A Taste of the Banquet: Hopkins’ ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’

 

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist tells us. We wish to invite others to the great banquet of the Kingdom, where they will experience for themselves the goodness of God. This is no easy task. We must, for one thing, be able to a strong case that the Kingdom is real, and that we’re not inviting people to sit down at a fairy banquet where the food is only illusion!

But knowing that we are invited is only half the battle. We must also want to attend – and not just ‘one of these days’ or ‘maybe sometime,’ but now. And it is no easy task to make the invitation properly inviting.

Tell me – what does coffee taste like? What about chocolate? A ripe plum? A slice of freshly baked bread? Can you do it, well enough that someone who has never so much as smelled or seen these foods would have an idea of what they’re like, and would want to taste them?

That’s one of the tasks for which imaginative and literary apologetics is especially well suited. (If you are wondering what ‘imaginative and literary apologetics’ is, read Dr Michael Ward’s excellent piece here.)

There are as many different ways to approach literary apologetics as there are writers and artists; our Christian faith is endlessly rich and inspiring, and we have a great diversity of forms and genres in which to express it – but it’s no good saying that without giving an example, is it?

Let me guide you through a single poem, a sonnet by the Catholic poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, that gives the reader a taste of what it’s like to be a Christian – to be united with him, and find our identity in him.

Here we see two complementary aspects of literary apologetics – the creative side (Hopkins’ poem) and the critical side (our careful attention to the poem’s meaning and effects, as apologists and teachers.) Good literary criticism is a significant way that Christians can and do contribute to the work of cultural apologetics, and to the renewal and recovery of goodness, truth, and beauty both in academia and in popular culture. It’s important work, and I’m glad to be seeing signs of its growth, both in my own field of Inklings studies and elsewhere.

I’m going to look at the poem with a detailed literary-critical analysis precisely because I want you, my reader, to see both the beautiful things that Hopkins does, and how he achieves them. To use C.S. Lewis’s terms, we are going to Contemplate the poem so that you will then more fully Enjoy it (and help others to do the same). My “Creative Writing and Apologetics” students might also get some ideas for their own writing!

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

“Kingfishers” is a deeply experiential poem. Consider, first, how both the octet (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the next seven lines) flow from beginning to end with pauses but no full stops; like water flowing downhill, we fall from one image to the next in sequence, ending up pausing at the opening phrase of the sestet: “I say more.”

It is almost impossible to explain the music of this poem without reading it aloud. First, Hopkins makes extensive use of alliteration throughout the poem, with the effect that it carries us onward from one phrase to the next as well as highlighting particular words and thus bringing certain images into sharper focus:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells…

He also uses end rhyme, a fascinating drawing-together of two strands of English poetry, for unrhymed alliterative verse is the Old English tradition, and end-rhyme is a French-influenced Middle English innovation. Hopkins uses only two rhymes here, yet his musical pattern sounds natural and unforced; the pattern is ab ba ab ba, which gives us an underlying structure that nonetheless feels entirely natural and unforced:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Not only does he use end rhyme, but also internal rhyme, sometimes within and sometimes between lines:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…

Considered in this analytical manner, “Kingfishers” can begin to seem artificial, but the point here is not to pull apart the auditory effects of the poem for the sake of analysis, but rather to indicate the way that Hopkins has crafted what is in effect a musical composition in English words.

When this poem is read aloud, it sings. Even reading it silently, it draws us in to pure music—and joyful music!

Not only does the poem sound beautiful, but this music is paired with images of beauty. Kingfishers: brightly colored, fast-moving birds; dragonflies: elegant jewel-toned insects whose name itself echoes fantastic creatures of medieval myth. The created world, made by God through Christ, is faithful in being what it was made to be.

Then on to the human interaction with God’s creation: wells, evoking fresh water, but also mystery and magic (think of tossing coins down a wishing well), and a child’s playfulness in tossing a stone into a well just for the pleasure of hearing the ring of the falling stone. Bells: the swinging bell, that flings out the note in joyful exuberance. The stone makes its sound as it tumbles down a man-made well; likewise, Hopkins gives us the image of the hung bell, the work of human hands, ringing out its name.

These lines draw us into an experience of pure, unmediated joy—and then Hopkins tells us what that joy is. First he hints it with the bell that “finds tongue to fling out broad its name”: the bell speaks not just any word, but its name. Then he follows with the larger conclusion: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same… myself it speaks and spells; / Crying What I do is me.” All things naturally express their own identity – and the poem’s first lines have helped us feel, deep in our bones, that this identity is a joyous one. Hopkins goes a step further: following “what I do is me” we have “for that I came”: he takes us in one beat from identity to purpose.

Having introduced the idea of purpose at the pivot-point of the poem, Hopkins says “I say more,” declaring that he will unfold the meaning behind all of this.

However, he does not immediately name Christ; rather, he turns first to the human experience, “the just man justices”; by making a verb out of the noun justice, Hopkins makes the connection of identity and action concrete. This just man “Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces” – a play on words that emphasizes that God’s gift of grace is what allows the man to have all that he does unfold in grace. By including the word “grace” here, Hopkins helps the reader make the connection between beauty, joyful identity, and Christ before Christ is named, so that the name of Christ will be heard not as an evangelizing add-on, but as the piece that makes all the rest fit together perfectly.

And now Hopkins points to Christ who is at the heart of all of this: the man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ.” Here we have a clear and robust statement of Christian identity: it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Hopkins closes the poem with words that express the joy of living out that identity: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the father through the features of men’s faces.”

The fact that “Kingfishers” is beautiful purely as a poem draws us deeply into the heart of this experience: as poet, Hopkins takes us through a lived moment of pure, joyful Christian identity. We feel the joy of the kingfisher, dragonfly, stone, bell, and man each being exactly what it is meant to be – and we get a little taste of what it means to “put on Christ.”

 

WHEATON, ALLAH, AND THE TRINITY: DO MUSLIMS REALLY WORSHIP THE SAME GOD AS C. S. LEWIS?

Islam-and-Christianity

There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods.   It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial.  The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder.   Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work.   As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg.   “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.”   The other replied: “Family? What family?  Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.”  “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”

There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public.  Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity. Continue reading

Call for Papers: Ad Fontes, Ad Futura: Erasmus’ Bible and the Impact of Scripture

In celebration of upcoming 500th anniversary of Erasmus’ Greek text and the Reformation, the Department of Theology at HBU, in conjunction with the Dunham Bible Museum, is pleased to host the conference Ad Fontes, Ad Futura: Erasmus’ Bible and the Impact of Scripture. The conference will be hold at HBU on February 25-27, 2016.

We will consider the textual and historical issues surrounding the development of the Bible, the Bible’s impact on human society across the centuries, and the future of Biblical translation and interpretation in the future. Our keynote speakers include Craig Evans (Houston Baptist University), Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University), Herman Selderhuis (Theological University Apeldoorn) and Daniel Wallace (Dallas Theological Seminary). The plenary talks are free and open to the public.

We also invite proposals for short papers from scholars and graduate students from a wide array of disciplines and topics, including:

  • The historical context, and textual tradition, of the Biblical canon;
  • The history of the Greek text of the Bible;
  • The social and/or cultural impact of the Bible in any historical period or location;
  • The Bible and the history of the book;
  • Modern Bible translations and translation practice;
  • Textual and cultural issues concerning the Bible in the Digital Age.

Anyone who is interested should submit a 300 word abstract on any relevant topic by December 18, 2015. Papers should be 20 minutes long, and decisions will be announced in early January. Send proposals to Jason Maston at jmaston@hbu.edu.

You can get further information and register here:  www.hbu.edu/theologyconference.

The Hard Rock at the Heart of Global Conflict

The Hard Rock at the Heart of Global Conflict

At the heart of global conflict lie some basic, unyielding logical impossibilities, and this is the deepest reason the conflict is destined to continue for decades, probably centuries to come.  These logical impossibilities, moreover, concern issues of ultimate importance, which inevitably generate passionate interest on all sides.   Consider these examples.

Either God exists, or He does not.

Either God has revealed objective moral truth that we are obligated to follow, or He has not.

Only one of each of these two logically incompatible statements can be true, but one of each pair must be true.  But what is even more vital to grasp is the enormity of what hangs on which of these logically incompatible statements is true, and which is not.

Indeed, these logically incompatible claim represent the first great divide in global conflict, and it is a divide between all of us who believe God exists, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, or other theists, and all of those who believe God does not exist.  The existence of God is the most far reaching truth claim of all, as it bears on the origin and purpose of the entire world, not to mention the meaning of our individual lives. It is moreover, directly relevant to the second claim about moral truth, since most theists believe the nature and will of God define what is morally right and wrong and provide morality with a secure objective basis.  Whether or not God exists also determines what levels of happiness it is possible to achieve, whether there is life after death and we may rationally hope for the perfect satisfaction and fulfillment that eludes us in this life.

Pascal clearly saw what was at stake, and he wrote with existential urgency about the difference it makes whether God exists and there is life after death. Continue reading

Christmas isn’t the Charade. Peace apart from Christ is.

“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war … It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.” – Pope Francis [1]

Many articles have been circulating concerning Pope Francis’ recent mass wherein he claimed that the Christmas celebrations this year are a charade, because there is no peace in the world right now. While it is true there is much war and bloodshed currently taking place in the world and we should weep as Jesus weeps for those that suffer, there is something strangely missing from the message of the leader of the largest Christian community in the world. The message of hope that only the Prince of Peace can bring.

While it is true that many of those that will celebrate during the upcoming Christmas season are not celebrating the birth of Christ, the truth remains that Christmas is about Christ. It is about Christ coming into a world of sin, brokenness, and death to save us from an eternal death. It is a message of hope precisely because of the darkness of this world. It is a message of peace precisely because there is no true peace to be found in the world.

One need only crack a history book to find evidence that if there has ever been a time when there was absolutely no war, bloodshed, or genocide, those periods were very short lived, if there are any. Even Jesus’ birth was marked by a mass genocide of all Jewish boys 2 years of age and younger, in King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matt 2:16). If the very birth of the one we celebrate was marked by blood, why should we expect peace during our commemoration of it?

While the victimization of the past year has not been exclusive to Christians, many of the people who are suffering the most horrifically are the very ones who call on the name of Christ. Innumerable Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East simply because they are Christ followers. Videos of their executions have circled the internet, wherein even at the moment of execution these fearless Christians are praying and bearing witness to Christ’s ability to save and bring peace in the midst of the most horrific of circumstances. Is it not dishonoring to their sacrifice to consider the celebration of the birth of the Savior, in whose name they died, a charade because their blood was shed?

They died because they refused to deny him. Many more suffer because they refuse to deny him and pray that through their witness others will come to know him. The bloodshed in western countries is precisely because our post-Christian societies still bear witness to the freedom found in Christ’s message, even if our societies no longer recognize that freedom’s foundation in Christ.

During this season of remembrance, those of us who are Christians should use the atrocities of this year as an opportunity to share the message of Christ’s peace with others. We should use this season of celebration as an opportunity to share the real reason that we can celebrate, because we are free in Christ and have life that cannot be taken by a sword, gun, or bomb, eternal life in Jesus. Rather than focusing on the fallen state of this world, we should be celebrating our freedom in Christ and sharing that freedom with the lost. The lack of peace in the world should be no surprise to anyone that calls on the name of Christ, for Christ said “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). So rather than shrink away from celebration this year, due to the atrocities of this world, let us as Christians celebrate all the more, for the freedom the persecuted have in Christ, for the freedom the martyrs now experience in full in the presence of Christ, and for the opportunity to shine light into the darkness of this world, through our witness.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1:9-13

[1] https://ca.news.yahoo.com/pope-says-christmas-charade-because-121919232.html

Image from: http://www.christianstatements.com/and-his-name-shall-be-called-isaiah-9-vinyl-wall-decal

Living Reflectively

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”  (Ps. 8:4)

Anyone who takes the time to think of how much God loves him or her would be amazed by how unfathomable God’s love for him or her is.

Those who live thoughtlessly:  There are people who live thoughtlessly and, therefore, aimlessly.  For them life is a seemingly unending series of trial and errors.  Such people never realize that God is good.  Their lives consist of their making one wrong impulsive decision after another, yet they have the gall to blame God for the consequences of their mistakes.

Those who live in the past:  There are those who live in the past.  Some huge wrong decision in the past had pulled them down and has kept them down, and they never seem to lift up their heads to consider the possible solutions to their problems.

Those who live for the moment:  There are those who live for the moment, the here and now.  Esau is a very good example of this type of people.  The Bible tells us that one day Esau got back home from hunting in the forest, and he was famished.  He saw that his twin brother, Jacob, had prepared a delicious-looking red stew.  Esau asked if Jacob would be kind enough to give him some of his stew.  Jacob responded that he would give Esau the stew only if Esau would sell him his birthright.  Esau, who was focused only on his hunger at that time, would proceed to sell Jacob his birthright for some stew that would satisfy his hunger that one time alone (see Genesis 25:29-34).

Those who live for the moment do not take the time to consider the consequences of their decisions and actions.  Their motto is, “Do it if it will satisfy a need now.”  Continue reading

A Science and Faith Resource You Don’t Want to Miss

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J. Warner Wallace’s latest book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, is an exciting recent addition to the short list of science and faith books I regularly recommend to those desiring a strong, reader-friendly introduction to the issue of science and Christianity. It contains many of the same topics that are addressed in other scientific apologetics offerings, such as the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning argument, the origin of life, and the problems of consciousness, free will, and morality. However, this isn’t your average, dime-a-dozen pop apologetics book; far from it, in fact.

What makes this book unique (and incredibly entertaining, to boot) is how Wallace frames the entire discussion as a detective’s investigation into the question: Was the origin of the universe an “inside job,” or is the likely suspect something—or someoneGCS-Closing-Argument-Illustration-05-1024x874—outside of the “crime scene”? In other words, does the universe have a transcendent cause, and if so, who or what makes the list of likely suspects? The use of homicide case summaries as analogies for examining the scientific evidence related to cosmic and biological origins and helpful, appealing illustrations on nearly every page make this book as enjoyable as it is informative.

Wallace’s book is well researched; it presents the arguments in a comprehensible fashion and includes counter-arguments and relevant scientific and historical context for the supporting evidence. For example, in the opening chapter, he outlines the observational evidence for an ultimate beginning of the universe, including not only the better-known research of Edwin Hubble, but also the related work done by physicists and astronomers such as Vesto Slipher, Georges Lemaitre, Arno Penzias, and Robert Wilson. Readers without a science background need not be intimidated, though. The crime scene investigation parallels Wallace constructs aid the reader in understanding the significance of the scientific evidence for the over-arching argument. 

There are several other features of the book that are both fascinating and useful. For instance, there are “Expert Witness” sidebar profiles–short bio sketches of leading scholars in the different fields being explored, including some of their scholarly achievements, key arguments, and notable publications. Among others, Robert Pennock, Paul Churchland, Leonard Susskind, Paul Davies, and Roderick Chisholm are profiled. There are other sidebar boxes, such as  “A Tool for the Call-Out Bag,” which describe crime scene investigator techniques and how they are analogous to what scientific investigators do, and “Our  Emerging ‘Suspect’ Profile” boxes that sum up the accumulated evidence and preliminary conclusions as the chapters progress.

If you don’t already own a copy of God’s Crime Scene, I highly recommend it as an engaging and  worthwhile addition to your personal apologetics library. It would make a wonderful gift this Christmas season, particularly for college students, parents of teens, church leaders, and anyone in lay ministry who deals with questions pertaining to science and faith.

Check out the book trailer—->

God’s Crime Scene by J. Warner Wallace from J. Warner Wallace on Vimeo.

 

Avoiding Idolatry or What We May Learn From the Ancient Church

Some time ago, a Christian celebrity occupied the office next to my office at the university. This great lunch partner and friend awarded me a gift upon his departure — a Bible signed by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They gave him the gift when his wife and he had appeared on their TV show. Upon hearing the story my daughter laughed and asked, “Who signs the Bible – is that idolatrous?” We talked about when one should and should not sign a Bible. My daughter laughed at me even more when I confessed I had for a time used the Bible to prop up my computer monitor to the correct height- irreverent by contrast. Recently I came across the word “idolatry” in Denys Turner’s beautiful book on Thomas Aquinas. I teach that religious language is rooted in analogy. I tell students that some language is metaphorically true, for example, “God is my rock.”  Literal language, more modestly, sees a connection between our words about people and our words about God.

Analogy falls between two mistaken approaches to language. A (1) univocal sense pictures our language is a perfect fit; words like “wise” apply directly to God without reservation. Thomas knew this approach would never work. It is indeed the case that my father is wise; but Thomas knew that God was wiser still.

Neither did Thomas tolerate the other mistaken approach – the (2) equivocal sense. In this approach, the words we use to speak about God have nothing to do with our human experience at all. Saying my father is wise would have no relationship at all to saying God is wise.

Thankfully, Thomas avoids the two extremes. The (1) univocal is over confident in human ability to capture God exhaustively. The (2) equivocal concludes that human experience and language is not related to God at all; our language thus provides no insight whatsoever. Thomas teaches that human analogues, like a wise father, really do help us understand something about God. Simple enough. We can speak meaningfully but not exhaustively about God.

Turner’s book artfully argues that Thomas was more concerned with what analogical language sought to protect (the mystery of God) than to articulate.  In other words, Thomas was happy to nail down that knowing my father was wise would help me understand that God was wise; he was even more concerned to remind me that there is a depth to God’s wisdom beyond my father’s – beyond what I could know.

Turner worries about modern folk’s God talk. Without the limits of analogy in mind, we may read the Scripture picturing God as one more actor among all the others. Taking God down to size has consequences; according to Turner, Thomas would declare it idolatry.

Herbert McCabe wrote long ago that Thomas was a mystic; he seems smarter with each passing day.

Faith, Hope and Poetry

When I tell people that I teach ‘Imaginative and Literary Apologetics’ I am often met with a non-plussed look.

Some people are simply unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologetics’. They presume it must have something to do with saying sorry for Christianity – when, of course, it actually means giving reasons why Christianity can be considered credible.

And those people who are familiar with the term ‘Apologetics’ often assume it has just one dimension: that it’s all about giving reasons for Christianity’s credibility by showing the rationality of its claims to truth. But ‘Apologetics’ means more than that, – and for good reason. To concentrate solely on the ‘truth claims’ of Christianity runs the risk of turning the faith into a mere system of thought, a set of reasonable propositions to which its adherents intellectually grant assent.

Of course, belief in Christianity does include assent to certain propositions, and those propositions need to be grappled with by our intellects working logically and rigorously. But Christianity is more than a set of propositions. It’s not just something that’s true, it’s also something that’s good and beautiful. There are moral and artistic dimensions to Christian faith as well as philosophical dimensions. If apologists are to show how Christianity is fully credible, it needs to be demonstrated as the answer to ethical needs and aesthetic desires as well as to intellectual enquiries.

These three dimensions – the ethical, the aesthetic, and the intellectual – can’t be treated in hermetically sealed compartments when it comes to Apologetics. Indeed, part of the credibility of the faith resides in the fact there is connection and overlap and interinanimation between these three areas; the Christian life is an organic and integral whole. However, for the sake of clarity we can usefully divide Apologetics into the rational, the moral, and the artistic. Continue reading

The Domino Effect of the Consequences of Sin

lightstock_66582_medium_user_2441408The devil tries his best to get us to think of the pleasure of the moment.  His preference is to keep us from even thinking about the future but, failing that, he tries to get us to envision an unrealistic view of the future.  I am reminded of a multivitamin that was very popular in Nigeria when I was growing up.  Everyone simply called it ‘multivite.’  The manufacturers of ‘multivite’ knew that the core of the tablet was very bitter, so they made sure they had a thin sugar coating around it.  You were tempted to think that it was a very sweet tablet, but that feeling was short-lived, for you soon realized that much of the tablet was actually very bitter.  That is what the devil does with sin.  The devil tries to get us to concentrate on the thin, sweet, momentary pleasure of sin that would very quickly give way to the long-lasting bitter consequences.

Adam and Eve found this out the hard way.  When the devil in the form of the serpent tempted Eve, Eve explained that God had commanded them not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that should they eat of it they would surely die.  The serpent would respond by saying, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).   In saying, “You will not surely die” the serpent was lying.  The serpent then got Eve to concentrate on the pleasure of the moment, saying, “Your eyes will be opened.”   Finally the serpent over-glamorized what would be the aftermath of the fall.  The serpent would say, “You will be like God knowing good and evil.”

Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and, as a domino effect, there were some dire consequences for them as well as some dire consequences that went beyond them. Continue reading

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