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. (photo: Lawrence Lew/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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 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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