Poetry and Myth
Christianity and Poetry
The Incarnation requires an ode, not an email.
Poet Dana Gioia, Christianity and Poetry commenting on the poetry of the Magnificat.
- For most believers, the truths of their faith have become platitudes taught in catechism or Sunday school. The mysteries of faith—those strange events such as the Incarnation, Transfiguration, and Resurrection—have lost their awe and wonder and become replaced by sensible morality and proper reverence. There is nothing wrong with morality or reverence, but pious propriety is a starvation diet for the soul. Modern versions of the Bible, which translate verse passages into prosaic language for the supposed sake of clarity, are mistranslations, since they change the effect of the text.
- When Jesus preached, he told stories, spoke poems, and offered proverbs. The Beatitudes are a poem about the merciful Kingdom of God in contrast to the selfish world of mankind. Jesus was not much concerned with theology. He left that to posterity. He did not ask his listeners to think their way to salvation; he wanted them to taste and see the goodness of God. He told them stories in which they could see themselves. He spoke to people as creatures with both a body and soul. He addressed them in the fullness of their fallen humanity, driven by contradictory appetites, emotions, and imagination.
- When the Second Vatican Council dropped these sequences from the Catholic missal, it demonstrated how remote the Church had become from its own traditions. The new Church wanted to reengage the broader world and get rid of the musty traditions of the past. Vatican II wanted to be practical, positive, and modern; its motto was aggiornamento, Italian for “bringing things up to date.” The poetic sequences, which had seemed so splendid to the old Church—rapturous artistic vehicles for the contemplation of divine mysteries—felt too pious, formal, and elaborate for modern worship.
- William Wordsworth was a religious man who saw the poet’s role as prophetic, but his Christianity expressed itself most eloquently in pantheistic Deism. He grew more devout and conventional in middle age, to the detriment of his verse. His pious Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) marked the lowest point of his career. Read any page of it outdoors—the stupefied bees will stop buzzing and the birds fall senseless from the trees.
- Minor poets with major minds, Chesterton and Belloc were smart, brash, and wickedly funny. Unintimidated by their intellectual foes, they swaggered when others would have taken cover. For the first time since the Elizabethan Age, there was an outspoken Catholic presence in English verse.
And then, in conclusion:
Christianity has survived into the twenty-first century, but it has not come through unscathed. It has kept its head and its heart—the clarity of its beliefs and its compassionate mission. The problem is that it has lost its senses, all five of them. Great is the harvest, and greater still the hunger it must feed, but its call into the world has become faint and abstract. Contemporary Christianity speaks mostly in ideas. Potent ideas, to be sure, but colorless and hackneyed in their expression …
A major challenge of Christianity today is to recover the language of the senses and to recapture faith’s natural relationship with beauty. There is much conversation nowadays about beauty among theologians and clergy. They seem to consider it a philosophical problem to be solved by analysis and apologetics. Those are the tools they have. Their relation to beauty is passive rather than creative. Even the clearest thinking can’t close the gap between how people experience their existence—a holistic mix of sensory data, emotions, memories, ideas, and imagination—and how the Church explains it—moral and spiritual concepts organized in a rational system. The theology isn’t wrong; it’s just not right for most occasions. It offers a laser when a lamp is what’s needed.
These things matter because we are incarnate beings. We see the shape and feel the texture of things. We instinctively know that the form of a thing is part of its meaning. We are drawn to beauty, not logic. Our experience of the divine is not primarily intellectual. We feel it with our bodies. We picture it in our imaginations. We hear it as a voice inside us. We are grateful for an explanation, but we crave inspiration, communion, rapture, epiphany.
It probably will come as no surprise to you that I do not think that Orthodoxy has "lost its senses."
But I am one man, formed in the West, which has lost its senses, so I face extra hurdles acquiring the mind of the Church.
(A "brilliant and substantive new essay" like this pops up just often enough that I still subscribe to First Things.)
I read more on Saturday of his first book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree, and it was so overwhelming that despite having had two giant cups of coffee, I had to come back to the room to sleep. There is deep magic in his words. I see now why Guite, an Anglican priest, told me that only Orthodox Christianity will be able to contain the immensity that is Martin Shaw’s imagination and sensibility.
I’m experiencing Martin Shaw that way, too, though I’ve only caught snippets and haven’t yet read the book I bought.
C.S. Lewis, reacting to the claim that society was returning to paganism, said something to the effect of "Would that it were so! The pagan is an eminently convertible man." Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw may be the first fruits that add "prophet" to Lewis’ encomiums.
What Athos has on offer
Why have western scholars virtually ignored this experiential form of mystical Christianity at a time when numerous Westerners have turned their gaze toward Hinduism and Buddhism? What does Mount Athos have to offer to the Western world today that is not available within the mainstream churches?
Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence
What myths mean
However nonrational myths were, they betrayed man’s urge to explain what he found in himself and in the world, as well as his belief that explanation was somehow possible.
David V. Hicks, Norms and Nobility
Hypocrisy or Mimesis?
Remember that old saw "hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue"?
Gilbert Meilander, with help from C.S. Lewis throughout, reminds me that a charge of "hypocrisy" ought to be used very sparingly. Excerpt from the introduction:
Discussing his experience as a soldier in the Great War, he writes of a fellow soldier who was not only (like Lewis) a scholar from Oxford, but also—alarmingly to Lewis—“a man of conscience,” committed to adhering to taken-for-granted moral principles.
Embarrassed by the contrast with his own life, Lewis did his best to conceal the fact that he himself had not taken moral obligations so seriously. “If this is hypocrisy,” Lewis writes:
then I must conclude that hypocrisy can do a man good. To be ashamed of what you were about to say, to pretend that something which you had meant seriously was only a joke—this is an ignoble part. But it is better than not to be ashamed at all. And the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive. . . . When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?
For human beings, the ability to belong is more [evolutionarily] adaptive than the ability to see what’s true.
Alan Jacobs citing Jonathan Haidt.
I’m thinking of an American-made religion with (1) what strikes me as an unusually implausible founding story, but (2) a very strong sense of community. That religion was still growing rapidly last time I looked at the stats (though that has been a while). Score one datapoint for Haidt and Jacobs.
You’re churches, for God’s sake. Quit fighting for social justice. Quit saving the bloody planet. Attend to some souls. That’s what you are supposed to do. That’s your holy duty. Do it. Now. Before it’s too late. And the hour is nigh.
Well, that’s bracing — unless your church was already doing that.
If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.
Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes
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