Saturday, September 28, 2013
"In the beginning was the Word…" (John 1:1). That biblical revelation has relevance for any engagement with human language, but it is especially meaningful in relation to beautiful words that shed light on the human condition and God's response to it.
Christians believe that God created the universe through the Word. That same Word created us in God's image and likeness. Damaged and distorted through sin, that divinely-Worded image has been restored through the express image of God's very Being, "the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). We speak our faith and praise back to God because God created us to speak back to our divine Author.
God sent forth the Word. That Word addresses us, redeems us, and summons us to faith, hope, and love. God the Creator, in whose image we are created and recreated, calls us to be creative. That, too, is a consequence of the divine Author's creative Word.
Over the centuries there have been some truly great artistic creations that depict the Christian understanding of human beings and the salvation accomplished for them in and through the creative Christ. Think of the vision that one receives by reading Dante's Divine Comedy or Milton's Paradise Lost or the great novels of the Russian writer Dostoevsky.
A couple of years ago I read that the British atheist, A. N. Wilson, had now become a believer again. It appears that he returned to the Christian faith of his youth, in part because of a careful study of Dante's masterpiece. The road that Dante trod in that trilogy helped to lead Wilson back to God. Great literature--and even not so great--can be used by God for such a purpose. That was true in the case of Francis Collins, the current head of the National Institutes for Health in Washington. He recounts in his book, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), how the writings of C. S. Lewis contributed to his religious conversion. Someone I know from seminary days once told me that he had remained a Christian partly because of the depictions of human depravity in the novels of John Updike and of how those narratives often point toward the need for a transcendent source of human salvation. Only the mercy of God and the promise of divine grace and redemption can fully address these deep issues of human sin, failure, and death.
What understandings of God and humanity emerge from readings of poetry by Donne, Herbert, Hopkins and other great artists? Or the central plays of Shakespeare? I worry that young people today and many older people no longer read poetry or "the hard" classics of world literature. Such a lack of attention diminishes our vision and frankly impoverishes our faith.
George Steiner has written that the great "classics" in literature, music, and in the arts "read us" more than we read (listen to, perceive) them. "Each time we engage with it, the classic will question us." I suppose that's what makes a classic "a classic." Great works of art will "read" us better than we can read ourselves on our own. That is certainly true of the myths, stories, visions, poems, and parables in Holy Scripture. These diagnose our deepest problems and set forth God's historic solution to them.
But Steiner's comment about the "classics" also holds true for two recent books I'd like to recommend. A person is not the same as he was before he read a collection of essays like those in Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Or the poems in Wiman's earlier book, Every Riven Thing (2011), also by the same publisher. The reader "gets read" here, too, as he or she is imaginatively brought into the poet's struggles with doubt and his Christian faith, with illness and joy, love and fear, sorrow and hope. He often resorts to paradox to sort out his experiences and to convey an understanding of them that ordinary words can't quite capture. "I say God and mean more/ than the bright abyss that opens in that word." Such a line fits with Martin's Luther's reflections on "the presence of God" in God's "absence," and on how God can surprise us with the light of his graceful presence.
Wiman had been raised a Baptist, then lost his faith as a teenager, but was restored to faith when he met a Christian woman and came to love her deeply--in the same year that he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Only the Christian faith, he came to believe, could give him the framework for dealing with those opposing experiences of love and serious illness (and looming death).
Those of you who struggle with pain and suffering, or who know someone who does, may find Wiman's poetry and essays illuminating. (For the past decade he has been the editor of Poetry magazine.) His creative use of language may give you words and phrases that help to reveal the presence of "the Word-made-flesh" in your own life.