Monday, August 14, 2017

The Making of Poems and Parables

The Poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) concludes his comments on analogy in poetry with this statement: "Thus poetry becomes and is a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet's sense of the world, that is to say his attitude, as he intervenes and interposes the appearances of that sense."1 Thus poetic truth (which the poem is) as seen by the poet is an agreement with a particular aspect of reality viewed through the poet's imagination.2 In short the poem is a description of some aspect of reality as the poet himself/herself imagines it.
 
            Stevens draws on (but misquotes) an example from the Gospel of Matthew describing Matthew's imagination at work.3 Jesus went about cities and villages teaching and preaching, and "when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they…were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34; and compare Matt 26:31 and Mark 14:26; Zech 13:7). Here is how Stevens describes Matthew's imagination working on particular aspects of reality:
 
There came into Matthew's mind in respect to Jesus going about, teaching and preaching, the thought that Jesus was a shepherd and immediately the multitudes scattered abroad and sheep having that particular in common became interchangeable. The image is an elaboration of the particular of the shepherd.4
 
Actually, in this case Matthew took the image from Mark 6:34 and Zech 13:7 (compare Matt 26:31) and applied it to Jesus. Still Stevens' description of the way image making is done is accurate, as his other examples in the chapter show.
 
            Jesus made his parables in much the same way as Stevens describes a poet making poems. The parables in the gospels, if they originated with Jesus, "are the creative inventions of the mind of Jesus…" and fragments of his fictional view of reality.5 His reality was first-century life in Judean villages, and he invented the plots for these brief narratives by applying his imagination to particular aspects of that reality.
 
As a whole, the stories suggest that Jesus was a shrewd observer of life about him, but the information for inventing realistic characters in his stories would not have come only from his imagination. His stories arose from a blending of creative imagination with shrewd observation of everyday [village] life in Roman Palestine.6
 
His stories are notable for their secularity and realism. In short Jesus saw and described things as they are. Few of the stories have what may be described as religious motifs,7 and they also sport a goodly number of flawed characters. Nevertheless, the narrative voice of the stories neither commends nor condemns the actions of Jesus' invented characters. The stories conclude but the complications that are raised for readers are not resolved, and that feature appears to be deliberately designed into Jesus' narratives.
 
            The stories reflect a kind of moral ambiguity. When read closely as creative fictions against their background in Palestinian village life, they raise perplexing moral/ethical questions but offer no solutions. They do not even hint at a preferred solution, but interpreters, beginning with the gospel writers themselves, have regularly turned them "into stories about Christian theology, social justice, religious morals, and metaphors for the reign of God."8
 
            One can never be certain about such things, but judging from the nature of his oral compositions, as they have come down to us, it appears that Jesus did not turn to God to inspire his imagination, but rather he turned to the reality of the Palestinian world.
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1"The Effects of Analogy" in The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, 1951), 130.
2Necessary Angel, 54.
3Necessary Angel, 113
4Necessary Angel, 128-29.
5Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions, xv.
6Hedrick, "Survivors of the Crucifixion" in Zimmermann, Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu, 176.
7Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 128-29.
8"Survivors of the Crucifixion," 172-73.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

On Giving up Traditional Religious Faith

Suppose you have given up traditional faith in God and have come to the conclusion that the Judean man Jesus was only a man, about whom little historical information is known for certain. You no longer believe in life after death, but think that everything ends in the grave, and the church is simply a social organization, rather than a spiritual organism. Would such a change in perspective really matter?
 
            The Bible has very little to say positively regarding such a turn of affairs. It does make a serious threat, however: If Christians commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to faith (Heb 6:1-8), or so the author of Hebrews thought. Later church leaders had different views on that issue, however.
 
            The closest thing to a "positive" word for someone who has given up traditional faith is likely found in Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes (calling himself, "Koheleth"; perhaps, the "Gatherer") gathered his own random reflections on the utter weariness of life, which he found as bitterly disappointing at best, into the book Ecclesiastes (from its Greek title ekklesiastes, "one who calls an assembly"). "Everything," Koheleth declared at the beginning of his collection, "is an ephemeral vapor" (1:2).
 
            The central theme of the sage's reflections is that life is transitory—like a momentary breath (1:2-11). He finds that there is a weary sameness to life (3:15); it passes like a shadow (6:12). Being governed by chance, as it is (9:11-12), life is unfair: the righteous perish early and the wicked live out long lives (7:15).
 
            The author does believe in God (5:18; 3:13; 8:15), but thinks that the life the Creator has bestowed on his creatures is an "unhappy business" (1:13). Human beings are like the beasts of the field; both return to dust (3:18-20; see also 9:10), and there is no certainty about the fate of the human spirit (3:21-22). The writer is candid; his views reflect the honest ponderings of a man who sees life from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggles with the question: what is the point of life—and finds no satisfactory answer. His quest for answers brings him to the edge of despair, and his solution was to take pleasure in the simple things of life, like eating, drinking, and work (2:24; see also similar statements at 2:10; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7, 9; 10:19).
 
            The precept of traditional religion with which the text ends (12:13-14) surely does not reflect Koheleth's views as such a sentiment violates the norm of the work as a whole. Koheleth ponders the dichotomy between the inequities of life, and the failure of traditional religion to cope successfully with that reality. In the final analysis, however, he gives up neither on God nor life, and continues pondering the human situation.1
 
            Could you learn to live without God and the comforts of traditional religion, as Koheleth has apparently managed to do? He found that honest transparency as an observer of life was preferred to embracing the answers of an inadequate traditional religion—even though by so doing he marginalized himself from the "righteous" (5:1-2; 9:1-6).
 
            If your fateful change of mind happened in one moment of time, the day following would nevertheless find the sun shining just as bright, birdsong just as sweet, and the world still filled with all the vibrant wonders of life. At least that was the experience of the poet Wallace Stevens. He began in Pennsylvania apparently as a traditional Lutheran2 but ended life as a poet who thought poetry, "an exceeding music" that "must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns."3 He was regarded as a "poet of reality," who through imagination peered into the figurations of what seemed to be, in order to see "things as they are." Here is a quote from one of his poems4 seemingly reflecting a positive response to a profound shift in thought:
 
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You…You said
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree at night began to change
*****
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
 
In Stevens' case giving up traditional faith brought a renewed sense of the wonder of the universe. A literary critic once wrote of Stevens: In the end Stevens' subject was "living without God and finding it good."5

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
1In this description I have freely "borrowed" from my own description of Ecclesiastes found in The Wisdom of Jesus, 69-72.
 
2In 1953 he described himself as a "dried up Presbyterian," who was not an atheist, but he certainly no longer believed in the same God in whom he had believed as a boy: Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), letter 808 and 875.
 
3From "The Man with the Blue Guitar," Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1961), 167.
 
4Stevens, "On the Road Home," Collected Poems, 203-204.
 
5Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (1960), 127.