Category Archives: Scripture

Thorns and Demons

Among the bitter consolations of the Christian scriptures are Paul’s comments on suffering and weakness. I am reading my way (under heavy cloud cover) through the Pauline letters right now and I am, once again, arrested by his lamentations, redemptions, and (ultimately) affirmations of brokenness. Human grief and pain, the flesh we carry, the cross born in that flesh; as ever, I find sorting it all out a challenge. What is simply sin and (the pain endured) its consequences? What are illnesses and ailments which, by our carrying, we bring glory to God? And what are the afflictions we willingly serve, serve as if a host to demons?

Yesterday I was struck by the strangeness of one of these passages. In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul finds himself apologizing left and right for having to boast. He’s “boasting” because the Corinthians are mighty impressed with a few of Paul’s rivals. Apparently, the believers are too fond of some very charismatic voices and are willing to give those voices an authority that they do not deserve. Paul tries to bring them under his influence by reminding them of his credentials as an apostle. Although I have never been entirely persuaded by Paul’s modesty, perhaps because we see ourselves in others and I am a person of much false modesty, Paul seems to have forced himself into some very uncomfortable “boasting.” Indeed, he shares one of his ecstatic experiences by beginning with “I have this friend who ….” In just a few verses, however, he comes clean and owns the experience. Apparently Paul visited paradise and saw and heard things that should not be shared; they were ecstatic experiences for Paul and for Paul alone. There’s nothing too special about that, we all have experiences which are given to us for our own edification, but Paul goes on and shares an oracle in God’s voice. Having had a great time in paradise, Paul needs something to keep him grounded. And so, in chapter twelve, Paul writes: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (12:7). Paul begged the Lord to take the affliction away, but God replies: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). God replies!

Beyond the Gospels and the book of Revelations, there are few, very few, passages in which God speaks to his people in the manner of the prophets. Of course, but for the Gospels and the book of Revelations there are few Christian scriptures that were not authored by Paul. So, perhaps it is Paul’s Christianity which seeks to de-emphasize the role of the oracle in the Christian experience. Afterall, if we are alive in Christ, why should we need special messages, mediated through a prophet to find our way, the Way?

Such a strange and bitter consolation, this rare oracle. I am a weak person; I have my thorns (most inflicted by that most ready accuser, the self); and I cannot see past them. What was Paul’s “thorn”? No one knows. Some have argued for a physical affliction (an illness, a disability, an addiction) and others for communal affliction (perhaps an actual heckler, perhaps the opposition of Jewish leaders he wanted to persuade, perhaps perpetual unemployment and growing debt), but only Paul knows. I am, of course, partial to reading my afflictions into the account; I live with broken people, sick people, disturbed people. I too am a broken, sick, and disturbed person “… for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.5). We are, together, a great thicket of thorns. What power is to be found in this weakness; this weakness which works counter to love? But for grace, I am nothing.


James and John asleep. Albrecht Durer. Engaved Passion. Agony in the Garden.

James and John, sleeping. From: Albrecht Durer. Engaved Passion. Agony in the Garden.

Allying poetry with “spirituality,” “faith,” or “religion,” (inseparable terms, in my life), has always put me on edge. If one professes, as I try to, that all things, visible and invisible, are sustained (by and for) the one creator, our grandest literary efforts amount to mere farts and gargles. At best, human utterances (including poetry) serve and glorify God; poetry is not a special language whereby one gains better access to a divine audience, an elevated state of knowledge, or truer experience of the sublime. As for edification, a ham sandwich is better for one’s health. Poetry goes out. Poetry profanes.

Even so, poetry is made and found on the God-given human tongue. And, as God’s creatures, we bring the fullness of our lives, however awkwardly, to the service. (The cobble stones of Palm Sunday might sing better songs.) Therefore, and partly against myself, I too have found poetry (the reading and the writing) useful.

Poetry can do three things (and probably some more) for believers: 1. as I’ve already indicated, and foremost, it can (or must?) glorify the creator; 2. it can (or should?) reveal what is true; and 3) it can exercise the attending muscles.

(Poetry may have similar functions in a secular context … a tool is a tool. We are given many things.)

Reading the Gospel of Mark, I was reminded (uneasily) of my third point, my weakest (or perhaps most easily abused) notion, poetry as exercise. In Mark 13 and 14, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to stay awake–γρηγορεῖτε, grēgoreite. Here is the first passage in the NRSV translation:

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:32-37)

As we know, Jesus’s students were slow to get the message, and so (in the next chapter) they fall asleep, physically (and spiritually?) in the Garden of Gethsemane:

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ (Mark 14:32-34)

When he returned to check on them, he woke them up:

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Mark 14:37-38)

And once again, he returned to find them sleeping:

And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14:40)

And finally:

He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’  (Mark 14:41-42)

The word γρηγορεῖτε in Mark 13:37 is translated in other versions as: “Watch!” (NIV, ASV, KJV).

Watching can be difficult and the active verb seems appropriate, but staying awake is hard, very hard. Some of us, probably all of us, walk in our sleep. Jesus lived a hard life and few believers are ready to leave “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” for his sake (Mark 10:29, NRSV). Sleep walking allows one to ignore the painful truth. It insulates us from the most difficult choices. We ignore the upsetting sacrifices we are called to provide.

In a smaller way, readers do the same thing. We sleep read. Whole pages of a book can go by like miles on a daily commute. If we think we already know the book, we might even persuade ourselves that we were awake during the reading. And so, earnest folk go to services or sit in quiet corners with the scriptures and force an easy set of cultural cliches on the passages they think they are studying. We all do it. Believers and skeptics.

For me, poetry has been a difficult practice. Reading and writing. I can not sleep through a poem. If I do, I read nothing. I stop reading. I start over. A good poem demands an engaged attention. To hear the poem, I translate. My associations, memories, visions, encounters with people and words are mined to serve the poem. Without them, the poem (and the pleasure or pain it might give) has no place to root. Dozing off, it slips from consciousness. And so, in my case, to read a poem and to read it well, I fight to stay awake.

Perhaps all this is nothing more than a self-serving justification of time spent in an activity that fails to feed my family, fails to feed my neighbor, fails to make much a difference for anyone. (I am not a great poet and reading comes painfully slow.) Though selfishly, I think it does make a difference for me. With what intelligence I have, poetry is an exercise in wakefulness. If I can stay awake for the poem, perhaps I will be prepared to listen a bit longer to the Word. The latter is more difficult, the watching, the waiting, and I will fall sleep. I do fall asleep. I am asleep. In any case, I am training the muscles ow wakefulness for the task. The flesh is weak.

Finally, what little can I say: poetry is one way that at least one believer works to stay awake, works to keep watch, works (as Milton wrote at the end of Sonnet XIX) to “wait.” I will leave any grander claims to braver, surer, quicker minds.

Uneasy Comfort

The majority of my life (I’ve missed a day or a week, here and there) has been marked with time spent reading (or listening to a reading) of the Bible. I suspect, that if you read any book for that long and with that regularity, you would begin to associate; this book would become a part of your remembered life and would play a great role in how you frame your experiences–the metaphors you use to understand new things. Also, and avid music fans should understand what I’m getting at … if you spent your adolescence listening to a looped mix of your favorite songs, there’s a good chance that one of those songs has the power to bring back old feelings, to refresh the memory of events, happy and sad. The Bible works on me in that way, but I have also grown into it. The book has become a part of my life, and not without struggle, and not without the Communion, and (even were I to never read it again) there’s no way now to disentangle it, to root it out of the fibered mind. Nevertheless, at times, this life with the book is an uneasy comfort.

A few days ago I read, again, a passage that continues to haunt me:

O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.

Jeremiah 15:15-18 (NRSV)

These lines, in all their bitterness and devotion, hurt. I have made (inadvertently, I hope) the canker worse by including some of them in a poem. A poem that I wrote in fear and love and, as it turns, much that I feared has come, raging and foul, to be. Or perhaps, even now, this is only (false-)prophesy, self-fulfilled.

From time to time I meet people, who say (when they mean they are too sophisticated for God and embarrassed for me) something like: “Oh, your faith must be a real comfort for you”. I usually laugh. I just don’t know how to respond; “Yes, I’m an superstitious, unsophisticated, extremist”? There are times that I might say “yes” without hesitation and there are other times. So, if Jeremiah 15 is a “comfort”, yes. A lonely comfort at times, like the weight of God’s hand, like a wound that will not heal. An uneasy, painful comfort. These words, “a joy”, from Jeremiah hurt now, more than ever; which is, to say, in my life they are true. Perhaps it is the “true” that makes them a comfort.

Smoke and Ornaments of Gold

Perhaps all readers are fascinated with the different; perhaps our brains demand the new, built as if destined to expand mental empires word-by-word, accumulating images, narratives, sign and sound in sequence. There are times, however, in which this is a suspect habit. As when reading the Koran in English, and for the first time, I find myself collecting the exotic–greedy for the strange. I have added to this collection the recurring references to maritime travel and to travel in other forms, but especially the boats. These sometimes occur in the context of Allah’s blessings–that we were given beasts to carry us across the land and ships to carry us across the water. I am drawn to this image, I think, because it is younger than much of the agricultural imagery of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Also, not only are we humans, in this imagery, blessed to have been given the ingenuity to build boats, but our technology is located firmly within the natural order. Christian and Jewish visions of the “natural” are comparatively narrow. Here’s an example from the Koran of what I have in mind; this passage from “Ornaments of Gold” (43:10 ff, pg 488-9 in ISBN 0-14-044542-0):

It is He who has made the earth a resting-place for you and traced out routes upon it that you may find your way; who sends down water from the sky in due measure and thereby resurrects a dead land (even thus shall you be raised to life); who has created all living things in pairs and made for you the ships and beasts on which you ride, so that, as you mount upon their backs, you may recall the goodness of your Lord ….

Very well, you may say, so this reader likes this imagery–the ship, the travel, the slant-rhyme on his own scriptural inheritance. … Fair enough, but we’ll return to this in a moment.

The next chapter, “Smoke”, also offers plenty of the exotic for the new reader of the Koran. The smoke itself, a palpable smoke, perhaps volcanic ash, which will afflict those who deny God’s sovereignty by ignoring the message of the Koran) is not so strange, although it does set the mood. A stranger torment can be found growing on the Zaqqum tree–the fruit of which simmers in the belly like “dregs of oil, like scalding water”. These afflictions are contrasted to the heavenly rewards of the faithful. The faithful will inhabit the familiar gardens, but (unlike the somewhat asexual Christian paradise) they will be wed to “dark-eyed houris”. Believe it or not, I am not very interested in who or what the houris might be; I am more interested in their eye color … that this color (dark brown eyes were probably a common feature of the author’s companions) would be reflected in the vision of paradise.

We fashion our angels and heavenly beings in our own image–there’s nothing so unusual about that. I have, now, sat in churches and stared at the representations of angels on all sides of the American color line. So, why should I be so captivated by the eye-color of the Koran’s houris? On one level it’s an example of the particular in religion–an attention to contextual detail which is both inevitable and necessary. Jesus was a man and (although he could have been a woman) it is important that he was a man who lived in a certain place, with certain people, eating food and drinking wine. The universal is found in the particular.

Should I worry, however, that I’m falling into a kind of racist fancy for the exotic? A not very sophisticated manifestation of what Edward Said described as “Orientalism”? A worldview that turns everything “Eastern” into a belly-dancing prostitute? Something attractive, but to be possessed and discarded at will? If my interest in the eye color of these heavenly beings is merely a manifestation of a literary “jungle fever”, could my fascination with the maritime travel also be an outsider’s hunger for the seemingly strange? And, in the end, what is a reader to do? Is it enough to merely stop and acknowledge–yes, I too am from a particular place, a particular time … I too enter this text with agendas I have not acknowledged? (July 20, 2008)

The Poets

Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practise. Not so the true believers, who do good works and remember God with fervour and defend themselves only when wronged. The wrongdoers will then learn what a welcome awaits them.
The Koran (Dawood, N.J., Trans., Penguin 1997, pg 375).

Ah the “poets” … Plato expelled them from the Republic and The Koran damns them.

Of course, these are not the poets of our contemporary era — the silly horde intent on jotting down every clever turn or spilling out each mood and phase on the page. No, these are the “preachers” … those who, poets or not, use rhetoric to gain and influence their followers. The preachers (of any stripe, good and bad) are indeed “followed by [the] erring”. In this culture the protestants are the most prone to follow the rhetoricians, but every persuasion has its spokespersons … and the phenomenon is in no way limited to religious sects. Someone must keep the advertising and “public relations” industries in well-fed and (for this) the “erring” are truly well-equipped.

But, what about the “preachers” … I’m going to avoid the obvious and hopefully slip past the urge to bad-mouth the intentions of religious leaders. (That is a tiresome game in blog-land.) So, let’s just ask this question — was Muhammad a “preacher”. In practical terms, probably … I have no doubt that he exhorted his followers to be true to the message, to distinguish themselves from the unbelievers, to repent and to seek forgiveness. For believers, however, Muhammad was not a “poet”. He did not find clever ways to communicate the truth; he did not invent or imagine a new “wisdom”. Muhammad saw himself as a prophet, not a preacher. As a prophet, Muhammad served as the mouth-piece of the divine message. It was not his job to add embellishments. Nor, in the moral landscape of the Koran, was it his job to be extra persuasive … God, after all, will open the ears of those who will be saved. Those who will hear, will hear.

In fact, this passage is a perfect example of the Koran’s emphasis on orthropraxis — it’s what you do, not what you say or who you follow, that distinguishes the true disciples from the false. There are times in which Christianity (especially our dear protestants) would benefit from a good dose of orthopraxis — though it bucks hard against the ethos of grace. There are times, too, in which American culture would benefit from a similar suspicion of its “preachers”. We practice a ridiculous short-hand in this culture … one in which the disciples are judged, wholesale, on the actions of their purported “preachers”. The furor about Barak Obama‘s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a convenient contemporary example. In this case one preacher (Obama) is judged by the “poem” of his own preacher (Wright), meanwhile the actions, the praxis, of each is virtually ignored. Praxis does not win votes, nor will it build mega-churches, nor will it solve all of one’s problems, but it will keep one rooted. And, ultimately, if we’d follow our principles and not our preachers, we’d spend less time “aimlessly … [roving] in every valley”. (May 11, 2008)

The Night Journey

Reading The Koran at a snail’s pace, in English, and for the first time can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in what seems repetitive – repetitive, perhaps, because the text appears to be arranged by the page and the page by the expectation or need for recitation. The repetitiveness is also fed by the urge to communicate the essentials of the message in every section of the text. When reading one section in isolation (or listening to it) one would not notice the repeated sentiments. At the same time the narratives are few, scattered and sparse – one must piece them together as if building a story while reading a correspondence between several people who already know and assume their readers know well the narrative at stake. These qualities, however, serve to intensify the experience of the concrete, the poetic, the mysterious and the anecdotal. In today’s reading from “The Night Journey”, a book most famous for the interpretative dispute over the first few lines, lines which seem to suggest that the prophet was transported in a single night from Mecca to Jerusalem (I have to admit that, were it not for N.J. Dawood’s footnote, I would have missed entirely the “interpretation” that the prophet traveled the distance in a single night – this is the first instance in which I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t be reading multiple translations), Muhammad (and Gabriel) become noticeably frustrated with the demands of the non-believer.

We have set forth for men in the Koran all manner of arguments, yet most of them persist in unbelief. They say: ‘We will not believe in you until you make a spring gush from the earth before our very eyes, or cause rivers to flow in a grove of palms and vines; until you cause the sky to fall upon us in pieces, as you have threatened to do, or bring down God and the angels in our midst; until you build a house of gold, or ascend to heaven; nor will we believe you in your ascent until you have sent down for us a book which we can read.’ (pg 290 in my edition; 17:90 ff)

Muhammad is instructed to reply: “Glory be to my Lord! Am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood?”

Ecce homo! Far more memorable, by my taste, than the one-night trip to Jerusalem. The prophet speaks of the frustration that all persons of faith (or persuasion) must have at one time or another. When people seem incapable of listening, when the bargain includes a moving target … am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood! At the same time, I love the irony and perhaps derision of “until you have sent down for us a book which we can read”. In the current context, my context (of course), this is a haunting note to a non-believing reader, who sits in his arm chair reading (with the anachronism intact) this very book!

But, then, I doubt I’d make such demands; honestly, these are bargains made by the disobedient and the unwilling, not bargains made by disciples. Muhammad (anachronism still intact), we would have much to discuss or we would sit together in silence, but there will be no price to haggle. (April 13, 2008)

Reading the Koran

I have been reading The Koran–an exercise which is at times dull and at others fascinating, but on the whole well worth the experience. To be a person of the book (which I am) and to read the Koran is to be part-way included in semi-familiar circle of faith. Lately, I have noticed a degree of defensiveness about the text. In Hud, for example, doubters are challenged:

“If they say: ‘He [the Prophet] has invented it [The Koran] himself’ say to them: ‘Produce ten invented chapters like it.'”

Well … writers do like challenges, but would anyone (excluding Joseph Smith) be brave enough to take it on? What distinguishes The Koran and the Book of Mormon from mere attempts to imitate scripture is: that what is written is done so by a person who truly believes that they convey God’s message. Even more so, that they (the prophets) are God’s scribes. Mere writers can not fake this, at least not for long. (April 6, 2008)