“[T]he truth of a poem is actually much deeper than whether or not something really happened. What matters is an undergirding truth that I think is the power of poetry . . .”
Dr. Elizabeth Alexander on “Words That Shimmer” in Krista Tippett’s on Being
Like many I am troubled by the lack of imagination in our encounters with the biblical text. There seems to be a growing obsession with “proving” the words of scripture (as if they were meant to be proven) or to dismiss them all together as fiction (as if dismissing them assists our understanding). Then there is the practice of using scripture as fodder for whatever particular axe one might want to grind.
I’m frustrated with these approaches.
This should not come as a surprise. As the readers of this space know I have embarked once again in reading through the entire biblical text. Each time I do this I am surprised by what I find. Stories, that seemed hidden before, grab my attention. Words and phrases seem to hook me begging for an explanation, some even begging to be removed for they make God seem foreign to the ways other parts of the text speak of God.
So recently the words of poet Dr. Elizabeth Alexander captured my attention. She first responded to Krista Tippett’s statement that there is something “magnetic” about poetry by saying that “[w]e crave truth tellers, we crave real truth.” Because of that craving we seek words that are truth telling, and she believes that poetry provides those words,
So I think that the truth of that poem is not about true things or things that happened, but rather in the question: are we not of interest to each other?
(in response to her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”)
I wonder what would happen if we struggled with the words of scripture in that same way. That we see its truth telling not in history but in the questions that they raise about humanity, the human condition, and God. Understanding inspiration not as a set of historical and or scientific certitudes but as the constant taking in of God’s Spirit helping us ask the questions as we encounter the text. The Spirit lifting up words, phrases, and stories to help illumine the community’s struggle with self, other, and God.
In a world full of easy explanations and a lack of mystery and awe we need the biblical story more than ever. M. Craig Barnes, pastor and theologian tells us that
[o]ur culture has funtioned too long with reasonable explanations and without holy stories or wondrous mythologies
(in The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life, pg 34-35)
So let us not fall into modernity’s obsession with that which can be analyzed, quantified, and “proven.” May we become people of poetry, people who see the truth in the questions, in the stories’ reflection of the human condition, and in the ways that it calls us to the divine life. As we struggle with the text and attempt to let it speak to our lives today may we use our pastoral & theological imaginations, so that the words of scripture come to life and satisfy the hunger of a people who want truth tellers, who need holy stories, who search for the wondrous mystery that is God.