patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Monday, January 23, 2012

it's like poetry

The past couple of mornings, my husband Kris and I have been talking about that first, theologically gigantic sentence of John’s gospel: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.

I have a love-hate relationship with language like this. I love how it makes me feel to read the sentence aloud: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Just the sound of the words—the repetition of the word word and the same plain syntax (three reversed was statements joined by and)—operates as an invitation into mystery. John’s sentence is the only passage of scripture—except maybe “Jesus wept”—that I have memorized without expressly setting out to do so. Something about it is fundamentally appealing and simple. Indeed, it’s so straightforward that, unlike most of scripture, it's is pretty much identical across the translations. Somehow, the words just seem to want to be said and kept.

That said, the sentence has always frustrated me. The way philosophers often frustrate me. And some artists. And many theologians. Just say what you mean and be done with it, I want to tell them. Or don’t say it at all.

I mean, if John was talking about Jesus, why didn’t he say Jesus? It would make things so much clearer. Jesus existed from the beginning and was with God and was God. Done. No consideration of the various permutations of the word logos in biblical Greek. No long discussions of the timeless Greek form of the repeated was, as compared to the poor simple past tense in which we must house it in English. Instead, a clear-cut declaration of Jesus’ participation in the creation of the universe.

Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all. Maybe, as some suggest, this is just John’s way of introducing the big story of Jesus on time on earth. Forget the sentence’s reverberations with the first words of scripture: In the beginning… Focus, instead, on the vagaries of John’s next words—“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (TNIV)—where weird preposition use (how, exactly, does one make something through someone else?) and passive voice call Jesus’ actual participation in the creation into question. The word, here, seems not to be the Creator himself but merely a vehicle of God’s efforts. But then, if that were so, how could it be that the word also was God?

Kris likes the ambiguity of John’s opening sentence.

“It’s like poetry,” he told me. “It’s not so much the meaning that matters as how it makes you feel.”

The students in my poetry workshop are of the same opinion about poetry. I told them the other day that part of their job in responding to one another’s poems was to report if something didn’t make sense. 

“But why’s that a bad thing? I like poems that don’t make sense,” one of them remarked.

I tried to differentiate bad lack of clarity from good ambiguity—with my usual lack of success. This fight happens in every poetry workshop I teach, and it only gets worse as the semester progresses. Often, those who write the clearest and most concrete and best poems are the ones most steadfastly dedicated to everyone else’s right to be vague and abstract and meaningless.

I had my students' upcoming first poems in mind as Kris went on about the poetic quality of John’s sentence.

“Then you’re saying it doesn’t mean anything?” I asked him.

“No, I think it means something. That God’s message existed from the beginning. His plan. That Jesus was God’s plan all along.”

“And that Jesus was there with God the Father. At the creation.”

“Well, yes, I guess. After all, Jesus calls himself the Word.”

And the Bread, I could have told him. And the Gate. And the Shepherd. And the Vine. Fodder for generations of theologians and songwriters.


  1. Two Fridays ago, I bought your book Confessions of an Amateur Believer at a Goodwill in Franklin, Tennessee (honestly as a last-minute, at-the-counter purchase that I am usually very reluctant to make). The following Friday, I began the book while waiting on my ENG097 students to finish their tests and have finished it in two days. Truth be told, those were the longest (and best) two days of my life; they were filled with humor, with the sudden realization that I am not a nutcase, and, most importantly, with a weird sense of peace.

    Things in my life have been increasingly unpleasant since my teenage years, leading me to ultimately blame God - or a lack thereof, really - for those issues. I fell in my own state of "unbelief" which was characterized more by a run with alcohol-induced rage and drug-filled escapism than with with any true philosophical intent to determine morality, life, or any of those other intangible ideas. My life on a religious scale had always been dominated by religious "experts" who condemned every person they possibly could while creating their own standards and obligations for being saved. At the very least, I was discouraged. Discouraged first because every religious person I had really come into contact with suggested that I had to be the perfect, live-by-works Christian that they expected of me. Discouraged second because I. knew that giving up what my heart knew I was would create a life and belief system tainted. by obligation. The people in my church think that I have to be like this, so I have no choice. That really wasn't the life I wanted to live.

    I have always wondered about doing good will freely versus doing good will only because it is expected. For a while I researched the doctrines of Secular Humanism - that one could be good and do good without being obligated by a higher being - because I wanted to believe that people could actually, and whole-heartedly, want to do those things without being asked to do them. It is almost like asking my Developmental Writing students to read a chapter before we go over it in class - sometimes I would rather just propose that we cover the designated chapter the following class date and see who will actually take the time to read the chapter without my prodding them to do it. For years, that is exactly what my condemnation of God and Christianity has been: "I don't want to have a crutch that requires me to do good things...I want to be able to do them on my own."

    Until recently, my support for such a theory has been little to none. Really, that is why I am struggling to write this comment on my phone - all I really want to do is thank you. Thank you for your humor, your honesty, your willingness to share your own story with the world. It presented itself to me (through God's will, no doubt) when I needed it the most. I plan on reading your Field Guide to God as soon as I get the chance. But for now, I just wanted you to know that you have helped calm my heart and you have provided my ideas and beliefs with your writing. I could not be more grateful for your book.

  2. Wow. What a nice comment to read right at this moment. I'm struggling to come up with a revision strategy for a book coming out in 2013 called Easy Burdens just exactly on this topic. Right now the book, according to my editor, goes in circles (he's right), and I'm trying to figure out how to make it go in more of a straight line. I'm not there yet, but your post may help me find my way. It's also a good reminder to me that I'm not the only one who struggles with how to reconcile Jesus' promise that his yoke is easy and his burden light with all the heavy burdens we Christians load ourselves down with. Thanks, in any case, for your comment and kind words about my book.