The Walking Dead Poets’ Society

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order (Titus 1:5)

The movie, Dead Poets’ Society (DPS), came at a time in my life when I was just finished an Arts degree and was dealing with my parents’ divorce.  Coming as I was from a background of fundagelicalism, DPS tapped into many of my angsts, not least those of conformity and an estranged father figure.

I loved that movie. Then. But I don’t love it any longer. Okay, I still love the surface concept, but as Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out elsewhere, he considers it one of the most destructive movies ever produced.


And now I can see why.  And it all starts with that scene in which new funky teacher Mr Keating, with even funkier ideas (played rather mawkishly by Robin Williams), instructs his soon-to-be-lawyers-and-doctors students to rip out the pages of their poetry manual; you know, the manual that begins by telling them how to measure the greatness of a poem in an extremely stylised manner.

“Rip it out!” he bellows, “Rip it out!…keep ripping gentlemen!  This is a battle.  A war.  And the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”

It’s Woodstock for nerds, that’s what it is.  It’s a middle finger to order, conformity and structure.  And it all works out magnificently.

Which of course it doesn’t.  It ends with the tragic death of the hero, and if you take any noble comfort from that then you have simply drunk the neo-Romantic Kool-Aid that Mr Keating secreted away in his study’s teapot. The battle was indeed for the hearts and souls, and to put it mildly, the hearts and souls lost.

There’s a saying that that those who can, do, while those who can’t, teach.  Let’s compare Mr Keating then, the teacher, to a real poet, a doer,, none other than Philip Larkin, one of England’s finest 20th century poets.


Here’s the rub.  Larkin’s published output was small, surprisingly so for one so gifted. Why?  Because he was too busy drinking and carousing and being a neo-Romantic?  Because he was too stoned or too drunk?  No! Because he was too concerned that he would offer up to for public review a poem that was not perfect enough.

Larkin polished and re-polished and re-set the diamonds of his poems to symmetrical exaction.  So much so that there was more unpublished material at the time of his death than published.  This has been rectified in the past 12 months with the publication of much of that previously unpublished material, an act that is probably leaving his precise remains spinning in his grave.

And what do we find when we read those re-worked and over-analysed, just-so pieces of craft? Do we find dry, joyless, lifeless sentences?  Do we discover that Larkin has sucked the life out of a good idea by over-playing it?  We do not.  We find the most joyous, liberated, astonishingly creative and imaginary poems possible.  We find beauty and truth and eternity.  In short, we find all of the fruits of Order!

The idea that order is the enemy of the organic, that frameworks are unfriendly to freedom, that control is the counterpoint to creativity is a lie. It is a beguiling lie, built upon a Baby Boomer led recovery of Romanticism that infects just about every coming of age movie, every second novel, and every TV ad for soft drink, tacos, cars, tampons, you name it.

But order is not the enemy or organic.  Chaos is.  When Paul calls on Titus “to put what remained into order” among the nascent Crete churches, he was not clamping down on creativity.  He is not, as many claim of Paul, asserting his killjoy authority by crushing creativity.

Paul knew his biblical framework.  He knew that God was a God who called order of out chaos and that sin threatened to reduce everything to disorder.  Order is, in fact, the only grounds for organic flourishing in the biblical story.

Hence Paul’s command to Titus to put the baby churches on Crete in order was not risking love.  It was not shackling spontaneity.  Rather, it was creating the framework in which the rich, beautiful, joyous orderly life that the Creator had intended for the creation, could come to fruition.

Hence he speaks of the ordered life of the church elders, in contrast to the deceiving, evil, lazy lives of many of the Cretans.  (1:12).  He shows how the ordered family life leads to human flourishing among God’s people.  And he shows how ordered goodness and kindness are in contrast to the chaos of being “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures”, in which people lived out lives of envy and hatred.

In short, just like Larkin’s poetry, a well ordered godly life would be an adornment (2:10) to a fulfilled gospel life, not a ugly restriction to it.

I say this in light of the trend over the past decades that suggests if we just leave order out of the nascent church planting movement, that things will take care of themselves.  Yet the results are in.  Left to take care of themselves, many such plants have not in fact taken care of themselves, and have not done so in the manner of an elderly dementia patient. Time has proven that without order too many church plants end up collapsing in on themselves, crushing the planter and the people alike.

Organic needs order to flourish, grow and reach fruitful potential in the same way that vines need trellises to flourish, grow and reach full potential.  To say that order is the enemy of the organic is to sound the death knell of a church, or its stuntedness at the very least.

So next time you are tempted to think that you should be like Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society and “rip it up”, dismiss such foolish notions and go and have a read of one of Larkins’ poems. Go see the organic beauty that true order facilitates.

But if it’s a lack of order you want, then you’re probably in line for The Walking Dead rather than Dead Poets’ Society.

Oh, and have a read of Larkin before you go:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief. Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

1 Comment

  1. my first thought upon reading this … the contrast between those who dwell on and draft their public prayers in church versus those who just pray freestyle with all the attendant randomness and chaos.
    the best freestyle prayers I’ve heard were those who spent years writing drafts before attaining the point whereby they could actually pray orderly in freestyle.

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