Sunday, December 14, 2014

Poetry and Metaphor

"A Garden Creche"
- At the Desert Retreat House - 

I'm putting up our Christmas Creche - it's been in our family for many many years now.  As I set out the figures of Mary and Joseph, the babe in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals and angels, I am flooded with rich childhood memories of setting up a creche with my grandmother when I was just a toddler; setting up the creche with my own now-adult children when they were small boys; setting up the creche as carols play in the background and lights twinkle on a the tree while cookies bake in the oven.  For me, the imagery of Christmas has always evoked a sort of magic - it calls out the "better angels" in me.

As I put out the creche this year I realized that I don't ever ask the question about whether or not the events depicted in the Christmas story actually happened. In fact, my guess is that, for the most part, the story of Christmas didn't actually happen as it is told in the Bible. But then again, I don't really want the story of Christmas to be a hard, cold, historical account of some long ago event. If this were true, the story would lose its magic for me, because the Christmas story is a poem and like all poetry it's aim is not to inform me but to inspire me, to lift my mind and warm my heart. 

In his provocatively titled book, Christianity without God, Daniel Maguire offers this very helpful observation:

Both theists and most of today's agitated atheists get a failing grade in literary criticism, the atheists by obsessing over the dogmas and the theists by mistaking metaphors for facts. Both miss the epic poetry that moves throughout the complex biblical literature.

Fervent atheists join the faithful in reducing infinitely varied and image-rich narrative and writings to a literal reading as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teachings like those found in the Exodus story or the Christmas story and downsize them, de-symbolizing them into happenings that could have been caught on film.

I think that people nowadays have a particularly hard time understanding the language of poetry and metaphor. We live in a 24-hour news world of reporting everyday events "as they happen." We live in a sophisticated technological world that focuses on explanation and analysis.  We assume that when we use language, we are describing "reality." Most people today hardly even know what story telling means and yet storytelling is what the Bible is all about. That's why so many people have such a hard time understanding biblical language. 

The people who wrote the various books of the Bible had no intention of providing  accurate historical data or analyzing a real world. The biblical  writers are storytellers and the biblical accounts are stories of faith and wonder, poetry and metaphor that celebrate the great mystery of the world rather than attempting to explain it. 

And so every year at this time we tell a story and recount the tender Christmas poem about a spark of love that was ignited in the darkness of a stone, cold world. It's a story that's told to any people of goodwill - theists or atheists, Christians or Jews, Muslims or Buddhists.

Mary and Joseph are two weary travelers who have been refused hospitality - no room in the Inn, no place to give birth to their expected  baby. And so they must sleep on straw in a darkened cave in which animals huddle to keep safe from the terror of the night. As shepherds watch there flocks on the surrounding hillsides, the world is dreary and foreboding. The night is long. 

And then, in the midst of all the dreary darkness and the chaos of the world, love emerges. A baby is  born and the warm glow of love beams from a manger lighting up the darkened cave, spilling out to wake up sleepy-eyed shepherds in the fields. Hosts of angels dance with the stars and sing a heavenly song of comfort and joy - "Love has come. Love is the victor. Love conquers the night."

Now, that's poetry!

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