About a month ago, I finished reading The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but haven’t been sure what exactly I should write about.
The main premise of the book is that pastors should approach people the same way that poets approach poetry. Barnes relies heavily on the writings of Eliot and Pound as he draws connections between poetry, the Christian faith (including the character of God and the hear of poets found in the Bible), and relationships. A large chunk of this book is directed towards pastors as they prepare their sermons, and while interesting, doesn’t necessarily relate to my life. However, Barnes keys on two ideas that can be thought provoking for everyone, regardless of their faith.
Barnes presents Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Simply put, Negative Capability refers to the inherent mystery surround poetry–the idea that one doesn’t have to have all of the answers to a poem in order to enjoy it. In defining his own poetics, Joseph Hutchison writes,
Puzzlement is a puzzling quality. . . I especially enjoy being puzzled by my own work, but I detest the impulse I sometimes feel to “hide the treasure” somehow, as some kind of test for the reader. Mystery is the essence of life on our planet. . . The works of Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout seem to me full of mystery. . . .
Poets seem to have this knack for finding joy in the mysterious (or should anyways). Barnes takes this idea of Negative Capability and it’s resulting joy and suggests that humans, in our post-Enlightenment/Age of Reason nature, can’t deal with not having the answers. My students get really frustrated when they can’t solve a poem–regardless of the musicality or images. American citizens get all hot-to-trot when we don’t know what our President is thinking/doing/deciding. We want and demand answers. Barnes believes that this demand for answers and clarity pervades the church as well. People seem discontent with the mystery of God–and many have decided God doesn’t even exist because of so many questions/mysteries/unknowns (What kind of God chooses some people and not others? What kind of God justifies eliminating an entire race/civilization? What kind of God would send somebody to hell for eternal damnation/suffering?).
I’ve realized over the past couple of years that I do not really truly understand the character of God. He is a mystery to me. How much of that mystery am I okay with? How much mystery do I despise, resulting in demands to have the answers? How much does my view/opinion/understanding of God depend on the relationships/influences of the people around me and my past?
This leads to the second point Barnes makes in his book. He thinks that relationships between people should be nurtured the same way a poet and a poem relate. As I have conversations with those around me, I hear time and again stories about people (pastors, Christian friends, Christian family) that have completely alienated those around them. Adam Fieled posted a blog last spring with the following quote:
My two basic problems with Christianity: 1) that I have never seen or heard Jesus 2) that I have seen and heard a lot of Christians. They are, I think, mostly a lousy advertisement.
And again, more recently:
If anyone wants a good scare (quite as good as Carrie), go to Netflix and watch Jesus Camp. I had no idea that out of 320 million Americans, 80 million are Evangelical Christians. One in four. I’d say that there are probably 1 million Americans seriously involved in art. So there are 80 times more Evangelicals in America than there are artists. The center of much of the film’s action is Rev. Ted Haggard, who appears an hour into it. Haggard was later charged with picking up and having anal sex with a male prostitute. Now that’s leadership.
I don’t think the only way to experience God is through other people, but it seems that people are a major prism through which others will determine their point of view. Is it any wonder why people don’t see mystery in the character of God when those that follow Him don’t seem to live anything but hypocritical lives?
The poetry that seems most criticized in the poetry world is that which is too easy, too obvious, too old-school (some would say too quiet, but I won’t go there). But what if Christians got over their safe, homeschooling counter-culture and took the risk of accepting the mystery of people, and saw others as objects of love instead of something that needed to be fixed–actually being a part of the world instead of hiding from and criticizing it?