A Bright Side of Anxiety

Everyone’s journey with anxiety is different and I do not wish in any way to trivialize anyone’s struggle, especially not my own. That said, I’m beginning to think my anxiety might have something to teach me.

Growing up in church culture, I often had catalogues of sins and “shalt nots” recited to me. Over time, I began to wonder why certain things were considered bad. While I am generally comfortable with a trustworthy authority giving me guidelines that I cannot yet completely understand, I still believe that Christian moral and ethical teachings ought to be what they are for a reason.

A lot of the things I questioned (or still question) can be sorted under the header “It’s not like I’m hurting anyone.” Why does the Bible tell me not to envy, for example? If I’ve resolved not to steal, why is envy wrong? What I’ve come to appreciate is that some seemingly innocent thoughts and actions can, in fact, be subtle acts of violence against one’s self. Envy is agitating and unpleasant. Envy creates dissatisfaction, whereas gratitude (both for what you have and who you are) fosters peace.

My experience of anxiety often leaves me stuck in memories of feeling humiliated. Subtle and unintentional things can really impact me, whether it’s the body language of a customer I’m serving, the well-meaning criticisms of an artistic director, or the subtlest nuance of a word that a friend uses in conversation. Other times, people are actually just jerks and actively trying to be rude. In any case, I can feel wounded for months or even years after.

And in comes the voice of Junior Asparagus saying “God wants me to forgive them!?!”

gwmtft

What I’ve learned through my anxiety is this: to not forgive is a subtle act of violence against the self. It goes without saying that forgiveness is usually very hard, but for me to willingly hold on to the ways people have hurt me is to limit and encumber myself. If I want to fully enjoy the present and be my most real and uninhibited self, I need to let go of the ways people have hurt me.

Grudges and revenge are re-active. Forgiveness is pro-active.

For some reason, there were several instances when I was a kid when I was taught how physical pain is essentially a good thing because it lets you know when something is wrong with your body. If you leave your hand on a hot stove and don’t feel pain, you’re not going to have a working hand pretty soon. As I struggle with my anxiety, I’m realizing that it can (sometimes) act as a kind of compass or alarm to tell me when I’m paying attention to unhelpful things or thinking in unhelpful ways. With forgiveness, I need to remind myself that my value and dignity comes from my creator, and not from the occasional acts of rude or absent-hearted people.

Like gratitude, forgiveness isn’t just an obligation to my neighbour, it’s a gift. And though it’s difficult, I will continue to work at it.

But seriously, I’m still really looking forward to the day that my anxiety goes jump in a lake.

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The Language of the Humble

Nelson Mandela is often quoted on the internet as having said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I don’t know if he actually said that but it’s a good quote. However, there may be exceptions.

At the beginning of the year I drafted a regimen by which I would read through the book of Psalms – 7 every week (one every day would inevitably fall apart and I’m a week behind as it is). But just reading through one translation is boring so I decided to make it more interesting. People often recommend reading two translations side by side to get the bigger picture of the translated text. If you can, you can expand on this by reading in two different languages. I got my hands on an Italian bible over Christmas, so off I went.

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This exercise has lead to all sorts of fun discoveries, many of a sort that I anticipated, but others that were rather surprising.

When you hear the same words over and over again from birth, they can become stuck. You stop thinking about what they mean and they become just noise. In the best of cases, I find repeated texts always have something new to offer as I encounter them in different situations. Like a gem that rotates and refracts light in different ways, or a tree that always yields fruit. In the worst cases, the words get stuck and need a jump start.

When I read Psalm 10, I skimmed the words “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted,” without really paying attention. I think I see the words “O, Lord” and think, Okay, whatever follows is going to be abstract theology language that doesn’t reflect how real people talk or think or feel. Then I compared the Italian, which says ‘the desires of the humble (umili).’

I was comparing afflicted and humble and suddenly the words became faces. Whenever I go through the downtown there are people asking for change. I don’t carry cash and have nothing to offer, so I apologize and move on if I don’t cross to the other side of the street. I often ignore the humble and afflicted, and that’s just when they ask for spare change. Who knows what their desires are for their relationships, housing situations, etc. Apparently God does.

And heck, if he can hear their desires, surely he can hear mine!

I hear this kind of language every day and it doesn’t go to my heart. It gets stuck and it needs some percussive maintenance to get it moving again. I’m sure that God both hears us and speaks to us in our own language, but sometimes it’s worth switching that language up so that we know we’re paying attention.

Handling Lack of Inspiration

Anyone who has spent time practicing an art has struggled with not knowing what to create. Writers don’t always know what to write, painters don’t always know what to paint, composers don’t always know what to compose.

This can make anyone anxious. In a period when I struggled to know what to write, one person suggested to me that perhaps I’m not really a writer. Perhaps that’s not my real calling. I found this remark devastating, like my entire identity was being called into question. The worst part was the thought “Maybe they’re right. After all, I am really struggling to know what to do.”

In my teen years I somehow got it into my head that artists should not be slaves to inspiration. That is, an artist should be able to continue working after the passion has run out, or to do commissioned work that isn’t personal in any way. As with many principals I picked up when I was younger, I exaggerated it into a contempt for inspiration. I began to think that art should be simply the product of discipline, dedication, and patience.

If a man spent his entire wedding day preparing himself for all the inevitable struggles of marriage and never once cracked a smile, you’d probably think “I’m glad I’m not the one marrying him.”

I’ve had to rethink my stance towards inspiration because it is actually a necessity. An artist without passion or a vision doesn’t get very far; it’s passion that gets the artist through the boring commissions and onto the more exciting dreams. Unfortunately, inspiration is not entirely in the artists control. It strikes without warning. At the same time, it’s no replacement for skill and talent. Inspiration can animate talent, but when inspiration strikes where there is no talent the result will be an excited but artless mess.

All this amounts to some kind of creative paralysis.

So here’s my strategy which, after a few years of being stuck, seems to be helping: write terrible uninspired garbage. Try really hard, stretch your talent, and let each finished product be entirely unimpressive. That work gives you the material which inspiration will vivify at some random moment. Don’t fret a lack of inspiration – that isn’t under your control. Read, experiment, imitate your heroes and scribble out garbage, have fun.

Dry spells happen to everyone. The trick is to remain humble and active during that time. When inspiration rolls around again, you’ll be ready for it.

Mastering Malevolent Metaphors

I sometimes wonder to what extent other people experience and interpret life using metaphors, knowingly or unknowingly.

I tend to conceptualize my experiences and expectations in terms of metaphors, and this can have a strong impact on how I live my life. A recent sort of example tends to come around on Valentine’s day. Being single, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling ‘rejected’, a word with lots of obvious connotations. Recently I’ve been trying to think more in terms of ‘reservation’, like that empty seat in the theatre or that lonely book on the shelf in the store. It’s not that the seat or the book are unwanted or useless – they’re in fact so valuable to someone that their use must be postponed for a time.

So I try to identify, evaluate, and replace metaphors that are untrue or unhelpful. A few months back, I read “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson which has a lot of helpful perspective on this. I recommend looking for it at your local bookshop (give those Amazon employees a break – they’re busy.)

At some point when I was a kid, I was introduced to the tale about the Sword of Damocles. The story goes that a King Dionysius wanted to show his friend/flatterer Damocles that being a ruler was no fun. They agreed to switch roles for a day, but Dionysius had a dagger suspended by a hair placed above the throne. So during his day as king, Damocles was surrounded by all the glamour of palace life but also under the constant threat of dying suddenly.

damocles

Source: Wikle-pikle

The aim of the story is to show how power makes you a target, but more broadly the image stuck with me as a symbol of impending disaster. Going to school where the bullies and bad grades were, going to work where the mean boss was, hearing the sound of an oncoming email that surely has to be some harbinger of woe – everything was a dagger hanging above my head and the best I could hope for was to avert disaster.

Despite the occasional real disaster, I have to admit that this life of perpetual pending apocalypse was one of my own involuntary making.

So what I need is a new image. And a quite fitting solution came in the form of a Magic the Gathering card.

ephara's radiance

Ephara’s Radiance. Artist: James Ryman, Copyright 2014 Wizards of The Coast. I don’t own it and I’m not making money off it so be cool, WotC.

Apart from the fact that this picture is totally rad, it’s also the antithesis of Damocles. Rather than a singular impersonal disaster hanging overhead, you look up and see the benevolent goddess made of stars and nebulae with a never-emptying pitcher of goodies to pour out. Not only is this a far more pleasant way of conceptualizing life, I also find it, from a Judaeo-Christian perspective, far more realistic.

How I apply this is a problem I’m still solving but on the days when it works, it works wonders. I can pay much better attention to the good things, and the bad things become outlying data rather than defining moments. I hope this continues to help.

Two Streets Formed by Two Loves (or “Doing Poetry and Theology Without Going Outside”)

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had traveled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.

Unlike Widsith, I have not traveled through tribes and nations and I really have no desire to do so. I do however envy his word-hoard, or admire it at least.

I try to look out for images from my day-to-day life that might be useful in writing. Keeping inventory of the images that seem the most powerful helps with finding inspiration. Less seriously, I like to come up with absurd “deep” interpretations of things around me that have no significance whatsoever. (One of my pens just ran out of ink: this represents my lack of motivation.)

Most of these analyses are dumb and silly and fruitless, but occasionally one will turn out quite interesting.

I live in a neighbourhood on a street that runs west to east and I’m between two major roads that run north-south (Think of a letter H shape).

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Locke in the summer

Locke, to the East, is a beautiful community. It features lots of locally and independently owned shops, a handful of cozy cafes and restaurants, and four churches each with very kind and welcoming communities. The neighbourhood hosts an annual festival on the street, and in the summer it’s an idyllic mix of greenery and beautiful old brickwork. I love Locke.

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Dundurn – Google street view because I don’t feel like walking two blocks to take the picture myself

I hate Dundurn. Walking down Dundurn is a chore. It’s not all bad but it’s obviously poorer and has no charm. It’s frequently littered, busy and noisy, and I’m especially nervous around the intersection that features a wine store, beer store, and marijuana dispensary all next to teach other. That street to the West is far from the best.

And then there’s where I and many others live: right in the middle. The residential streets that run between these two opposites are generally nice and peaceful. Quite lovely in the summer.

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In between – Google again because lazy

I was thinking about this while reading about Augustine. One of his more salient themes in his writing explores how the world we live in is an overlap between the love of God and the good works of his children, and the brokenness of the world in all its destructivity. “Accordingly,” he writes, “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the Earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, and the Heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Caritas and Cupiditas: one that builds community and one that tears community apart.

Within my own neighbourhood (which is called Kirkendall; I’m pretty sure that appropriately means ‘church valley’) I find something of a parallel to Augustine. There are two streets formed by two loves and all of us live in between the two. It then becomes the mission of the church (or Heavenly City, or Locke-ites) to take the loving community we have found and move it into places where it didn’t exist before.

I’m not sure if that image is as accessible as Augustine’s, but I’ll stash it in my word-hoard and maybe use it later. And I didn’t even have to travel through tribes and nations.

 

Side note to potential Hamilton readers: we won’t read too much into how most of the residential streets are one-way. I don’t want to get into an argument about Calvinism.

Overthinking Poetry

I try to avoid commenting too much on my own work, mainly because I have a bad habit of apologizing for every little thing I perceive as a weakness. Though I may be taking this principal too far. It occurred to me that if I enjoy reading people’s commentaries on their own work then surely there must be others out there who would enjoy a peak behind the curtain. That said, I present a poem I wrote last month and a lengthy commentary.

This is part of my ongoing quest to achieve proficiency in the old Germanic style of alliterative poetry.

Flickering forth-march    of daylight, fading
To frost, falls from    seasons’ feast days.
Now, at mid noon,    the noxious bonds
Of dread darkness    dance blackly.

Light of log-piles’    crackling laughter
Blossoms brilliantly     in bitter chill:
Rekindled colour     beams out clearly,
The majesty of May    in dark days remade.

winter city

A friend told me that he had to re-read this several times before he could make sense of it, which is exactly the reaction I had hoped for. While I do want my poems to make sense and be accessible, I also want them to require the reader to slow down and consider the language. I hope that this one didn’t get to obscure, but I did aim for restraint and subtlety, to which the concision of the alliterative style lends itself well.

It is my opinion that any good poem will involve some kind of contrast, comparison, dichotomy, etc. At least two images or ideas must be put side by side. This one has three: winter, fire, flower.

I wrote this over the course of two cold days in late December. The first stanza was the product of an undirected exercise – simply playing around with words while I stared out my window. I decided to play with the idea of having the second hemistich feature a vocalic rhyme, which to my ear is somehow nicer-sounding than a perfect rhyme. (Note how “Day” and “Fade” feature the same vowel sound but “-light” and “-ing” make the rhyme imperfect.)

Enjambment (having the sentence or clause spilling from one line into the next) is often used to represent chaos or disorder. That said, it features well in the stanza describing the dark and cold winter.

There’s a mixed metaphor in these opening lines that bothers me somewhat. The Forth-march of daylight is military language. Perhaps it could also be parade language, but it comes across as a doomed or wounded army, marching either to their deaths or in retreat. (‘Doomed or Wounded’ is a great vocalic rhyme) In contrast, Feast days are times of religious celebration, particularly for a saint, and the most joyous time among the seasons is Summer, at least in poetic tradition. So the light of summer is both an army and a church. What a horrible combination. I might try reworking that imagery at some point.

fire

While the first stanza took about 5 minutes to write with only minor polish, the second stanza took me over an hour. I knew what images I wanted to complete the picture but I struggled with how to present it. My first attempts involved featuring a person lighting the fire. Somehow that didn’t work. I got the desired concision when I made it impersonal.

So I wanted to describe fire in a way that felt fresh and unique. Identifying and eliminating cliches is a good way to flex your creative brain. And I wanted to describe it in a way that evoked a multitude of senses. So what do fires do? They shine, they crackle, they come from wood… Light of log’s crackle.

Crackling laughter sounds a bit too much like “cackling laughter” for my taste, which evokes a different feeling. But Laughter was the best fit for the vocalic rhyme criterion, and I insisted on “crackle” because it’s a word closely associated with fire, and I felt that it helped to convey the intended image better.

And then my favourite part. The fire blossoms as the majesty of May from the wood. In Pangur Ban, the scholar Unravels riddles, a word that I hoped would recall how a cat Unravels balls of yarn. Here, I hoped that the fire blossoming would reinforce the idea that the fire is a kind of flower.

flower

A personal note: Wood (and trees, branches, etc.) is a prominent image in Judaeo-Christian tradition. The arc that survived the flood is wood, the staff that parts the sea is wood, the cross that wins salvation is wood, etc. That said, I like the connection between the fire that comes from wood and the flower that comes from a branch or a plant stem. Not especially profound, but I thought it an interesting note.

So that’s a lot, and I intentionally omitted some parts of my thought process. Here’s the moral: Language is awesome. I can write 800 words on an 8 line poem. Good poetry, and even my amateur attempts at good poetry, can make language do so much more than it usually does. And it can change the associations we make and thus change the way we see the world.

And now you know how I see the world: by overthinking everything.

Pangur Ban – An Alliterative Experiment

Pangur Ban is an Old Irish poem about a monk and his pet cat, which is all you need to know to recognize why it’s one of the most important works of literature ever produced.

Now I myself do not speak Old Irish – Yes, yes, you have every right to be shocked and appalled – But I am blessed to receive the sense of the poem through various translations and interpretations, some of which you can find here.

meow

A Cat (I think) in the Book of Kells. I wish my Bible had random animals in it.

I’ve been experimenting with alliterative verse lately, a simplified explanation for which can be found in my last post. Since then I’ve spent some time learning the more technical features of the genre.

It is hard and complicated but still a lot of fun to paw around with. Of course, I had to try making meow own alliterative interpretation of Pangur Ban. I’ve been editing it for over a meownth now trying to make it petter, and it may not be prrfect, but-

I’m sorry, I’ll stop. I’m sure there’s much room for improvement but if I wait until it’s perfect I’ll never get around to sharing it, so here goes.

Of ashen aspect,    agile Pangur
In cattish crafts    carries on always,
Mouse-mused pupil.    In manner of humans,
Foreign to felines     that follow cats’ ways,
I prowl through pages,    reclining on pillows,
Training in texts.    The tamed white lion
regards not my game;    his gift is enough.

Sport’s spirit thrives,    routine yet splendid.
We whet each our wits    in each our own way.
Pest-practiced hunter,    on paws crouched low,
Vaults valiantly    on vermin unwitting.
The mouse is mastered!    Meow! And he sleeps.
I ponder and prowl    perplexing writing.
My catches are curious    scurrying concepts.
From faded folios,    dusty they fall.

Little light figures    and letter-black strokes,
Lights or letters    in little points,
We watch on walls    or paper-white scrolls.
Unerring-eyed pet    stares at an image,
Fixed focus keeping    on fine shifting shapes.
From birth, bone-hued    keen-eyed beastling
Keeps closest watch    as my posture crumbles.
We jump, joyful both    when jobs are finished.

Each so is occupied,    I and pale Pangur,
When that we will,    and ever the while
We two unperturbed.    He at his trade,
And I sifting scripts.    Scholar is Pangur
In circuit-won skill    and I would excel
To unravel riddles    and render them clear.

pangy boon

If y’all haven’t watched The Secret of Kells, y’all really should.

I should resist commenting on my own poem, but I will anyway.

As I learn more about the structure of classical alliterative poetry, the more I realize that much of what I’ve written deviates from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Styles can be innovated, but I try to live by the saying “Learn the rules before you break them.”

“Scurrying” and “Curious” are two of my favourite words that I’ve ever accidentally put together.

“Unravel” is my favourite word in the whole thing.

I’ve rewritten the second stanza a dozen times and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Alliterative 23rd Psalm

We tend to think narrowly about poetry. Open most anthologies of English poetry and you’ll find a ubiquitous feature – it rhymes. Specifically, it rhymes at the end of each line and in consecutive or alternating patterns (ie. AABB or ABAB.) You could also rhyme within the line, or rhyme the end of the line with the beginning of the next line, both of which I’ve seen done. But those don’t make it into the anthologies.

That is far from the only way to do poetry. You may have heard the simplified accounts of far-Eastern poetry being about syllable counts (eg. Haikus) and Hebrew poetry being about “rhyming ideas/images.” And you can do even more. Classical Greek and Latin poets seem to love their meter.

And, long ago, poets of old Germanic tongues mastered alliteration! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with alliterative poetry, reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure and some of Tolkien’s modernizations of Middle English poetry. I’ve been trying to teach myself to write in this ancient English form and I figured I’d share one of my earliest attempts (I hope one of the first of many).

I’ll add a couple comments at the end, but first just one quick note. When reading conventional rhyming poetry, you anticipate the rhyme at the end of the line. So how does alliterative poetry work? What do we expect? What gives it its form? It’s quite simple.

You got two half-lines we call hemistichs (like Hemisphere and Stick). The first hemistich has two alliterating stressed syllables. They can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word but they gotta be stressed. The second hemistich (separated by a little space called a caesura) gives you one more alliterating syllable to round it off. Once you know what to look for, it gives each line a nice sense of resolution. Like with rhyming poetry, the poet can then subvert those expectations for varying effects. So here’s what that looks like in action.

The Wool-Ward – by Aaron Wilkinson

He who all holds   in His hand is my herdsman.
I grasp not for gold,   my gullet to bloat with,
My needs are nothing,   I am never without.
I’ll want for no wealth,   never wish for more.

By freely flowing   waters refreshing,
And bath-worthy brooks,   bending rivers,
Clear courses bright,   falling through fields,
There I am found,   reclined by the banks.

I graze on green grasses,   enough on the ground,
In the Wool-Ward’s shade   through warmth of noon.
When my throat hisses   for thirst and hunger,
He finds where to feed   refreshing me fully.

When days grow dark   as though dawn was never
And hot sun is hid   by high mount peaks,
Down in the dark dale,   death’s dismal den,
I follow and fare well   knowing no fright.

My courage’s cause   is only your closeness.
I am rallied and righted   by your crook and rood.
In faces of foes   you fill up my table.
The froth of the mead   falls from my mug.

Fate has me followed   by favour and faith
All this loaned life   in the length of days.
The hall of the Holy   I will call home
And sit with the saints   in the seats of that hall.

A few end notes. Many will recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. Most of my experiments in alliterative poetry have been with biblical poems so far. It presents a series of interesting challenges and opportunities. What I’m trying to do is take a Hebrew text replete with Hebrew images and ideas and then describe it with language and images from the medieval English tradition. I’m not yet sure if the result is a funky fusion or a disharmonious mess.

In either case, what I think a new (or rather ‘forgotten’) genre of poetry allows us to do is innovate. Some of those innovations will be victories, others disasters.

A major occasion for such innovations is within the restrictions of the genre. You can’t just state something directly if the words don’t alliterate. I can’t use words like “Shepherd” or “Lord” if it doesn’t fit the context. So I have to invent new ways of describing things, sometimes speaking around or circumlocuting the subject of the line. This can give us all sorts of fun results like “Wool-Ward,” which is my favourite part of this little experiment.

And as a side note for those already in love with medieval English poetry, I do want to admit that I directly imported some language just for fun. Rood (a word related to “rod”) recalls The Dream of the Rood, the mead hall is a common setting especially in Beowulf, etc.

Kay, now go write your own. If you wanna get a better feel for this love-lorn genre, read Tolkien’s modernization of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Shadow of the Valley of Text

I’ve been reading about Hebrew poetry lately and I’ve realized that I may have been reading Psalm 23 all wrong.

Over-familiarity is our worst friend when we’re trying to develop a deep understanding of a text. I’ve heard the words “The Lord is my shepherd” and everything that comes after so many times that I’ve come to take it for granted. It becomes an absent-minded recitation. While I think all of us who grew up in the church have a grasp for the basic ethos of the poem, I’m discovering that Hebrew poetry demands that the reader slow down to really unpack the parallel images and words that characterize it.

I’ll assume you’ve read or heard or sung this poem before. Shepherd, Green Pastures, Quiet Waters. This part makes me feel nice. Although the line “I shall not want” feels more like a wish than an assertion. When I see my friends getting promoted or engaged, I definitely do want. I could say a lot about how profoundly rebellious this statement is against an ambitious and consumeristic culture, but that’s not my main point.

The tranquil tapestry of this mellow meadow ends with this.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

And then…

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New paragraph

A gap in the formatting of the text! Now we’re going to talk about a new idea. If this were a film, we might put a scene transition here. The tone is still optimistic but we’re no longer in that prior pastoral paradise.

But were we ever?

The way that the text is usually formatted suggests a shift that I’m not sure is meant to be there. Verse 3 and Verse 4 both use language of journeying. Being lead down the path and walking through the valley. Verses 1 and 2 show us images of stillness. Verses 3 and 4 get us moving. Unless the editors of the text are using the gap between the verses to symbolize a valley between hills, I think this break can be misleading.

Picture this: our scene opens on a young lamb, grazing on grass and sipping from a stream. We then see the lamb approached by a strong but gentle shepherd who signals to the lamb with his staff that it’s time to get moving. The lamb hops up and begins following the shepherd. As they go, they walk. They don’t run. They don’t hide. They walk.

Zoom out and we see that the two are, in fact, in a dark valley. Clouds thunder overhead and predators growl in the distance. Abandoned arrows, slash marks from swords, and spots of blood speak of some battle that was fought here recently. Warriors may still be crouching around the next bend. And there they walk, the sheep and the shepherd. Stopping for a break and a snack every now and then.

The green fields with quiet waters and the valley of the shadow of death aren’t two places. They are one. And Verses 5 and 6 will confirm this for us. How does the poem begin? Fields to graze in, water to drink, rest for the soul. Food, drink, rest. How does it end? A table in front of my enemies, an overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. Food, drink, rest – not in some idyllic ethereal otherworld, but in the very presence of enemies and threats. There are always the enemies, the shadow of death, but also the shepherd offers provision and comfort.

What’s more, we’ve zoomed out even further. We began in the sheep’s little world: the grass, the water, the shepherd. We zoomed out to see what the shepherd is protecting the sheep from: the valley. Now we are in “The house of the Lord, forever.” We end in the eternal transcendent House (surely this encompasses all creation) and the enemies and valleys are left sandwiched – surrounded – between the immediate local provision of the shepherd and the eternal promises of the future.

I’m sure there are layers of this poem that I’m still missing. The Israelites were masters of poetry so I’m sure that there are layers that shine out much better in the original language. But this poem is dense even in English. It’s packed. The images are tied together brilliantly and even the subtle implications of a verb like “walk” are carefully selected to tell us something about the beautiful relationship that God has to his creation, and the relationship between his providence and our challenges.

I think we miss this when we treat the Psalms first as theology and as poetry second. When we slow down and read them as poetry, their theology becomes much more profound.

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Baaaa!

Biblical Contradictions – They Exist and I Love Them

(This is a line of thought I’m still journeying through. You may find something helpful or not. It’s cool either way.)

In highschool, a lot of my atheist classmates would talk about contradictions in the Bible. I didn’t really pay much attention. I figured they were probably wrong. My pastors and youth leaders never mentioned these supposed contradictions so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about.

When I got into the habit of listening to debates, I began to hear atheists point to specific contradictions. In response, the Christian apologists would calmly explain them away.

“Take the sentences ‘Bob is rich’ and ‘Bob is poor’. You might assume that these are contradictions, but perhaps they refer to Bob at different times in his life. Perhaps Bob is poor in finances, but rich in terms of relationships and experiences. Perhaps there are two different people named Bob. We can’t assume and we have to know more.” This is, of course, a very good point and I found it very comforting.

But then in a university class a professor pointed my discussion group to a passage in Proverbs. We were supposed to interpret it and share our interpretation.

folly

Proverbs 26:4,5

I read the first half thinking “Ah, reasonable.” Then the second verse completely froze me. “This is Proverbs. This is the book of rules to live by. I can’t do both of these things, so what do I do?” I tried to find ways to harmonize them – maybe you’re supposed to do it sometimes but not other times – but even then, am I not sitting there trying to fix the Bible? Am I not adding something to it?

Here’s another one. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us one thing, Paul tells us another.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 1:2,3
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58

Well, which is it? Do we get nothing but vanity for our toil under the sun, or is our labour not in vain? I could list dozens more but sadly I must be concise. Here’s another one in which Chronicles and Samuel are talking about the same story.

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 19:15
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”” – 2 Samuel 24:1

Chronicles: Satan did X. Samuel: God did X. Conclusion: … What?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there trying to harmonize, harmonize, harmonize all of these passages. There may be nothing wrong with that. It’s a good impulse, but I fear we might miss out on something if that’s all we do. What that something is I will tell you, after one more example. Or rather, six more.

Open up to Matthew 5 and you’ll hear Jesus saying he’s not coming to abolish the law or the prophets. Then he goes on to repeat the formula “You have heard it said (quotes the Bible) but I tell you (says something different.)” So here we have a double whammy of contradictions. Six times, we have Jesus speaking in contrast to (“Contra Dicting”) other Bible passages, and he frames this by saying that he isn’t going to take an iota away from other Bible passages.

Right now, you’re either fascinated or really offended. Or both. Or you’re thinking the obvious objection that I’m going to cover in one second.

If the Bible is supposed to be a book of rules, it has clearly failed. I can’t both answer a fool according to folly and not answer a fool according to folly. If the Bible is supposed to be a philosophical panegyric, it has clearly failed. Labour can’t be both vanity and not vanity. If the Bible is supposed to be a textbook on spiritual realities, it has clearly failed. Unless God and Satan are the same person, David’s census has some weird stuff going on.

So it seems we’re left with two options. Maybe the Bible is a failure, or maybe we need to rethink its genre.

When I was in therapy, I learned a word. A word I had never learned from any western education institution; perhaps the entire western world needs therapy. “Dialectic.” Think Dialogue. It’s a conversation. Dialectic thinking simultaneously holds two propositions that seem to be in contrast. In therapy, if I’m caught in the anxiety of thinking I’m absolutely terrible or totally perfect, I’m going to have problems. If I can learn to accept that I’m both good and bad, virtuous in many ways while also having weaknesses to work through, that frees me. Now I can grow more easily.

My virtues and my vices are contradictory, but if I can hold them both as true at the same time then I am empowered to grow. The aforementioned objection that I assume you’re thinking is “But you’re defining ‘contradiction’ incorrectly. Contradictions are not simply contrasting statements, but statements with mutually exclusive meanings. You have to consider the meanings of these verses in context.” A brilliant point which highlights two important things: first that the word ‘contradiction’ needs defining (which I rarely hear happen) and tends to be wrapped up in shades of association, and second that we must ask ourselves what the Bible intends.

In the famous (and occasionally infamous) story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner by asking him whether the woman ought to be stoned or not. Jesus redirects the question towards something more important. He seems to do this quite often, and what he does in saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is highlight the Pharisee’s need for forgiveness. Jesus contextualizes our questions and frames our understanding in humility. This, I think, is the intention of the whole Bible.

The Bible does not give us all the answers, it points us to a person. It’s a conversation anchored around a person.

Do I answer the fool according to his folly or not? I don’t know, but if I follow the love ethic of Jesus then I’m sure I’ll make the right choice.

Is our labour vanity or not? I can philosophize over this, but if I’m trusting Christ then I know I won’t need to worry about it.

What is the relationship between the will of God and the will of Satan? Does God incite evil against us? A very interesting question, but one that must consider how God shows his love by participating in our suffering himself in the life and crucifixion of the Son of Mary.

People sometimes describe the Bible as “living” and this is why. A plain set of instructions is static. It’s dead. It only goes so deep and then it’s exhausted. A dialectic work keeps you wondering, keeps you asking questions. It is popularly said that Rabbis answer questions with other questions. This isn’t just deflection. We’re supposed to think deeper and, more importantly, better realize how the answers must be found with Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon in which Bruxy of the Meeting House interviewed a Zen Buddhist. The Buddhist compared Jesus’ style of teaching with the Koan, the saying or question that’s supposed to freeze your mind and expose your unhealthy patters of thinking. While I think it’s important to recognize that Buddha and Christ have very different goals, there is some true to this. The Bible Project also has a great series that explores some the dialectic aspects of biblical wisdom literature.

In our broken world, if we desire change and growth, we don’t need a static book of precepts. We need someone who is going to freeze our attention, expose our habits, and “make foolish the wisdom of the world.” We need change, not the status quo. We need a living dynamic person to walk with as we grow in life and this is the Christ of the Bible.

This isn’t intellectual foreclosure. It does mean applying our intellect to something more important rather than squabbling over facts and figures. It means finding ourselves in a story, in relation to Christ, and making that the grounds upon which we ask ourselves, and each other, the big questions.

Take us away, Book…

it fixes you