Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Through the Blistered Glass

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone. I celebrated it in our Exegesis of Revelation class by reading a bit of William Butler Yeats’ poem The Wanderings of Oisin. It recounts the tale of the Irish hero Oisin and his faery lover, with St. Patrick cast in the role of the disapproving, joy-killing Christian. The poem begins:
S. Patrick. You who are bent and bald, and blind,
With a heavy heart and a wandering mind,
Have known three centuries, poets sing,
Of dalliance with a demon thing.
Oisin. Sad to remember, sick with years,
The swift innumerable spears,
The horseman with their flowing hair,
And bowls of barley, honey, and wine,
Those merry couples dancing in tune,
And the white body that lay by mine;
But the tale, though words be lighter than air,
Must live to be old like the wandering moon.
Now by any orthodox account, Yeats was as woeful a theologian as he was wonderful a poet – and not simply because of his treatment of Patrick in the Wanderings. He was a devotee of Theosophy, a blend of Platonism, mysticism and highly doctored Buddhism that quickly degenerates into a vague, incoherent babble of Quarternaries, Triads, and something called an Etheric Double (you can read more on Yeats and Theosophy here:
Why, then, read him in a course of Revelation? The answer is that, for all the becloudedness of his vision, Yeats still sensed or saw something, and spoke of it, in a way that often puts the church to shame. The words “the swift innumerable spears” are great poetry not only because they trip liltingly off the tongue, but because they evoke the remembrance of faded martial glory better than a thousand essays on the subject. In a much greater way Revelation, and all the apocalyptic bits of the Bible, offer us a vision of God’s kingdom that cannot be captured by staid, prosaic analysis. The seers throw us into the maelstrom of God’s grace and judgment; they set before us the horrors of the Abyss and the wonders of the New Jerusalem. They are so wild and dis-orienting we tend to avoid them altogether.
But doing so wraps a tourniquet on the church’s spiritual imagination. I have often contemplated teaching a course Horrible Protestant Fiction; I am now inclined to add another, Non-Existent Protestant Poetry. Both are exaggerations, of course; I am sure that worthy endeavors in both fields have been undertaken by the sons and daughters of the Reformation. But we Protestants do tend to be prosy proclaimers and inveterate explainers, with little patience for the ambiguity that inevitably resides in lean lines of verse. And I suspect our relative neglect of apocalyptic (aside from its utility for end of the world calculations) is a part of the problem.
We must of course reckon with the rarity of poetic genius. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and God’s scatters his creative gifts as he sees fit. As often as not they end up in what we consider the wrong hands (see our prior blog on Avatar for further evidence). We may have “acres of diamonds” at our feet, as Russell Conwell used to preach, but we don’t appear to have acres of Yeatses in our pews waiting to be furrowed. But those few who are genuinely gifted will not thrive if the church puts before them an impoverished, visionless Christianity. Preachers and teachers need to spread before their people the banquet of imagery in Revelation and Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah. If such texts prove rather hard to manage, that is a large part of the point: we shouldn’t want a God who fits so comfortably into our old word order that we can never move into his new one. If he does not shake us up, he can never wake us up.
Tolkien saw all this as clearly as anyone, though he did not make the connection with apocalyptic explicit, and his essay On Faery Stories remains the essential treatment of the topic. But it is fitting to end with an image, from the writer Frederick Buechner, in his book The Alphabet of Grace:
The window by the table where I work has large, old-fashioned panes with wavy places and blisters in the glass…my eyes are fixed sightlessly on the window just beyond the writing table and remain fixed there for I have no idea how long. Finally their sight returns and I see that all this time I have been looking at the window without knowing that I was looking at it. Through it there is a white picket fence across the street, and one of the blisters in the glass pane has taken an oval-shaped piece out of the fence and out of the grass beyond the fence; it looks as if there is some kind of hole in the world there, some kind of oval-shaped entrance to another world inside this world. (pp.89-90)
Are we willing to go through the blistered glass?

No comments:

Post a Comment