Monday, July 11, 2011

Maxing Tragic and Waxing Poetic

Imagine an event taking place right where you live, where pandemonium replaces order, where people are being massacred all around, where there is such a rush to flee that parents are faced with "Shophies' Choice" over which child to rescue and which one to leave to fate.

Okay, that's pretty grim and hard to imagine, I know. But, it does happen and not just in books or movies. Names and phrases are all we need to remember it: the Killing Fields, the Lost Boys of the Sudan, the Shoah in Europe, the massacre of Rwanda - and those are just 20th century terms. It seems that in every age, among a variety of peoples, there have been occasions when the horror was simply too much to comprehend, even many years after in retrospect.

My question is: How can one speak of such unspeakable tragedies? The problem of language in the face of tragedy was a challenge for many biblical writers. For example, if you are living in Jerusalem just after 70AD, how do you describe the horror of seeing your temple destroyed by the Roman military? Do you say, "Approximately 93 per cent of the stones have been damaged beyond repair?" Or, do you say, "Oh, the humanity!"? The second choice is the least literal,but probably truer to the experience than the first. That's the challenge of finding a fitting language for an unspeakable tragedy.

The Lament Psalms in the psalter seem to show one way of giving words to tragedy. I would argue that apocalyptic language is another. The point is certainly not to give a play-by-play description of predetermined future events. That's the fundamental problem with so much of what passes for "interpretations" of apocalyptic texts in the Bible. The point is, we should encounter those texts as poetry, more than literal speech.

And ... More importantly, we should imitate those texts. Enough of this ridiculous enterprise of taking poetry literally. Instead, we should learn to speak poetry. Then we would be in a better position t hear the real cries if despair and hope in texts about "the Great Tribulation." Then we would be able to give better and truer language to the tragedies of our own day.

Whaddya say? Shall we give it a go over the next few weeks?


  1. I just happened on your comments, Mark. I agree with you. There is far too much "interpreting" of scripture to fit whatever happens to be the critical events in the time we live. Its far better to live a positive life that lets people know we are Christian by our love (both in attitude and action) than to dwell on "end of times" theology. I believe that more firmly than ever since being "left behind" for 5 1/2 years after being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer. Faith is a leap that is both metaphysical and very real; it doesn't depend on whether we are necessarily correct in every theological point in scripture.

  2. The more things change the more they stay the same. Today's religious controversies remind me of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s . I recently reread (and gave to the English worship service folks a copy of) HEF's sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" that forced him to resign from First Presbyterian in NYC after the Gen. Assembly directed that the presbytery investigate him for apostasy. (His defense lawyer was John Foster Dulles whose father was a liberal Princeton professor.) There seem to be some broad parallels to the approach of Biblical interpretation that you are suggesting. Just sayin'…

  3. A second thought: in my humble but professional opinion, the most effective psychological therapy with survivors of Type II trauma, such as the victims of the war in Sudan, is Art Therapy. Its effectiveness proceeds from the fact that when one has experienced great trauma, words themselves do not do an adequate job of communication. A drawing, painting, sculpture does a better job of describing one's feelings/reactions. So the psalmists and others drew powerful word pictures with their poetry, because, as Mark posited, simple prose was not adequate for the job.

  4. Bill and Dave, wonderful comments. Thanks.
    Bill, I love the spin you put on the phrase 'left behind,' in terms of your diagnosis and remarkable, even miraculous, recovery. Your treatment could have been described with the same language as many apocalyptic texts use regarding 'tribulation,' with a kind of healing arc that was intended by it all, but hard to see throughout the process. Wow.
    Dave, I, too, have begun to explore art - music, in my case - as a possible 'language' beyond words. Thanks for reminding me of Roberta's ministry via art and your experience with it.


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