Chapter 5: The Poem: Language of Insight

Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology
by Sallie McFague

Chapter 5: The Poem: Language of Insight

If theology were to be truly parabolic in language, belief, and life, what would it be like? Would it be itself a parable? Perhaps. But I suspect that theological attempts to be faithful to the parabolic model will be necessarily more partial and diffuse. A parabolic theology locates its sources not in doctrines and systems but in what lies behind doctrine and systems -- in language, belief, and life-styles that have attempted to be metaphors of Christian faith. We are concerned here with the resources of intermediary theology, with what theologians might attend to were they concerned, not to be poets, on the one hand, or systematic theologians, on the other. We are concerned with their effort to be metaphoric in their reflection, staying close to the parabolic form with its insistence on using common language in novel ways to evoke insight, with its emphasis on the narrative quality of believing, its foundation in experience, and with both language and belief rooted in a total life-style. The kind of theologies that might emerge from attention to such sources will not be poems, novels, or autobiographies, but they will be significantly formed by these sources. 0a

The parabolic way of doing theology means being open to sources of funding that the Church has not always taken very seriously. When theologians speak of "the tradition," they usually mean the doctrinal tradition -- the Councils of the Church and the great theologians. But if the parabolic way is taken seriously, its sources cannot possibly reside in doctrine, for doctrine is the sedimentation of metaphors, it is the agreed-upon understanding of the images, and as agreed upon such images are already dead or dying.

But more specifically, what does it mean to say that theology should find its sources in poetry, novels, and autobiographies? It means many things, as we shall see, but with regard to poetry, for instance, it means a deformation of traditional symbols of Christianity, a placing of the symbols in new contexts, so that they may again become metaphors, become revelatory. Christian poets throughout the ages have helped people to participate imaginatively in Christian language -- in other words, have helped them to hear the word of God -- by placing the imagistic language of the tradition in fresh contexts so that the dead metaphors may become alive once more. As Beardslee says, the original impact of the New Testament was made "by a ‘deformation’ of language, a stretching of language to a new metaphorical meaning which shocked the hearer into new insight. With the course of time such ‘deformations’ lose their newness, and often even their original metaphorical character, and become flat, commonplace words." 1. When this occurs, only metaphor can recreate the possibility for revelatory participation. This is not merely a question of translating old symbols into a modern idiom, but the more basic hermeneutical task of suggesting new contexts -- strange and extraordinary ones -- for language that has become ordinary and flat that it may live again. For the goal is not simply the "renewal" of traditional symbols but, more radically, the creation of an encounter situation which will, as Wilder says, give "that certain shock to the imagination," helping people to say "Yes," not simply with their heads, but with commitment to be lived out in their entire lives.

With regard to the novel, intermediary theology finds a source for the recreation of the Scriptural insistence on the narrative quality of coming to belief. The story of Jesus, Paul’s confessions, and even the creeds are narratives, for Christian belief is a story of what God has done and how we respond to his action. It takes place in and through the stuff of ordinary life; belief is a temporal and historical process, suggesting that intermediary or parabolic theology should be written as a story, not as a treatise. Christian novels tell stories of coming to belief -- they are metaphors creating new contexts, contemporary contexts, for that old possibility, and thus allowing us to participate imaginatively and immediately in that possibility. The parables are the primary models here, but there are novels which are parabolic in form, not talking about belief but showing people coming to belief.

In autobiographies, finally, intermediary theology has a source for understanding how language and belief move into a life, how a life can itself be a parable, a deformation of ordinary existence by its placement in an extraordinary context. The letters of Paul or the Confessions of Augustine recreate existentially and personally the heart of the parables and the story of Jesus -- what it means to live an ordinary, historical life in the surprising context of God’s grace. We are invited to participate imaginatively in the old story now told once again through the joints and ligaments of a particular human life story..

But is it only Christian poetry, novels, and autobiographies that are sources for intermediary theologians? We shall concentrate on these sources because form and content are so intricately linked that it is questionable if we can have one without the other. It is false, I believe, to separate form and content to such an extent that one calls whatever appears "good" or "religious" or concerned with the "transcendent" in a poem, novel, or autobiography "Christian." 1a. Yet, as we have indicated in the previous chapter, Christianity and the literary forms we are dealing with grew up together and mutually influenced each other. Thus there are poets, novelists, and autobiographers who, although not Christian, have been so deeply influenced by the parabolic mode -- the hidden way of locating the graciousness of the universe within the ordinary and the mundane -- that their works are, indeed, sources for the intermediary theologian. While form cannot finally be separated from content, theologians can sometimes find within so-called "secular" literature the parabolic form, and we shall look briefly at the work of a few of these artists. In the poetry of Denise Levertov or the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, one does find the deformation of ordinary life through its placement in new and gracious contexts. In fact, one often learns the most from these "anonymous Christians" (as Karl Rahner would call them), for if they are consummate artists as well as deeply parabolic they can show, in a way that a nominal Christian artist who is mediocre cannot, how hidden and yet how powerful the parabolic way is.

Christian Poetry

One distinctive note of Christian poetry is its personal focus. As Amos Wilder puts it:

The Gospel’s story-forms, however artistic, have a formidable personal focus which distinguish them. Its poem-forms, similarly, focus upon the heart and its ultimate response to God.2.

The Davidic psalms, of course, manifest the same quality:

O Lord my God, in thee do I take refuge;

Save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,

Lest like a lion they rend me,

Dragging me away, with none to rescue.

(Psalm 7:1-2)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

(Psalm 23:1)

Bless the Lord, 0 my soul; And all that is within me, Bless his holy name! (Psalm 103:1)

Likewise in Luke’s Magnificat, the perspective is personal: "My soul magnifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." There are, of course, some traditions where the epic is the outstanding poetic form -- one thinks of Homer and of Virgil. There are also strong epic qualities in the Old Testament stories. But Christian poetry, by and large, when most successful, has been lyric. The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost stand counter to this statement, but we must not forget that the epic episodes of the Divine Comedy are held together by the personal, existential focus of Dante as the chief character in the poem, or that literary opinion on Paradise Lost finds the greatest interest and literary success not in the epic heavenly warfare but in the personal tragedy of Satan.

The lyric form, then, seems to be a highly appropriate Christian form, and it is not very difficult, given what has already been said about the parable, to figure out why. A lyric poem is a highly personal metaphorical expression. It is a form of deep personal engagement, as is the parable, engagement to the point of creating a radically new context for traditional symbols. There are as many ways of going about this as there are Christian poets, for what a lyric poem offers is a personal focus, and what we get from various poems is what Philip Wheelwright calls "perspectival individuality" on reality.3. The "reality" which is deformed, given a new context, through "perspectival individuality" by Christian poets is, of course, the good news of the New Testament. Christianity is not just anything that is serious or "ultimate"; it has a Gestalt which is carried poetically in images, symbols, and stories from the tradition. The Gestalt is recognizable even when the symbols are radically transformed through metaphorical power (as in G. M. Hopkins’ metaphor of the death of a windhover to evoke Jesus’ crucifixion). It is also recognizable when no such traditional clues are given, as in Eliot’s "Burnt Norton" where "the moment in the rose-garden" is the vehicle of the incarnational thrust of the poem -- "Only through time time is conquered."

The "test" of a Christian poet is whether or not the reality with which he or she is dealing is the transformation or recontextualization of the ordinary by the graciousness of God. It is not impossible to separate the Christian poets who have been concerned with this process from those who merely use Christian symbols because they provide a rich tradition for their own perspective. Genuine Christian poets fall back on those untranslatable root metaphors -- the images, symbols, and stories in Scripture. They are our signposts which help us to read our way and for which the poet must provide new contexts, create new metaphors, in order that they may be read at all. It is extraordinarily difficult to be a Christian poet, for it involves both motions simultaneously: reading the signs by transforming them. We will look at some examples of metaphoric recreation of traditional Christian themes and images; the examples are highly selective and are intended to be illustrations only. The main point is to show that "perspectival individuality" can renovate, make new, create new contexts that dead metaphors and symbols may live again.


I am a little world made cunningly

Of elements, and an angelic sprite;

But black sin hath betrayed to endless night

My world’s both parts, and oh, both parts must die.

You which beyond that heaven which was most high

Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,

Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might

Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,

Or wash it if it must be drowned no more.

But oh, it must be burnt? Alas, the fire

Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,

And made it fouler; let their flames retire

And burn me, 0 Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.4

John Donne’s sonnet is a tightly woven fabric, highly economical and highly metaphoric. The octet sets the problem in narrative fashion: the speaker tells his story through the metaphor of worlds. He is a world, composed of matter and spirit, but a world in which it is always night because of his sin. "Creation," the world that he is, is not only in constant darkness, but must die. The individual perspective is dominant but it is carried entirely through the metaphor of "world," and harkens back to the goodness of creation ("cunningly," "angelic sprite"). The microcosm-macrocosm metaphor is continued in 1.5 as attention shifts to the creator who knows of "new spheres" and "new lands" and from whom the speaker hopes for renewal -- "pour new seas in mine eyes." The point of view in 11.7-8 is still self-pitying: the plea for "new seas" is to destroy himself with weeping. In 1.9, the beginning of the sestet, a slight shift is evident at "Or wash it," recalling the possibilities of baptismal washing, and in 1.10 the self-pity dramatically shifts to a decision for renewal through fire. The strong narrative quality in this sonnet is reminiscent of the dramatic reversals in Jesus’ parables, in the Prodigal Son, for instance. The pace is fast in the last five lines as the contrasting metaphors of the fires of lust and envy and the purifying fires which "in eating heal" tumble over one another. The extremity of the speaker’s situation is clinched in these final three words which contrast sharply with the relaxed opening line of the sonnet and the earlier suggestion that weeping might take care of the situation.

This sonnet is deeply metaphorical: its meaning is carried by the subtle interplay of the metaphors of world and worlds (and the accompanying structural metaphors of matter and spirit, darkness and night, seas, drowning, new lands) and of water and fire (and the accompanying structural metaphors of washing, eating, and healing). It is an extremely complex meditation on death and renewal, a peculiarly pat one for cultural and scientific seventeenth-century England, but not unavailable to us. The meaning of the metaphors is ingredient, of course, to their interplay and movement within the poem, to the associations they suggest, to the participation of the reader which they invite. There is no way to get at the meaning of the poem in any other way, no way to reduce it to a set of assertions: the meaning is held "in solution" and that solution is the poem itself. As metaphoric discourse, it invites contemplation, not extrapolation. It provides us with a set of familiar terms in which to glimpse the unfamiliar and in glimpsing it through worlds, water, and fire, we see it anew.

But it is in the same universe as the parables of Jesus; it is concerned with the same issues and is concerned with them in the same way -- individually and parabolically. The ethos of the poem is Christian, not because "religious" language is used but because two logics of understanding everyday personal reality are operative, the logic, in this instance, of self-pity, on the one hand, and the logic of acceptance of unmerited renewal, on the other. It is, I believe, a Christian poem. 


How fresh, 0 Lord, how sweet and clean

Are Thy returns! Even as the flowers in spring,

To which, besides their own demean,

The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.

Grief melts away

Like snow in May,

As if there were no such cold thing.

 Who would have thought my shriveled heart

Could have recovered greenness? It was gone

Quite underground, as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are Thy wonders, Lord of power,

Killing and quickening, bringing down to hell

And up to heaven in an hour;

Making a chiming of a passing-bell.

We say amiss

This or that is;

Thy word is all, if we could spell.

O that I once past changing were,

Fast in Thy paradise, where no flower can wither!

Many a spring I shoot up fair,

Offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither;

Nor doth my flower

Want a spring shower,

My sins and I joining together.

But while I grow in a straight line,

Still upwards bent, as if heaven were mine own,

Thy anger comes, and I decline.

What frost to that? What pole is not the zone

Where all things burn,

When Thou dost turn,

And the least frown of Thine is shown?

And now in age I bud again;

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing. 0 my only Light,

It cannot be

That I am he

On whom Thy tempests fell all night.

These are Thy wonders, Lord of love,

To make us see we are but flowers that glide;

Which when we once can find and prove,

Thou hast a garden for us where to bide.

Who would be more,

Swelling through store,

Forfeit their paradise by their pride.5.

George Herbert’s poem "The Flower" is, metaphorically, very different from Donne’s sonnet. One metaphor predominates and many combinations are rung on it. The tone is more casual, more relaxed; it is seemingly effortless, but the movement of death and rebirth, despair and self-hope, confidence and humility are as ingredient in these metaphors as in Donne’s. The dominant imagery of natural renewal in seasonal life is the vehicle which carries the meditative movement of the poem. The first verse sets the contrasts of "sweet and clean" returns and the "late-past frosts" which run throughout the poem. The wonder of natural renewal is mirrored in the speaker’s personal experience of the second verse with the marvelous immediacy of the metaphor of the "shriveled heart" recovering "greenness."

Every succeeding line in the poem modifies and enriches the central metaphor of renewal. The third stanza moves from the personal to a general reflection on the "killing and quickening" power of the "Lord of power," who controls nature (stanza 1) and every individual (stanza 2). Stanzas 4 and 5 are autobiographical, the story of a proud man who wants to be past the constant fluctuations of temporal life, to make his offerings, to grow in a straight line -- storming heaven with his healthy sins well-watered. But in stanza 5, 11.3-4, the frost metaphor is picked up again and the movement appears of stretching and declining, killing and quickening, growing heavenward and retreating underground which the speaker has been working throughout the poem. The resolution begins in stanza 6 and continues to the end in the same metaphors as used throughout the poem: bud, smell, dew, light, tempests, flowers. The acceptance of lowly status -- "but flowers that glide" -- is possible because he can once more "smell the dew and rain / And relish versing." Not paradise, but the ability to do and love very human, sensuous, ordinary things (which for a poet includes writing poems!) is what his greenness and budding is all about.

The language of this poem may be "religious" but the renewal he seeks and finds is not; in fact, he repudiates the attempt to "fast in Thy paradise" as inappropriate. The metaphors in the poem keep the wonder of renewal firmly fixed on ordinary human experience: the new life has to do with dew and rain and versing. It is a highly sensuous poem and the new context for the language of pride and acceptance which it offers is in precisely those terms. The life cycle of a flower is the vehicle for the recreation of the Church’s language of sin and grace: the familiar sensuous imagery lets us participate imaginatively in those realities. The extended metaphor of the flower does not illustrate sin and grace; rather, the complex meanings of the metaphor throughout the poem are what allows us to see them at all. Another way to say it is that without the flower metaphor we would have a few banal assertions about God’s power to control us; the medium, in this instance the flower metaphor and its many interplays, is the meaning. 

THE WINDHOVER: To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume here

Buckle! and the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, 0 my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.6.

The only clue in G. M. Hopkins’ poem that the windhover is a metaphor of the crucifixion is in the subtitle, but the clue is not necessary, even if one were to approach this poem cold and knew nothing of the poet. For the poem "works," all by itself; it lets the reader glimpse a pattern of majesty broken which is a parable, for any Western consciousness, of the passion of Christ. There is, let us note at the outset, no religious language in the poem: the images are secular (horses, plume, rein, kingdom, dauphin, skate, plough) and natural (daylight, air, wind, earth). This poem is, more than the other two we have looked at, strictly parabolic, strictly indirect. We are invited to experience the flight of a magnificent, powerful, graceful bird who crumbles in flight (is he shot? blown against the rocks? did the speaker kill him?) and whose death is more lovely and more dangerous than his flight. The poem is an excellent example of metaphorical precision, for the kind of precision achieved here is in direct proportion to the complexity and richness of the imagery. By piling complex image upon complex image, Hopkins drives toward the "inscape" or particularity of the bird’s majestic flight and brilliant death; that is, the most indirect path is the most direct, or to put it differently, the only way to express radical particularity is through a plethora of images juxtaposed to one another, sparking the imagination to move toward a synthesis which, while not logical, is, taken as a whole, suggestive of a particularity.

What are some of the components of this particularity? The poem is divided into three parts, which we might call the situation, the crisis, and a reflection on both; these parts are indicated by the paragraph breaks. The first part describes the incredibly free and majestic flight of the bird in terms of an early morning vision: the metaphors are drawn from three main sources -- the light and wind of early morning (daylight, dawn, air, wind), royalty (minion, falcon, kingdom, dauphin), and horsemanship (riding, rein). The immediate impression is one of power, nobility, speed, grace, beauty. This impression is fortified by the rhythm of the lines: "Of the rolling level underneath him steady air" falls off the tongue with a smooth glide that exactly mirrors what the words are saying. In fact, this poem is so magnificently made that the pattern of majestic freedom and violent death can be sensed simply from the rhythm of the words apart from their meaning.

The spiraling, gliding bird suddenly buckles; we are not told why, but the opening "I caught" suggests that the speaker’s actions are involved. What buckles is complex: "brute beauty," "plume," and "air" but also "valour," "act," and "pride," both the natural and human are involved; in fact, it takes on cosmic proportions. The surprising twist here, of course, is that the death of the bird is more magnificent than its flight.

The final reflection is a parable within the parable: even as the earth shines more richly when plowed and embers from a fire turn gold and red when they fall; so -- the death of the bird is more brilliant, more lovely, and more dangerous than its life. Something shining, something beautiful comes out of the death of natural things.

No more is said and no more is necessary. The poem is a parable of the crucifixion, not an illustration of it, and as a parable it must be held in solution. It is in the tradition of Mark’s messianic secret and John’s "signs," not in the tradition of the gospel genre, the direct, discursive kerygma. What one learns from this poem about the crucifixion is the sort of learning which it is impossible to state discursively, but it is not esoteric. Just the opposite: it is available to anyone who spends time engaged with the poem (and a good dictionary) and it is immediate, participatory learning that allows one to enter imaginatively into the crucifixion, in almost unlimited ways. There is no way of exhausting the significance of the poem’s possibility of helping us to encounter the crucifixion, just as there is no way of exhausting the understanding ingredient in all primal language, for the associations of metaphorical language are infinite.

The kind of recreation of Christian language which is emerging from our study of Christian poetry goes something like this: poetry does not illustrate meaning, it creates it, and Christian poetry creates meanings clustered around that complex we call the gospel. There is an infinite number of ways of approaching that complex indirectly, and probably no way of approaching it directly this side of heaven; the New Testament images and stories serve as a rough guide to keep us from calling everything that is merely hopeful or positive "Christian," and to make it clear that such phenomena as racism and Manichaeism are definitely out. But the problems of discriminating between what is and is not Christian are less acute than the problem of the dessicated imagination, the problem of the abyss between the word of God and our imaginative appropriation of it. It is to this problem that poetic metaphor speaks, for the poetic imagination makes connections undreamt of by our impoverished imaginations. T. S. Eliot puts it this way:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for his work, it is consistently amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, these experiences are already forming new wholes.7.

The ability to connect this with that, to make the jumps, to see the part as a whole, to associate, is the clue, I believe, that poetic metaphor suggests. Theologians, trained to see philosophical statement as the model for theology, often manifest mindsets that are univocal and literalistic. If we take the lessons of poetic metaphor seriously, theological training ought to include as a major component the development of the imagination. This does not mean, of course, that theologians need be poets. But those who work to help others to hear the word of God need to be radically open to associations with that word, which of course means assuming the risk of being wrong. To suggest associations which will help people encounter the word of God in contemporary images is a precarious undertaking and a highly uncomfortable one, but the alternative is a dead language and a ghettoized Christianity. It also means being aware of imaginative associations wherever they occur, and often this will involve cultural discomfort for the theologian, for the center of metaphorical renewal of Christian language in our time is often not among Christian poets but in popular culture and in "secular" artists.

The three examples of metaphoric recreation in popular culture we shall look at briefly -- folk hymns, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, and Corita Kent’s "play-prayers" -- have at least two qualities in common. They are all mixed genres, McLuhanesque in their impact, which suggests, I believe, an appreciation for the sensuous and the celebrative which has often been lacking, particularly in Protestant circles. They are liturgical forms, demanding a strong degree of audience participation and manifesting a lack of concern for purity of form. They have the vigor of popular culture as well as its transiency, and both qualities are to be applauded rather than deplored, for they express the vitality of the form. The introduction to a collection of folk hymns says of them:

All speak of today, for today, to today. That’s what’s important. That’s why they are here. They’re for now. Which means they are to be used. Which means learn them. Hum them. Sing them. Whistle them. Strum them. Put them in the pew racks in church. Pile them in your guitar case. Toss them into the car. Throw them away when they wear out. Because by then there will be new ones.8.

The casual, mixed confusion of popular Christian lyrical expression is a phenomenon which is indirect evidence that the great Christian symbols and stories are capable of metaphoric recreation and this alone, apart from their aesthetic and theological significance is noteworthy.

The second characteristic which these three mixed genres share is a similarity in the kind of metaphor they use. Philip Wheelwright makes a very useful distinction between two kinds of metaphor -- metaphor of association or transference (epiphor) and metaphor of juxtaposition (diaphor).9. The former is the classical type: the transference of a word from what it usually means to some other object, as in "the milk of human kindness," or "God the Father." The ability to employ this sort of metaphor, however, seems to rest on a confidence that things really are associated, that the center holds, that the web is not broken -- that, in other words, the universe is in some sense sacramental, that God is somehow the true and original father, that all things are connected among themselves because they are connected in God. It depends, as C. Day-Lewis says, on believing that the human mind can claim "kinship with everything that lives or has lived,"10. or, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, "it is an index of the situation of man at the heart of the being in which he moves, exists, and wills, that the symbol speaks to us."11. In significant ways, this sense of the unity of the human with all that is, is still part of our culture, and heightened ecological and mystical awareness has increased it for many. But it is not, I believe, the dominant sensibility in Christian circles, at least among those attempting to create new contexts for Christian symbols and stories. That is to say, the Christian symbolic universe does not hold together for most of us; the transference of the traditional Christian imagery to our situation today is not easy or natural; it is not an integral transference. We do not, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, see ourselves as reflecting, imitating, taking upon ourselves the biblical or other traditional symbols and stories and making them our own through transference.

The other kind of metaphor, juxtaposition, is particularly pertinent to the modern consciousness, for, alienated and disbelieving as we are, we respond to the ambiguity, irony, and covert cynicism of metaphorical juxtaposition. Wheelwright quotes the following extreme examples of new meaning by juxtaposition.

My country ‘tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

Higgledy-piggledy my black hen.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough. 12.

The connections are not spelled out; two images are simply juxtaposed and the reader is left to make his or her own connections, though the choice of images juxtaposed of course delimits meaning in a certain direction. The contrasts are admittedly disjunctive, but they are endemic to the nature of metaphor, which Coleridge defined as the "reconciliation of discordant or opposite qualities." The "reconciliation" aspect is more prevalent in metaphor of association, the "discordant or opposite qualities" more evident in metaphor of juxtaposition, but both are crucial. In fact, most successful metaphors, such as these two by Shakespeare, are an indissoluble blend of both.

my salad days,

When I was green in judgment.

A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.

It is not possible to separate the two kinds of metaphor in any clear or absolute way, but it seems to me that contemporary Christian attempts rely heavily on metaphor by juxtaposition. Such reliance could be explained entirely by our alienation and disbelief, and I think that is part of it; lacking a sense ‘of the unity of the Christian universe of symbols and stories, and of how such a universe might be ingredient in our universe, juxtaposition is the only alternative. Thus in Jesus Christ Superstar Herod says to Jesus: "Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool."

But I think there is a more important, and a basically right-minded attitude manifest in the use of juxtaposition by Christians. The parables are by and large juxtapositions; when Jesus replied to a question by telling a parable, he did not make the connections. He simply juxtaposed a question with a story, and often a story with its own internal paradoxes. No attempt is made to systematize, to make connections between two "universes" (a religious and a secular one), to take the hearer out of his or her world. Just the opposite: the effect of the juxtaposition is to focus on the significance of the hearer’s world, to break intellectual or systematic connections in order to press toward personal, historic decisions. There is a sense in which the mystical, sacramental tradition enables the connections to be made too easily, too intellectually, too "religiously." The kind of new meaning that the form of the parables suggests militates against merely mental connections, insisting that the "meaning" is not new unless it is existential meaning, meaning for actual individuals in their concrete historical and social circumstances. Such meaning will necessarily be somewhat hidden and ambiguous, for human meaning, unlike systematic meaning, is dense with mystery.

One must be careful here and not say too much. I am not suggesting that the tendency toward juxtaposed metaphor on the contemporary scene is conscious or entire, or that the associative metaphor we saw in Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins is false or passe.12a. But a more integrative Christian sensibility did exist for Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins, and their achievement was magnificent: the union of the two kinds of metaphor is perfectly displayed in Hopkins’ "Windhover" and one marvels at such a poem. Such a sensibility does not exist widely now and it would be false to press for it. But what does exist now, the ability to juxtapose this with that, bread and wine with Wonder Bread ("helps build strong bodies 12 ways"),13. is, I believe, genuinely biblical not only in form but also in content, for it opposes mystical and religious tendencies that thrive at the expense of social and secular ones.

Folk hymns are not great poetry and they are not intended as such by their authors. They are meant to be used and thrown away. Some are merely pious, as Christian hymnody is always prone to be, and some merely mimic traditional symbols, offering little metaphoric transformation. Some are message-oriented ("Jesus gave a new command / That we love our fellow man / Till we reach the promised land, / Where we’ll live forever"). Many, it seems to me, rely too heavily on strong association where it no longer exists: there is a disappointing use of unmodified traditional Christian language ("God said he would send his Son, Allelu, Allelu! / And salvation would be won, Alleluia!"). The music is often first-rate -- catchy, rhythmic, and exuberant -- and I suspect it is this which carries the often mediocre lyrics. But some are genuinely metaphoric, and the most effective ones depend in part on metaphor of juxtaposition.

They hung him in Jerusalem,

And in Hiroshima,

In Dallas and in Selma too,

And in South Africa.14  

We hear you, 0 Man, in agony cry,

For freedom you march, in riots you die.

Your face in the papers we read and we see,

The tree must be planted by human decree." 15.

The metaphoric impact is not overwhelming in these examples, but by a combination of association and juxtaposition of the agonizing events of our time with symbols pointing to Jesus, imaginative encounter with his story becomes possible. What is important in the movement of folk hymnody is probably less the individual classics that may emerge (there will probably be few) than the impact upon our sensibility from the sheer quantity of songs which make a multitude of connections, often only fleeting and disjointed, between our times and the story of Jesus. Every time a person can see, even if only ironically and ambiguously, the events of his or her social and personal life illuminated by some aspect of the life and death of Jesus, then parabolic understanding is taking place, the ordinary is seen in a new context.

The metaphoric potential of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is far greater.16. It is a complex piece, and so dependent on its musical setting, which is eclectically rich, that a treatment of the libretto alone is something of a travesty. Nevertheless the libretto is extremely interesting in itself from a metaphorical perspective, for there are at least three sorts of material in the opera that use juxtaposition. One constellation of material is the person of Jesus -- "Jesus Christ Superstar -- tell us that you’re who they say you are." The Jesus mania of the crowd is juxtaposed with the very human, even pathetic self-understanding of Jesus: "There is not a man among you who knows or cares if I come or go," and the poignant rephrasing of the words of institution, "For all you care this wine could be my blood; / For all you care this bread could be my body." The sentimental "Touch me touch me Jesus / Jesus I am on your side" of the crowd and the inflated "Hey JC, JC won’t you smile at me? / Sanna Ho Sanna Hey Superstar" is juxtaposed with Jesus screaming at the moneylenders in the temple and the irresolute agony of the Gethsemane scene ("Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why"). The juxtapositions are at times irreverently funny, and for these very reasons are highly effective indirect means of manifesting what has seldom been accomplished in literary renditions of the passion story -- the humanity of Jesus. Jesus in Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion and in Faulkner’s A Fable is a stick figure, marred only physically in the first (by a leprous rash on his face), distant and ethereal in the second. By the juxtaposition of the "high Christology" represented by the crowd with the fighting, loving, distraught, irresolute Jesus of the narrative, new significance is generated. The "symbol" Jesus Christ takes on flesh and blood, which only twice in the libretto is conceptualized: Mary Magdelene and Judas alone realize "He’s a man, he’s just a man," though there is something about him, some hidden and mysterious (parabolic?) quality which Pilate points to.

I dreamed I met a Galilean

A most amazing man

He had that look you very rarely find

The haunting hunted kind. 

The "Christology" emergent here is of a piece, I believe, with parabolic indirection: there is no kerygma about Jesus, no Superstar Christology, only a hidden, mysterious, indirect pointing through the familiar events of this very human life to the unfamiliar: "he’s just a man" but "he scares me so."

Juxtaposition also operates with individual words and phrases: plays are made on words, as in the slight rephrasing of the words of institution, giving new significance to the old words, The text is extraordinarily biblical; that is, the actual words, with a slight twist or a new setting supplied, are used and the shock of the new twist or context sparks a new perception: "myrrh for your hot forehead oh then you’ll feel fine"; "If your slate is clean -- then you can throw stones"; "change my water into wine"; "If every tongue was still the noise would still continue / The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing." The impious pop culture phrases -- "Jesus is cool," "he’s top of the poll" -- supply the shock ingredient to the perception, for piety is so heavy that nothing less than impiety allows us to see the man in the midst of "Mr. Wonderful Christ." The double entendre, which is another way of describing juxtaposed metaphor used in relation to individual words and phrases, is an important and highly complex feature of Jesus Christ Superstar and another way, I believe, in which the parabolic mode is followed.

A final set of juxtapositions is focused on contemporary events: racial strife, poverty, the press, political power, Jesus mania, and money are among the issues dealt with. And this is handled very adroitly: the story of Jesus is taken as the familiar partner in the metaphor while our contemporary situation is taken as the unknown. That is to say, the concrete situation is the narrative before us and we are invited to associate it with our own time. Judas says to Jesus: "Listen Jesus do you care for your race? / Don’t you see we must keep in our place?" Both situations are illuminated by the association, though only obliquely and in terms of the entire passion narrative and its resolution. The power motif is a strong one throughout the opera, nicely juxtaposed with the Lord’s Prayer by Simon Zealotes:

You will rise to a greater power

We will win ourselves a home

You’ll get the power and the gloryFor ever and ever and ever

Amen! Amen!

Perhaps the finest set of comments on contemporary events through juxtaposition is the temple scene: "Roll on up -- for my price is down / Come on in -- for the best in town / Take your pick of the finest wine / Lay your bets on this bird of mine."

The interesting thing about this opera is that its ethos is fatalistic (Jesus: "Everything is fixed and you can’t change it") and it would therefore be easy to call it anti-Christian and dismiss it. It is frequently remarked in this connection that no resurrection is appended (though Mark does not have one either). But Christian discrimination ought to operate on another level here; it ought to applaud the metaphorical adroitness in giving a new context for the passion story, a context which provides for disbelieving contemporary human beings a genuinely "secular" experience of the narrative, and one which is in continuity with the parabolic way of hiddenness and mystery.

The humor, irreverence, ambiguity, and irony that are evident in Jesus Christ Superstar are also ingredient in Corita Kent’s Footnotes and Headlines: A Play-Pray Book, a fascinating exercise in metaphorical power which relies on juxtaposition. The supposition is that all the words we need to make the Christian tradition meaningful are lying in wait around us, in ads, in clichés, in common talk.

we give new life to these words and phrases

and they give new life to our old stories

for twenty centuries we have been learning the stories

memorizing the script

so we can easily recognize reflections and unconscious

allusions to them

in almost any set of words

we can lift them out or use them where they

are 17.

to create is to relate

we trust in the artist in everybody

to make his own connections - -

his own juxtapositions

it seems that perhaps there is nothing unholy

nothing unrelated

and that as we fit things together

synthesize rather than analyze

we might be coming closer to god’s view

from which all must somehow fit together18.

The book is intended as an exercise in metaphoric re-creation: a do-it-yourself kit. Each page is a collage of words from ads, comment, color, single letters, pictures -- all of which can be put together, juxtaposed, in different ways, though of course delimited and directed by the choice on the pages. The exercise is intended to help people to see the familiar in new contexts, by juxtaposing the ordinary familiar meanings with novel associations: thus Camel filters are juxtaposed with the rich man who wanted to get into the kingdom of heaven, and the ad reads: "This is the one to try."

in trying to get hold of things mysterious

we try to invent something definite

and mystery can never be defined

or must always be redefined

or better yet

come at newly and indirectly

through stories and things around us

thru parables and food. 19.

Corita Kent says quite explicitly here what I have been attempting to suggest throughout this essay. Popular Christian literary culture offers an interesting insistence here with its wry, ironical, ambiguous association through juxtaposition. It is parabolic -- hidden, understated, secular, irreverent -- and while it is only partially successful (it is, after all, much harder to carry off than associative sacramentalism) it is a genuine biblical tradition. If associations, transferences, are made too obviously and openly in a time of disbelief, the result will be sentimental and dishonest. Associations need to be radical -- verging on juxtaposition -- so that sufficient "space" is allowed the disbeliever. Juxtaposition may be as far as we can go today.

If theologians were to turn to the poetry -- both ancient and modern -- we have looked at as a source for their reflection, we might speculate on the kind of theology which would emerge. It would not be mystical, religious, didactic, discursive, or explanatory. It would be sensuous, secular, suggestive, personal, participatory. It would not abjure ambiguity or fear irreverence or humor. It would realize that there is no "direct" way to talk about God, whether the objective route of Barth with his penchant for biblical language or the subjective route of Bultmann with his reliance on existentialist language. It would, with Elizabeth Sewell, realize that all our talk, including talk about God, is "anthropomorphic" and not be afraid of such indirection and limitation. It would, perhaps, learn two things from poetic metaphor -- to associate when possible ("I caught this morning morning’s minion") and to juxtapose when necessary ("They hung him in Jerusalem / And in Hiroshima") -- and to be sensitive enough to know the difference.

To understand the way metaphor works is most helpful to theologians in educating their sensibilities. It will not write their theology for them and it need not reduce them to silence if they are not themselves poets, but it can make them better able to distinguish between words that are dead and those that are alive. It can make them extremely cautious of a "high," open, traditional vocabulary, of words that are simply clichés; it can make them responsive to all kinds of new and undreamt of associations and juxtapositions in ordinary language, eager to use as "low," hidden, and contemporary a vocabulary as they believe is illuminating of that other low, hidden, and contemporary story of long ago: the story of Jesus of Nazareth. If the basic task of theology is to help locate new contexts in which the word of God can be encountered, then theologians have much to learn from the way Christian poets, both ancient and modern, have created such contexts.

Non-Christian Poetry

Perhaps theologians have as much to learn from some non-Christian poets. Christian poetry is practically nonexistent in our time, but good poets of whatever religious persuasion are a source for learning the way metaphor works to create insight. Theirs is always the lowly, parabolic way. Poets can only create their worlds through words referring to experience, and if they care about defining their worlds, their visions, precisely (and all good poetry is precise), they will use every device in their imaginative powers to crack, break, combine, and shuffle words, our worldly words, to their purposes. Unlike mystics, who can abide in silence, in awe before the mystery of it all and hence feel at one with the world and be satisfied with the feeling, poets want to communicate their feelings, or at least define them more precisely to themselves. This means using words, everyday words, that refer to everyday experience in a novel way: it means metaphor. It means speaking of "camels of the spirit," "hurricanes of streets," "mad yaks," "fat pontiffs of Kindness," "false windmills," and so on. If poets want to convey cosmic oneness with it all, they still have to do so through images, metaphors, symbols -- words taken from the world. They cannot talk in abstractions; they find themselves talking about hurricanes, camels, windmills, and so forth. They find themselves affirming the world though it may be only the back-handed compliment that, as poets, they are bound hand and foot to the particular, to the smells and sounds, sights and hurts that surround them.

This is to say, so far, only that good poets can teach those concerned with intermediary theological reflection a great deal about how to form new contexts for old truths. But there is more that can be said about some contemporary poets, at any rate. It is not simply that poets must work with ordinary words to say their new thing, but some poets are what Paul Van Buren calls "strange ones" for whom the ordinary things of life strike them as wonderful: "the decisive point to be made is that some men are struck by the ordinary, whereas most find it only ordinary." He goes on to say that the duality here is not the old duality between time and eternity, man and God, but "the duality of the ordinary seen as ordinary and the ordinary seen as extraordinary." 20 One might say that the "strange ones" are "anonymous Christians" who have internalized the sense of the illuminated commonplace from Christianity. But it is also a part of poetic insight per se, and all good poets have it to a certain extent. There are, however, some contemporary poets who seem, more than others, to be "strange ones"; for instance, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur. As Paul Lacey says of the Hasidic tradition out of which Denise Levertov comes and which is reflected in her work: "One puts off the habitual but does not repudiate it; when the habitual is seen afresh, it testifies to the holy."21. Or as the same critic says of her poem, "Illustrious Ancestors," "what strikes us first is that the miraculous itself is being treated matter-of-factly."22.

The Rav

of Northern White Russia declined,

in his youth, to learn the

language of birds, because

the extraneous did not interest him; nevertheless when he grew old it was found

he understood them anyway, having

listened well, and as it is said, ‘prayed

with the bench and the floor.’ He used

what was at hand -- as did

Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations

were sewn into coats and britches.

Well, I would like to make,

thinking some line still taut between me and them,

poems direct as what the birds said,

hard as a floor, sound as a bench,

mysterious as the silence when the tailor

would pause with his needle in the air.23.

The ancestors use "what was at hand," the ordinary is the bearer of the miraculous -- meditations are sewn into britches, the strange language of the birds is learned simply by having listened well. The author wishes she too might deal in mystery with the directness, hardness, and soundness of what is at hand.

This is the parabolic form -- the hidden way of locating the mystery of the universe within the ordinary and the mundane. All good poets practice it to some extent, but the "strange ones" are cousins to Christians, helping us to see, where there is nothing to see, the presence of transcendent mystery. The theologian concerned with creating new contexts for the ordinary has a peculiar debt to such poets for they, more sometimes than Christian poets, see where others see nothing.



0a. A brief illustration of how the parabolic mode would deal with one question -- the person and work of Jesus Christ -- might be illuminating. As all know, the Council of Nicaea and the long theological debate that ensued, which dealt with the internal relations of the Trinity, preceded the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, which dealt with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Having already determined precisely and conceptually the substantiality of the Logos, or second person of the Trinity, the Fathers apparently believed they had little choice when they got around to dealing with Jesus but to equate his "person" with the hypostasis of the Logos, and we have never since been able in good conscience to affirm his full humanity with all that it implies. agency, the person, what have you, is really the Logos; and Barth in the twentieth century, in spite of his nods to the historical story of Jesus, ends up with Ephesus and Chalcedon. What might have been the case, however, if the parabolic way of understanding had been followed? If Chalcedon had preceded Nicaea, or if the Church Fathers had turned to the biblical story of Jesus instead of Nicaea and Ephesus for their moorings, they might have been faced with and had to deal with the mystery, ambiguity, indirection, in other words, the parabolic quality of an actual human life and its growth. The final doctrinal formulation of the person and work of Jesus Christ would have come out very differently. It would at least have been less metaphysical, more secular; less literal, more suggestive; less allegorical, more metaphorical.

1. William A. Beardslee, Literary Criticism of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 11.

1a. For a fuller treatment of this point see Ch. 1 of my book, Literature and the Christian Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

2. Wilder, Language of Gospel, p. 98.

3. Wheelwright, Metaphor, p. 51.

4. English Poetry of the XVII Century, ed. Roberta Florence Brinkley (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1942), pp. 70-71.

5. Ibid., pp. 273-275


6. Poems and Prose of Hopkins, p. 30.

7. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), P. 247.

8. "Hymns for Now," Workers Quarterly, 39 (July 1967).

9. Wheelwright, Metaphor, pp. 72-91.

10. Day-Lewis, The Poetic Image, p. 35.

11. Ricoeur, Evil, p. 356

12. Wheelwright, Metaphor, pp. 78, 80.

12a Most of the metaphors we shall look at function by association as well as by juxtaposition; in fact, pure juxtaposition verges on nonsense (the "My country tis of thee" example). As one critic has said of the reliance of Wheelwright’s diaphor on epiphor: "The net effect of diaphor is to increase the possibility of pluri-signification by forcing the reader to create a relationship or a number of relationships, more or less cognitive, without finally insisting on a particular version" (David M. Miller, The Net of Hephaestus: A Study of Modern Criticism and Metaphysical Metaphor [The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1971], p. 113).

13. Corita Kent, Footnotes and Headlines: A Book of Play-Prayers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967).

14. Good Friday, "Hymns for Now," p. 12.

15. The Tree Springs to Life, ibid., p. 13.

16. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar (Decca Records).

17. Kent, Footnotes, p. 16.

18. Ibid., p. 24


19. Ibid., p. 18.

20. Paul Van Buren, Theological Explorations (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 170.

21. Paul A. Lacey, The Inner War: Forms and Themes in Recent American Poetry (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 114


22. Ibid.

23. Denise Levertov, "Illustrious Ancestors," from Overland to the Islands (1958), quoted in Anglican Theological Review, 50 (July 1968), 259.