Sunday, April 8, 2018

Downsizing the Language of Poetry

"Olive Branches Greet the Morning Sun"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

During this “Easter” season, Christians who attend church will likely hear one of the many biblical accounts of times when the disciples encountered the living “Christ” after his resurrection. Most of these stories depict a scene in which disciples are sharing a meal together and as they do so, the once-dead and now living “Christ” appears to them. He walks through locked doors, has conversations, sometimes shares a meal and then just as quickly he vanishes.

I was once confronted by someone after a church service during which one of these Easter stories was read. A young man literally shook his finger at me and said: “You seem like an intelligent guy, do you really believe that story you just read about a recently-dead Jesus who walked through a door, talked with his disciples and then mysteriously vanished?” The young man went on to declare that, as he saw it, a “magical” story like this was basically a ludicrous fantasy.  I told him that he probably needed to understand the role of metaphor and poetry in biblical stories - not only in the Christian Bible, but in all the various scriptures of all the world religious traditions.

As I see it, language about “God”, faith, belief, religion and spirituality always involves some use of metaphor and poetry. Whenever we talk about any experiences of transcendence we will inevitably turn to poetic and metaphorical language to help us “get at” an experience that can’t be logically described.  But poetic language is a different kind of language than most people employ nowadays in ordinary everyday life. In fact, lots of people today hardly even know what a metaphor is and are unable to recognize metaphor when they see it, thinking instead only in a language of fact and description.  

From my point of view, it is virtually impossible to understand the scriptures of almost any faith tradition without realizing that “stories” written thousands of years ago are always rich in metaphor and more prone to poetry than to history. If you don’t understand poetic language then, of course, narratives like the “Easter stories” in the gospels may indeed be seen as magical fantasy, with little or no relevance to the ordinary living of everyday life.

In the Buddhist scriptures, angels sing in the heavens at the birth of the Buddha (a similar story is told in the gospels about the birth of Jesus). The Hebrew Bible is replete with wonderful stories about about dried bones coming back to life, chariots of fire flying through the skies and food miraculously appearing in the wilderness as the Hebrew people travel to the Promised Land.  In the Christian tradition, there are a number of Easter stories about the risen Christ appearing to his gathered disciples, telling them that he continues to “live.” All these stories are “rich” in metaphor, they are told to inspire and strengthen faith, to give hope and provide guidance for the living of everyday life in our own time and place. If you take this language too literally, you will inevitably miss its richer meaning.

I am reminded of something scripture scholar and theologian, Dominic Crossan, once said about the kind of language ancient peoples used in composing the various stories of faith in the scriptures:

My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories
and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically,
but that they told stories symbolically
and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

I am reminded of something the theologian, Dan Maguire, also wrote in his provocative book, Christianity without God. He makes an interesting observation about how fundamentalist believers as well as well as hard-core atheists often fall into the same camp in their inability to recognize and appreciate the metaphor and poetry found in the scriptures.

Fervent atheists often join faithful believers in reducing
the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading
as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teachings like ‘exodus,’ ‘incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’
and downsize them as if they could have been caught on film
and featured in a documentary.

In this Easter season, when I hear stories about how the ancient disciples encountered the “Living Christ” as they gathered together and shared a meal, I want to take special care that I don’t “downsize” the poetry of these wonderful narratives so that I don’t miss their deeper meaning or fail to see their relevance to my own every life.

In my life, there have been many times when I sat down to share a meal with others, sometimes communion at church, sometimes sharing a meal in my home around our dinner table and during the meal I experienced a deep sense of relationship with those who were gathered together, sometimes I experienced a sense of profound Love. My guess is that I encountered the living Christ as we broke bread together, just like those disciples long ago.

1 comment:

  1. It can't be overemphasized that in understanding religious beliefs one has to first recognize the difference between fact and truth. As Maya Angelou wrote, " There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth."