In a Dominican priory in Salamanca, a relief depicts Mary Magdalene contemplating the empty cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified and searching for Truth.

In the beginning was poetry.

The book of Genesis, as Ellen Davis has observed, starts with a liturgical poem. The creation of the cosmos can only be communicated, the ancients knew, through language that speaks to the imagination — that unity of intellect and emotion, which was for the biblical writers the restless human heart.

Images and metaphors are primary speech, conveyers of truth — durable yet pliable, precise yet ever expansive in the vision of the world (and ourselves) they set before us.

That they were describing biological or geological processes would never have occurred to the redactors of the Bible's foundational stories. Not because they were uninterested in or incapable of such description but because the truths they were telling were not available within discursive speech; the reporting of facts was not the business they were in. For most of the Church's history, interpreters of biblical language understood this.

And then there were propositions.

With modernity came the quest for scientific certainty and singularity of meaning. Texts were read in the same way that ore was mined from the earth: you dig and dig and the Truth, like a nugget of gold, is eventually dislodged. You extract it with your best tools, dust it off, and hold it up to the light for all to admire. This Truth, this narrowly defined, singular "meaning" of this or that text, became an object of adoration and it wasn't long before modern Christians were worshiping the Bible itself rather than the One to whom it points.

And this Bible, moderns continue to insist, speaks in propositions: The Word of God as a collection of truthful statements that must be assented to. Christianity as a list. Do you believe the right propositions?

The resurrection stories in the four Gospels differ significantly from one another (as do the Creation stories in Genesis 1-2). What might it mean for us to recover — in our living, in our worship, and in our preaching — the poetic possibilities of these stories? Could we stop straining toward explanations for the inexplicable? Could we trust that Jesus' friends — to their own incredulity as much as anyone's — experienced him fully alive after his tortuous death and that this is not so much a scientific fact to be endlessly probed as it is gospel — genuine good news — to be lived?

And can we see the poetic genius of St. John who brings the resurrection story back to Genesis's cosmic beginnings in a garden?

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
—Gospel of John, 20:15

Jesus is the patient gardener. He is the "tree of life." He is the new creation. And in him we live.

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in — black ice and squid ink —
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In his corpse's core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest's door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it's your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
—Mary Karr, "Descending Theology: The Resurrection"


Debra Dean Murphy

Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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Debra,

You spoke beautifully in this post; which drew me further into the depths of the story. Brian McLaren was among the first to help me contemplate the ministry and example of Jesus as bringing about "new creation," that the "reconciliation of all things" Paul spoke of was a calling back to the simplicity, obedience, and beauty of the Garden. Rob Bell drew me into Genesis creation as poetry in "Everything is Spiritual," drawing out the power of the poetry and the response it brings out that goes far beyond viewing Genesis as textbook and purely propositional scientific statement. So thank you for emphasizing the layers of meaning that come from poetic imagery. I'm not naturally inclined to that kind of reading, but wise leaders reinforce my need to embrace that quality of truth.

You then moved to say,
"What might it mean for us to recover — in our living, in our worship, and in our preaching — the poetic possibilities of these stories? Could we stop straining toward explanations for the inexplicable? Could we trust that Jesus’ friends — to their own incredulity as much as anyone’s — experienced him fully alive after his tortuous death and that this is not so much a scientific fact to be endlessly probed as it is gospel — genuine good news — to be lived?"

I couldn't help but think (even as I appreciated the emphasis on the poetic qualities of the resurrection narrative) that you were emphasizing the poetic qualities over against possible factual qualities. The phrase you used, "this is not so much a scientific fact to be endlessly probed as it is gospel- genuine good news- to be lived," seemed to suggest this.

I'm just wondering out loud if it isn't possible for us to hold those together (and to be intentional in our language to avoid the "over-against" qualities and embrace the togetherness. I don't know where you specifically come down as to the "factual" events of the resurrection. I personally am one who fully believes in the actual, bodily resurrection of Jesus and the actual creation of all that is by a loving Creator and yet have been led to appreciate the poetic layers of beauty and truth beyond propositions. Wise leaders have led me to that. And I think the resurrection narrative is, in a very real sense, lends itself much more to meaningful significant propositional and factual statements than the creation poetry does. In the resurrection story, there were witnesses. Multiple ones. And they didn't speak of resurrection simply as a metaphor but met with the resurrected Jesus in a room and by a lake. I trust their account more than, say Crossan's interpretation of their words to say they "didn't really mean physical resurrection." I've just been so steeped now in the resurrection story that it no longer is "inexplicable" to me. I believe that God is stronger than death, and that Jesus' physical resurrection is only the "firstfruits" of what we all were created for.

I may have been nitpicking here, and McLaren has warned against list-making and checking off theological points when reading. I try to deeply take that instruction to heart. But I think my desire is one a number of evangelical Christians long for. We say "Yes!" to the bodily resurrection of Jesus as powerful evidence God scoffs at death, and we say "Yes!" to the metaphorical resurrection understandings that calls into meaning; my church community in West Norwood here in southwest Ohio longs for this resurrection in our neighborhood. So we often feel like we're on "the rack" with our limbs being stretched to painful extremes as we try to present a different way between opposing theological camps.

Nathan Myers

Thanks for a very thoughtful response, Nathan. I'm not pitting the poetic against the propositional in a rigid sort of way (I hope); just trying to highlight the former since so much emphasis has been placed (for centuries) on the latter. I'm an orthodox Christian: I believe in and confess the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But I "believe" that proposition not in the sense that I have the biology and physics of life after death all figured out and settled in my mind but in the deepest sense of the word "believe"--that which I give my whole heart/self to. Which gets us back to poetry a bit.

Debra,

Thank you for your helpful response. And again, thank you for the time and energy dedicated to revealing some necessary and beautiful poetic depth to the resurrection.

Beautiful meditation--reminds me of some of Wendell Berry's work.

Thank you, Chris. Wendell Berry is a favorite of mine (and he's part of the OnBeing interview with Ellen Davis that I link to here). Happy Easter!