TagTruth

Truth and Poetry

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

The first discussion we have in the English 12 Poetry Unit is about truth.

Too many people consider poetry to be something that exists on a continuum between fluff and falsehood. This drives us Humanities types batty. Many hold to the mistaken idea that a thing is true if it is factual.  And thus, since poetry isn’t usually factual, it isn’t usually  true.

Just because poetry isn’t factual does not mean poetry isn’t true.Click To Tweet

Whoa-ness of Eagles

Perrine’s Literature, a textbook we used to use, talks about the difference between encyclopedic facts of eagles with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle” to make the point that poetry offers a different experience than do facts.

A lot more can be made of this comparison.

I have my students collect a bunch of facts about bald eagles and we fill a whiteboard with them. Here’s a sample of what they find:

  • The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 48 to 55 km per hour.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs at a time.

These items gleaned from online encyclopedias are factual and they are true.

Then we look at Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In this simple, six-line poem, Tennyson attempts to communicate that eagles are, in a word, awesome. But awesome doesn’t really capture it, nor does formidable or magnificent.

When I was 8 or so, I went with my class to a bird sanctuary. After viewing crows, seagulls and owls recovering from various injuries, I came face-to-face with a bald eagle—close up! It looked at me, and then looked away. I was awed by his size, his talons, his beak, his eyes—I remember my reaction; I whispered, “Whoa!”

Tennyson attempts to communicate the “whoa-ness” of eagles.

Beyond the facts

We fill another whiteboard with notes about of Tennyson’s poem, unpacking the figurative language, sound devices, imagery, and allusions. In the words and between the lines of this poem, readers experience the power and strength of this majestic bird as it is metaphorically compared to a wise and solitary king whose power is absolute.

I ask my students which is truer—the list of facts on the first whiteboard or the poem that we’ve annotated on the second. Many, perhaps most, confidently say the list of facts is “truer.” Some are uncertain. Eventually, someone calls out, “both are true but in different ways.

There we go!

“The Eagle” communicates a truth about eagles that go beyond the encyclopedic facts. A truth that is best communicated with poetry. Our culture has been resistant to this broader understanding of truth for a long time, to its detriment.

How much of the Bible becomes inaccessible when we reduce truth to fact?Click To Tweet

Things get even more interesting when I suggest, in line with C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man, that “whoa-ness” is a quality inherent to the eagle, and not just a description of my subjective reaction to it. I’ll spare you the details, but this is often an enlightening discussion.

The next poem we look at is A. E. Houseman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,” a conversation between a dead man and his still-living friend. I ask my class, is this a true poem? This time, less than half say, “No.” Some are still uncertain.

But many, reflecting on the central idea of the poem, declare it to be true.

Scripture and Truth

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Does scripture have the final say in truth?

I had never heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral until it came up in a few sermons. And the way it was applied concerned me a little and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Although John Wesley never spoke of a quadrilateral, his writings apparently indicate that he drew his theological and doctrinal conclusions from four sources–tradition, experience, reason, and scripture.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I like abstract constructs like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; it is a useful tool for us to understand that we derive our theological opinions, both individually and collectively, from many sources–namely,

  • tradition,
  • experience,
  • reason
  • and scripture.

This is handy because we have theological disagreements in the church where the participants believe that their position is true because it is derived from scripture alone; it is, as far as they are concerned, the only legitimate position. This allows them to dismiss or even demonize their brothers and sisters in the Lord who hold to a different interpretation.

The problem in these conflicts is we aren’t aware of the other influences that shape our understanding of scripture.

My Problems with the Application of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Initially, I struggled with the way the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was applied in the sermons when I first learned of it.  Let me paraphrase what I think was said from the pulpit:

Theological truths are derived from tradition, experience, reason and scripture, but the greatest of these is scripture.

In one sense, this is appropriate because of the four, scripture alone is inspired by God. But my concern is that in claiming scriptural supremacy, we end up in the scenario described above, where combatants simply claim their view of what scripture says and the only correct view.

Each element is influenced by the other three. It would be nice if scripture stood alone and could be brought in as the final word, but scripture is mediated by the other components. Rationalists incorrectly believe that reason is uninfluenced by the others, but they too are mistaken.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a useful tool for us to begin to understand that our theological ideas come from different sources, but this tool must be understood as an over-simplification of very complex issues.

So what then is the proper attitude for arriving at doctrinal or theological truth (or any truth, for that matter)?

The Moral Rule

Luigi Giussani applies this moral rule:

Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, once could say, “love the truth more than yourself” (31).

The Wesleyan triangle is useful here. By acknowledging that our theological positions come from a complex blend of tradition, experience, reason, and scripture we can begin to understand our attachment to preconceptions and prejudices. We can’t simply pretend these attachments aren’t there, but we can take of a position of detachment relative to them–really, it is a detachment from ourselves before the truth.

Giussani suggests that this imperative is articulated in Matthew 5:3 when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are those “who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possession” (32).

This ethical imperative places the self under the truth–it comes down to loving the truth more than you love yourself. Before we’ve detached ourselves from our preconceptions, we will use scripture to defend ourselves.  Scripture takes up a position with us, often in opposition to the truth.

But if we have done the very hard work of separating our selves from the truth, scripture takes up a new position, not in the defense of self, but in the articulation of truth.

“Just a Story”?

 

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It’s quite common for Bible detractors to derogate this or that part of scripture by saying it is “just a story.” But in the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the negative of the same phrase in their defense of the Bible’s reliability. Defending a historic Adam, they insisted that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

By using this phrase, both the detractors and supporters of biblical veracity are making the same error. An error rooted in the way our modern minds understand story.

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to steer Christians from adopting the ideas that lie behind the phrase “just a story.”

Narrative Truth

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just” in relation to the stories they heard.   It is only since the Enlightenment, after which we severely limited what fell into the category we called Truth, that our use of the term “just” in conjunction with stories is possible.

Up till about the 17th century, truth came at us in many forms.  We could encounter it in dreams, through traditions and previous generations. Truth was in our experiences, and it was in the stories we told.

In the Scientific Revolution, some people realized that in some contexts–scientific ones, for instance–it was beneficial to use only objective, observable, measurable truth. All sorts of wonderful things came out of this approach—a better understanding of the universe and the human body, advances in navigation, manufacturing, and agriculture, and bifocals.

The success of this narrowing of truth to fact when doing science was so exhilarating that we began to apply it to practically everything. Subjective, narrative and experiential truth came to be thought of as unreliable because they weren’t true in the same way a quantifiable or observable fact was true.

Truth Equals Fact

Our Modern approach equates truth with fact, and we believe that the best way to transmit factual information is in simple and exact language. It follows then that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience as well. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” makes sense. Facts are true, and stories are not true. If the Bible is true, then it can’t contain “just” stories.

Unfactual Stories and Truth

Pretty much every culture in the world, past and present, that hasn’t yet bought into our Modern way of thinking, believes that stories can be true even if unfactual.

This includes the writers of biblical narratives, who sometimes put factual information aside in order to communicate far more important truths about relationships and human experience.

The Ancient Hebrew faith is about a relationship with, and experience of, a transcendent God.  They communicate relational truths in narratives–the genre best suited to communicate such things. What’s the best way to get at the truth about your mother? Telling stories or offering a list of factual information about her.

In order to get at complex truths, we often will use the tools of literary language. The language of story is not nearly as clear, simple or exact as literal language, but it’s far better at saying things that cannot be said. It’s full of metaphor and symbol so as to help us articulate the truth about love and betrayal, beauty and death, despair and redemption. In order to communicate the truth about these subjects, we need more than literal language and fact–we need symbols and stories. This is as true now as it was a thousand years ago.

The Truth of Genesis

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world. The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representatives, the priest-kings and pharaohs respectively.

The Adam story told its original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God. And in a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible we find the radical idea that both Man and Woman bear the image of the creator. Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that humans are precious, and that male and female are equally valuable. Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths; truths that are the basis of our concern for human rights and equity in our culture today.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis. We learn that all of creation was declared “very good,” and that God wants a relationship with the people He created. We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices. We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived. How we, deep down, want to live it. We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be achieved, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat both evil and death.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve. Communicating these all-important truths was, I believe, the purpose of the author(s). These truths are true, whether or not the people or events actually happened in the way it’s presented in the story. Truth is truth, however it is communicated.

What is true for the first audiences of these stories, is true for the modern one. We will need to have conversations about the degree to which individual biblical stories are historical, but whether they are or not the truth they contain will have nothing to do with the degree to which they conform to modern assumptions about what constitutes truth. The authors of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners would know things; his intention was that they experience truth at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives—this is the power of story.

Whatever it is we do find in the biblical narratives, we never find “just” a story.

When Atheists are Right

falco / Pixabay

There are a bunch of reasons to be an atheist.

  1. Certainly one of them could be

the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God

(2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)

This would probably be the first reason offered by many believers, and the last reason offered by the atheist.

2. Consider this: Perhaps some that have walked away from God are actually rejecting a misrepresentation of God.

If someone rejects a misrepresentation of God, are they not actually walking toward God?

There are many misrepresentations of God.

There is one true representation of God and that is Jesus Christ.

That’s not just my opinion–he said it.

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