S3:E5 – Poetry and Impossible Possibilities

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I grew up in church. I grew up hearing the stories and the language of the Christian tradition, of Scripture, and I sang all the songs. And for that I am deeply grateful. I wouldn’t trade it for a more dramatic testimony. Still, there is an effect that happens to people like me as well as folks who may have met Jesus later on in life through dramatic means. That is, we become dull to wonder. The strangeness of ordinary things is lost on us through over-familiarity, appropriation, basic human weariness, and inattentiveness.

In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien terms “Recovery” as one of the chief powers of fantasy stories (like his great work, The Lord of the Rings). He says,

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view… We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity–from possessiveness.”

Tolkien goes on to describe how works of fantasy help us recover from the “drab blur of triteness or familiarity” allowing us to see the world again clearly; and clearly means to see it again as the wonderful, strange, and striking thing it really is. Fantasy, in particular, does this by taking us the long way round on an excursion into a world strange and unfamiliar to us, only to return us to our old familiar world with “clean windows”, as Tolkien puts it – eyes that now see the old, drab things again as if for the first time. For those eyes, the ordinary is renewed in all of its extraordinariness.

Another way of putting all this is to say that we build up a sort of tolerance for wonder, like we do for any pleasure. A kind of murky film accumulates on our eyes that subdues the world. Wives and husbands lose sight of the astonishing alien creature sitting across the table from them, hardly explored. Men and women shut their eyes to sleep beneath a silent blanket of scattered gas giants, careening comets and stars whose song goes unheard night after night. We swim on the surface of an ocean full of creatures so strange and unimaginable they seem beyond reality when discovered.

We depend on forces like gravity, music, and mathematics so taken for granted that, though we have devised forms of notation to refer to them and we are accustomed to participating in them as a matter of course, we no longer take note of the wild inexplicability and mystery of their existence. For, like gravity, humans did not invent music or math, they are given properties of the creation in which we find ourselves. What we’ve invented are only ways of talking about and cooperating with these things. They seem to be transcendent strands woven into the fabric of created, immanent materiality in order to be made accessible to creatures like you and me. The “natural” is shot-through with the supernatural. Honest philosophers continue to boggle at the question of what these things actually are.

Who knows? Thankfully comprehension isn’t a prerequisite for participation and enjoyment, all you need to join in the fun is gratitude, apparently. Like Tolkien’s power of recovery through fantasy stories, it may be that simple gratitude (even if it takes a lot of work to be grateful) has a similar restorative effect. To be thankful for something is to begin to see something. Most likely it’s something that was already there, but only made obscure by our habit of looking everywhere else for satisfaction, everywhere except right in front of us at what God has already given.

You might say that the last of the ten commandments (do not covet) is a last desperate attempt on God’s part to redirect our attention to the good that we already have, but have lost sight of. If the first commandment (no other gods) is really all that you need, then each subsequent commandment seems to reach a little further out from the center to those of us who have been incrementally drifting from the core of reality. For instance, if you are far from God, the least you can do as a first step is to begin to notice something in your life to be thankful for, if you are to begin your journey counting down from 10 back to 1.

The “world is charged with the grandeur of God”, says poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, famously. He’s onto something. A Hopkins poem may as well be a work of High Fantasy like Tolkien’s writing, because the world he apparently sees feels so different from the one the dull eyes of our present culture have so emptied of transcendence. To enter a Hopkins poem is to have the windows of your eyes cleaned, and new capacities grow, capacities for seeing the wonder of this Creation as well as the transcendent Presence of this world’s life-giver as immanent and intimate. You can hear it in a Hopkins line like this one, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

We all have to deal with the lethargy and dullness that are part and parcel of living as fallen beings in a fallen world. Chesterton says we no longer have the energy to keep up with wonder; we’re too tired to exult like a child in monotony; we’re bored, not because the world is boring, but because sin has worn us down and we’ve become boring ourselves. Scripture says “to the pure all things are pure”; well, to the boring all things are boring. In contrast, Chesterton says that our Father has the “eternal appetite of infancy”. To a child, everything is so new and astonishing, strange and wondrous. But we are worn out and drab, even our appetites are exhausted and puny, says Lewis; we settle for mudpies, having lost our appetite for apple pie. Like the parents of a toddler who never sleeps, we’re too tired to keep up with a God as energetic as the Creator of the Universe, “for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are.”

Maybe that’s why Jesus comes offering us rest? Because we’re exhausted. We’re just plain worn out by evil. Evil in real enemies, evil in the world, and evil, that if we’re honest, seems to have been inextricable from our very being for as long as we can recall.

I think there’s a thread that traces through Tolkien’s explanation of recovery through fantasy, Hopkin’s poetry, and Chesterton’s writings. It shows up in Jesus’s words too. It’s a strange way that a man from another world might be trying to clean the windows, to draw our gaze to something astonishingly good that’s right in front of us, and to waken us from our lethargy to give us real rest.

In short, Jesus uses poetic language. He puts words next to each other that don’t seem at first to belong together. Curious word couplings like “born again”, “living water”, and “living bread.” These are old dusty church words, aren’t they? But Nicodemus’ response to Jesus in John 3 makes it clear that, when he heard the phrase “born again” for the first time, it seemed like total nonsense. An entirely alien combination of words was suddenly interjected into his imagination, and there was no room for it. It was incoherent, those two words could not cohere; “born” and “again” jostled and shoved away from each other in Nicodemus’ imagination. Nothing of Nicodemus’ experience could make sense of them, those two words repelled each other.

But they could not be unheard, and Jesus did not withdraw the phrase, apologize or explain it away. He took what Nicodemus tried to brush aside and he set it right back down before the confused old man, front and center, as if to say, “If you are to ever find rest, old man, if there’s any hope for you to enter the Kingdom of the one true God, you’ve got to deal with this repellant, incoherent bit of poetic juxtaposition until the poetry itself ceases to be merely something you’ve heard with the ears of your flesh, and becomes something that actually happens to you. You must enter the poetry, it must be written into your very spirit by my Spirit. Listen now, again, to these two words as they throb and throw sparks, as they pull and tear at the corners of comprehension, rending the old threadbare cloth of all your prior conceptions, as they sew a new invisible thread of thought into the lining of the world’s limitations.”

Those two simple words, that infinitely potent yet miniscule poem, enter like a tiny seed and attach to the dark, hidden walls of the mind. Their poetic oddity itself brings previously un-thought-of meaning that serves to amend the depleted soil of the imagination, and over time they grow, making space for impossibility. Something beautiful and mysterious as music grows in that womb, graceful and messy as faith, conceivable by the Holy Spirit alone, who is the Lord, the Giver of Life.

The astonishing poetry of the Word Himself has entered this world, and he has been dropped, a dead seed, into our depleted soil. The soil of a world that has lost its charge of grandeur, like a dead battery; what’s a dead battery good for? It’s about as much good as salt that’s lost its saltiness. Can the world be recharged? Can salt be made salty again? Can something naturally impossible truly be supernaturally possible? Can two incoherent words like “born” and “again” miraculously cohere?

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