Monday, September 19, 2016

Of Journeys and Far-Away Places

A motif frequently appearing in literature is "journey to a distant land." The content of the destination changes with the ideas of each writer, but the motif is always expressed in terms of a journey to some distant location expressed as a far away land, a distant city, or far country—but always somewhere away-from-here.
            The son of an indulgent father received what likely amounted to half the father's personal worth.  The son journeyed to a far country (Luke 15:13), a location that likely represented to the lad freedom from parental influence, which translates into fun and good times—since he squandered everything in "loose living." When Abram lived in Haran, he was directed by God "go to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1), where, he was promised, his progeny would become numerous and he would be a blessing to "all the families of earth." In this case the then unknown distant land (Canaan) held the promise of material prosperity and universal influence.  The author of Hebrews took the image of the distant land and conceived it as a celestial city, "whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8-12). The imagined destination was a spiritual ideal, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24), representing to this author a place of heavenly rest (Hebrews 4:1-13), and the journey led ultimately to the afterlife.
            In John Bunyan's thinly disguised allegory of the Christian experience, the protagonist (Christian) journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is imagined as a 17th century vision of Heaven.  The journey to that ideal place is cast as a pilgrimage, which is fraught along the way with temptations and threats to Christian's progress in faith.
            After the ten year long Trojan War, Odysseus, King of Ithaca returns to his native land.  In terms of physical distance Ithaca is not far, but in terms of time, it still takes him ten years to reach home, beloved Ithaca and wife Penelope. His journey home is an epic tale filled with numerous dangers, and "home" is everything positive that the word evokes.
            Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (1851) describes the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, a whaling ship commissioned ostensibly as a profit venture.  Her captain (Ahab), however, had another goal, and turns their journey into a quest to kill the white whale, Moby Dick, that earlier had destroyed another vessel and maimed Ahab in body, mind, and soul. The ultimate destination is thereby changed from a successful and profitable return to home port, to Ahab's revenge on the whale. The poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1892) poetically imagines a getaway house in the wood amidst natural surroundings, but thematically the poet is yearning for what can only be found away-from-here: "an ideal place where he will find perfect peace and happiness."
            In the modern world we conceive journeys and destinations in linear terms: a beginning that leads forward to some destination—somewhere in a different location. The ancients, on the other hand, thought in cyclical terms, perhaps because their lives were more obviously dependent on the cycles of nature: the earth dies in the winter but renews itself every year in the spring—a perennial cycle of life. Neither one's personal history nor history as human experience was conceived by the ancients as linear progress toward some ultimate goal.
            For example, Empedocles (5th century BC) introduced the idea of repeated world cycles: because periods of "Love and Strife" alternated, the history of the cosmos was viewed as a series of cyclical periods (Nahm, Greek Philosophy; fragment 66, 110). Hesiod (around 700 BC) saw reality as an alternating series of five world ages (Works and Days, 106-201). Marcus Aurelius said "…the universe is governed according to finite periods (of coming to be and passing away)" (Meditations 5.13)—each period began and another cycle ended at the same point.
            Might the ancients have been correct after all? Our tiny blue and white planet, for example, is on an infinite journey of repeated twenty-four hour cycles around its sun.  Hence one's personal physical age should not be thought of as linear sequence, but rather should be calculated in terms of a succession of repeated cycles around the sun. We don't really go anywhere in life; we just repeat the cycle every twenty-four hours.
            That is not true of the universe, however, which is expanding outward all around (if it is circular) at a rapid rate of speed on a wild ride toward some unknown destination; hence the universe clearly appears to be moving "somewhere" in linear fashion.
            Whether we conceive our journey as being locked into repeated centripetal cycles or caught up in a linear centrifugal force, which concept adds more significance to life, the journey or the destination?
The Greek poet C. P. Cavafy in a short poem about Odysseus's journey home (Ἰθάκη, Ithaka), claimed that journeys were more significant. What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Obsolescence of Poetry in Early Christian Writings

By poetry I mean, in part, an elevated language arranged in verse having a measured rhythm.  Obsolescence in this case means that poetic language is not generally used by writers of early Christian texts. This circumstance is not unusual. Everything, including writing styles, naturally falls into disuse. For example, Plutarch (1st/2nd century), a priest of Apollo at Delphi, one of the most famous religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world, complained in his day that oracles (statements of the gods uttered by inspired prophets and prophetesses) were no longer being given in verse, and he noted further that even the numbers of prophets and prophetesses were declining.1
            It is well known that poetic form is extensively used in Hebrew Bible, and employed in a variety of ways.2 By using a modern translation, such as the New Revised Standard Version, it is easy to confirm the use of poetic language, since poetic form is generally arranged in verse in the translation.  For example, compare Isaiah 38:9-20.
            In New Testament texts, however, there is a virtual eclipse of poetic form.  Here is how Amos Wilder, a New Testament scholar who made the study of New Testament language a special interest, described the situation:
The poetic forms of the Old Testament which reappear in the New are also often distinguished under three heads according to the traditions out of which they come: (1) the 'gnome': the aphorism of the wisdom tradition of Israel, often found in highly patterned and pungent form; (2) the 'oracle': inspired rhythmic warning, promise, vision, curse, in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy; (3) the 'psalm': liturgical prayer-poems in the tradition of the Psalter. We find the best examples of the gnome and the oracle [in the New Testament] in the sayings of Jesus. Examples of the Christian use of the psalm, of course, are found in the Canticles of Luke.3
New Testament writers sparingly used "hymns" or "odes" (rhythmic units with a liturgical or deliberate theological character), such as Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 2:12-14; Revelation 18:2-3; 18:4-8.  By far the largest numbers of poetic units in the New Testament appear in the Book of Revelation. Revelation has at least sixteen hymns or hymn-like units many of which are antiphonal.4 In particular, the dirge against Babylon (Revelation 18:2-8, 10, 14, 16-17, 19-20, 21b-24) should be noted among some of the other poetic units in Revelation.
            The heavy use of poetic form in Revelation may be due to the author's situation. The author was a Jewish Christian who "wrote in Greek [but] thought in Hebrew, and frequently translated Hebrew idioms literally into Greek." In other words he expressed himself in Greek in the poetic style of Hebrew idiom.5 If this is correct, then the author writes from the vantage point of the verge separating Hebrew linguistic sensitivities from that of an emerging Christian orthodoxy.
            "Greek is one of the most fluid and musical of all languages."6 And Greek poets have treated all sorts of subjects in poetic form from Homer to George Seferis—including religious subjects. So how should we account for the striking lack of poetic form and the dominance of pedestrian prose in early Christian literature?  Perhaps it is due to a desire to be direct and to communicate in clear language, for an elevated style is often not clear, as Aristotle argued.7 Paul seems to recognize the difference, when he claims that he did not proclaim "the mystery of God" in "eloquent words or wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1; 1:17). In short, the New Testament writers in general used unimaginative plain prose to communicate information, rather than intensifying religious experience through poetic language.8 Perhaps it is not important, but poetry "is regarded by some as something central to existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something that we are better off for having and spiritually impoverished without."9
            From my perspective, one finds a greater spiritual uplift in poetic hymns, which share the intensity of the poets' religious experience, than in the prosaic theological stumping of preaching, which generally views religious experience in a narrow way.
Is the New Testament deficient in spiritually uplifting linguistic forms?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1"The Oracles at Delphi" and "The Obsolescence of Oracles."
2Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament. An Introduction (Harper and Row, translated from the 3rd German edition, 1965), 57-64.
3The Language of the Gospel. Early Christian Rhetoric (Harper and Row, 1964), 100-101. See Luke 1-2 for the canticles (liturgical songs) of Luke.
4David Aune, Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 403.
5Charles, The Revelation of St. John (ICC; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), 1.xxi.
6T. F. Higham, "Introduction. Part II," in Higham and Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Clarendon, 1938), xlvii. 
7Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, III.2.1-3.
8Arp, and Johnson, Perrine's Literature, Structure, Sound, and Sense (8th ed.; Harcourt, 2002), 717-19.
9Perrine, Literature. Structure, Sound, and Sense (4th ed.; Harcourt; 1983), 517.