Tag Archive: prose

…continuing with an extract from the ‘Why I am Mystical/Poetic’ from Brian Mclaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’

‘This mystical/poetic approach takes special pains to remember that the Bible itself contains precious little expository prose. Rather it is story laced with parable, poem, interwoven with vision, dream and opera (isn’t this the best contemporary genre to compare to the book of Job?), personal letter and public song, all thrown together with an undomesticated and unedited artistic passion. Even Paul, who, at the hands of lawyers like Luther and Calvin comes out looking (we shouldn’t be surprised) like a lawyer – and who at the hands of prose scholars comes out sounding like a prose scholar – needs to be reappraised in this regard. Have you noticed how he resorts to poetry in Romans 11, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1?

Yes, this element can be pushed too far, straining both generosity (by asking us to condone every vision or dream proclaimed by an array of kooks, nuts, charlatans) and orthodoxy (by asking us to ignore doctrinal nonsense promoted in the name of mystical experience). Kyriacos Markides describes the needed balance well:

Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is Western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other Eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly. Both, he claimed, are needed for proper breathing… Both the mystical and the rational approaches to God were part of the early church. They were only set asunder by subsequent historical developments.

Perhaps this balanced approach means that serious theologians in the years ahead will more often, along with their scholarly work, write poetry, or make films, or compose music, or write plays and novels – not as their avocation, but right along with their primary theological vocation. Can we celebrate this kind of artistic play as the serious work of generously orthodox Christians?

I used to be embarrassed that I work as a pastor and write books on theological topics, yet have no formal training in theology, having snuck into ministry through the back door of the English department. Even though I’ve been on a seminary’s board of directors, even though I am adjunct faculty at several seminaries, and even though I have spoken to many seminary presidents and faculty and I have deep respect for the work of seminaries – and, in fact, have received an honorary doctorate from a respected seminary – I myself have never taken a single for-credit seminary class.

Even though I am unapologetically pro-education, believing that our need is not for less education for Christian leaders, but rather for better, deeper, broader education, I’m not so embarrassed by my lack of “proper credentials” anymore. In fact, I can see God’s guidance in it. My graduate training was in literature and language, which sensitized me to drama and conflict, to syntax and semantics and semiotics, to text and context, to prose and poetry. It gave me a taste, a sense, a feel for the game and science and art and romance of language. It helped me to see how carefully chosen and clear, daring words can point to mysteries and wonders beyond words. It prepared me to see how a generous orthodoxy must be mystical and poetic.

There’s mystery and poetry in everything, really, if we have eyes to see, ears to hear: in botany, in biology, in history, in architecture, in medicine, in mathematics, even in astronomy – as Carl Sagan’s movie Contact made so clear. In fact, as we learn a generous orthodoxy, we become more and more prepared to see the mystery and poetry everywhere, to hear it, to feel it, and to sing.’

i have been busy reading brian mclaren’s ‘Generous Orthodoxy’ and as a previous not-a-big-fan-of-brian-mclaren am absolutely loving it and highly recommend it – breaks open a lot of different boxes and helps clarify a bunch of christian labels in a very helpful way…

here is an extract from the latest chapter which i really enjoyed titled, “Why I am Mystical/Poetic.” and the context is using metaphors to understand God:

‘So we reach for another metaphor to correct the first, and we say that God is also a father, or a friend, or a shepherd, or a vinedresser, or wind, or storm, or fire, or water, or a rock. Each metaphor enlightens, but if taken too far, or taken in the wrong way, it can mislead. (Is God cold and uncaring like a rock? Shapeless and conforming like water?) We must, therefore never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God – whether in prose or in poetry. Romano Guardini, chaplain to Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council era, captured the challenge of trying to speak of God and divine truth:

“[When one] attempts to convey something of God’s holy otherness he tries one earthly simile after another. In the end he discards them all as inadequate and says apparently wild and senseless things meant to startle the heart into feeling what lies beyond the reaches of the brain. Something of the kind takes place here: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2.9). [These realities beyond understanding] can be brought closer only by the overthrow of everything naturally comprehensible. Flung into a world of new logic, we are forced to make a genuine effort to understand.”

Now there is no need to swing to an opposite extreme, to say that since even metaphors can mislead, we might as well give up on language altogether. C.S. Lewis caught the needed balance – that language can be a window through which one glimpses God, but never a box in which God can be contained – in a dense but brilliant poem called “A Footnote to All Prayers.” The poem begins:

The one whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow.
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring

Then he compares himself to Phaedius, a classical Greek sculptor famous for his majestic sculptures of the gods:

And dream of Phaedian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images of folk-lore dream…

Lewis goes on to say that people deceive themselves in prayer, thinking that their images or thoughts of God are actually God, and comparesall our prayers to arrows aimed wide of their target (but that God mercifully hears despite their bad aim). All who pray, he realises, are idolators “crying unheard/To a deaf idol” if God takes the words of their prayers absolutely literally. He concludes by begging God to “take not… our literal sense” but rather to translate our limping metaphors into God’s “great/unbroken speech.”

A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is humble; it doesn’t claim too much; it admits it walks with a limp. It doesn’t consider orthodoxy the exclusive domain of prose scholars (theologians) alone but, like Chesterton, welcomes the poets, the mystics, and even those who choose to say very little or to remain silent, including the disillusioned and the doubters. Their silence speaks eloquently of the majesty of God that goes beyond all human articulation. And it welcomes the activists, the humanitarians, the brave and courageous and compassionate, because their actions speak volumes about God tha could never be captured in a text, a sermon, an outline, or even a poem.”

[a Generous Orthodoxy, brian mclaren, pg 170-172]

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