June 9, 2012

Life as Poetry: A Red-Headed Step Child

"...embodied poems which capture their imagination otherwise." - James K. A. Smith

I am currently in the middle of a collection of posts reflecting on my time in Kenya, but I have this red-headed step child who needs my attention now; hence this post. This divulsing shouldn't be long.

My friend Ben, who shares with me a ferocious interest in tussling with taken-for-granted Christian truths and practices, and I often talked, both early in the morning and late at night, about the nature of Scripture, biblical studies, hermeneutics, science, evolution and homosexuality amongst any and everything else while at school this past year (not that we are "qualified" to speak about all of them); though his capacity for highly-energetic and mentally-straining talks about complex issues far surpasses mine.

While I enjoy it while I can, I lose steam rather quick. Then I retreat. This is fun for Ben since at this point my responses are minimal at best and I usually won't tell him when I'm barely listening to his analysis of some super-interesting academic discussion on conception and embryos and its implications for Christians and abortion. In other words, as far as thick conversation goes, his gas tank holds twelve gallons while mine holds four.

From time to time, during our talks, I would bring up one of my favorite Christian scholars, James Smith. Though my "interaction" (me reading his words) with him is limited—I've read three of his eleven books—I thoroughly enjoy what I have experienced: solid, creative Christian scholarship relevant for life "on the ground" all in lucid prose. *Sigh*

Ben is now somewhat familiar with him. Smith is known, by Ben, as the "Pentecostal Calvinist" (read more here). He is a strange yet friendly "coming together" of two worlds usually separated by a sizeable distance.

It wasn't long ago I was reading a post of Smith's on his blog Fors Clavigera. The post was sparked by an article by Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Smith wrote (here) a few sentences reflecting on a quote of Hauerwas'. Overall, nothing about any of this was unusually luring. Well, all apart from this one half-sentence that would eventually lodge itself deep in my mind. James Smith wrote, "…embodied poems which capture their imagination otherwise."


Smith was writing about embodying a way of life that gives something different to the world, a way of life that envelops an alternative mode-of-being; and in this instance, a mode to help imagine differently the understanding of the life of sex and its place in Christianity, particularly among youth.

But the context I don't really care about, necessarily. This string of words does something for me. I read it and reread it. I thought about it; then thought about it again.

I recently returned from Kenya. And one night after dark I walked down a path at our hotel to the large grass field where baboons would play in the morning. I do what I often do when I'm near grass fields at night. I stood in the middle of it and preached. I preached about this line, about being a walking, talking, breathing poem that draws people in to imagine a different world, a different life, one transformed by Christ. I mean, I go all out. I rock back and forth and use my hands and imagine an audience. This time, like normal, was youth.

Why do I like this phrase so much? I don't know. I suppose it's an interesting metaphor: person as poem, life as poetry.

Maybe following Jesus could be like giving a good poem a body.

I mean, what are some responses to great poetry? I imagine a woman floored by the beauty of its articulation or a weeping man who's found words that sympathize with his own personal grief. Poems make people stop. They inspire. They're read, then forgotten. Then reread as if for the first time. Like a piece of art or warm meal, they bring you in. People return to them again and again and discover truth in them. As the profession of the depressed and the madman, poetry offers the world something raw, something devastating, something healing.

I can't help but dream about this phrase, as if a subtitle for Christ's bride: the Church: an embodied poem to capture imaginations otherwise.