated gesture of zeal—are to be found throughout Cairns’s collection.

Philokalia is composed of a selection from each of Cairns’s poetry books of the 1980’s and 1990’sThe Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Figures for the Ghost (1994), and Recovered Body (1998)—followed by a generous selection of then uncollected poems, including Cairns’s important “Adventures in New Testament Greek” series. The title poem of Cairns’s first volume, “The Theology of Doubt” accepts moments of unbelief as the price for equally spontaneous moments of belief. “The Theology of Delight,” similarly, celebrates a random joy in the world through which divine luminosity can manifest itself. “Approaching Judea” is a whimsical poem featuring a pilgrim who comes to the Holy Land in pursuit of the unlikely quarry of moose, but which carries with it deeper meanings about the nature of the spiritual search.

The Translation of Babel was Cairns’s breakthrough book, and, as the title indicates, aspires to find a poetic language that...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cairns, Scott. Compass of Affection. Orleans, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2006. Philokalia, an omnibus collection of new and selected poems, was published in 2002 by the Nebraska-based Zoo Press. Zoo Press experienced financial difficulties shortly thereafter, and many of its books, including Philokalia, were pulled from publication and, as of 2006, were are not available for purchase in bookstores. This volume is substantially similar, though not identical, to Philokalia in content; it includes a number of new poems Cairns wrote after 2002. It is likelier to be available through bookstores and libraries.

Cantwell, Kevin. Review of Philokalia. Prairie Schooner 77, no. 4 (Winter, 2003): 192-196. A positive review that stresses the ambition and reach of Cairns’s religious vision.

Holden, Jonathan. “’Both Good and Beautiful’: A Review of Poetry by Scott Cairns.” New Letters 70, no. 2 (Spring, 2004): 207-209. One of Cairns’s influences and the subject of the dedication of his poem “Salvation” gives a sophisticated account of Cairns’s poems as unconventional religious verse that can appeal to both the believing and nonbelieving reader.

Wolfe, Gregory. Review of Philokalia. Image 42 (January, 2004): 3-4. Even though Cairns’s liberal politics and convictions are very different from Wolfe’s conservative views, the editor of Image takes a very positive stance toward Cairns’s work, appreciating his nimble shifts in emphasis and perspective and the generous sense of the celebratory possibilities of Christian verse that his poetry offers.

Wright, David. “Poetry, Prayer, and Parable: The Playful Provocations of Scott Cairns.” Christianity Today 47, no. 10 (October, 2003): 17-19. Traces the development of Cairns’s career and gives particular attention to biblical themes in the volume.