When in my twenties I fell in love with poetry, took out some big loans, packed up my small red Mazda hatchback with everything I owned and drove from Denver to New York to start graduate school, it never occurred to me that I was searching for a new way to read the Bible. I wanted language, and language alone. I wanted to bend grammar, curse freely, invite illogical leaps of association and justifiable juxtapositions to dine at my mental table, and none of that seemed compatible with my faith tradition. I was bowled over by the power of language in the novels and poems I was reading, but I had not yet recognized that such power might be rooted in, connected with, the God and the ancient scriptures I had studied in youth groups and college Bible studies.
—Judith M. Kunst, The Burning Word, p 19
I’m sitting in a late-70s duplex done up in late 90’s luxe, but with a cross-wall. B is asleep; My Sweetie is, like Diogenes, searching the area for one good breakfast taco. (Well, let’s hope a half-dozen.) Over the past two days, we have celebrated A’s 22nd birthday by first dining at “her” restaurant, then by taking her along with us as a guest to a new place helmed by a chef she respects. Later today we’ll cap the visit with lunchtime pho. We (well, A & I) yesterday furthered my birthday celebration by getting thematically linked tattoos: mine (my first) a stripped-down image, hers as the centerpiece of an abstract armband of original work by the artist. It’s been surprisingly tiring. I’m writing now because I don’t foresee feeling any fresher at the end of a four-ish hour drive and some grocery shopping. Besides, what else am I going to do besides eat? And read?
Speaking of reading…
The Burning Word is working better for me thus far than The Gift. I was mildly intrigued by the economic model Hyde established in the first half of The Gift, but I’d already encountered very similar examples and arguments by Eric Raymond back in the very late 90s. The payoff I’d hoped for, some scintillating unfolding of an artists’ economy of gift-giving, perhaps similar to God’s economies?, never fully materialized for me… though I feel deeply certain there’s a lot of potential there. Perhaps midrash is an easier topic to hang onto.
Today in The Burning Word I recognized an echo of my Christian writer-friends’ oblique laments. Most of them were formed by an American Evangelicalism that I didn’t fully notice until I was in college. Kunst refers to it as a tradition that that reads “through” Biblical texts, looking for the message at the other side. My friends comment that part of what keeps them outside the practices of their childhood is this emphasis on “correct meanings,” that there is a single right answer that one—or several—human pastors know. Writers, particularly poets, become deeply skeptical of singular understandings.
Poets, in my experience, are not much for certainty.
Or they recognize the attractions of it, while still being unable to shake how the fluidity of their metier spills over into their understanding of the world. When part of one’s discipline is to select words that are supposed to cause readers to wonder whether a line ‘really means’ Version A or Version B, it’s hard to affirm hegemonic interpretations of anything. After all, our answer to the ‘really means’ question is to say: Yes. Both. At the same time.
And if you don’t like that answer… well, too bad, and do it anyway.
I think this a root of my attraction to midrash. I’m comfortable with Biblical text being true; I’m also comfortable with being personally limited in my ability to (a) understand and/or (b) share my understanding of the text’s truth. It strikes me that the power of God’s expression in the Bible is similar to the power of the theme or source-tune in jazz. The source is there, and real, and true. Yet in the improvisation we—the jazz musician and the listener—comprehend not only the straightforward qualities of the source, but additional nuance, depth, and connection. And each fresh improvisation layers additional comprehension, so that God’s divine incomprehensibility unfolds ever deeper and ever outward.
Leaps of association and justifiable juxtapositions: let us dance with God any way God’s music pulls our feet.