May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
TOJ: When did your interest in poetry begin?
DR: I was first conscious of the magic of poetry in middle school when a student teacher asked us to read Tennyson’s “The Eagle.” The sound effects in that little poem blew me away—so much power in so few words. But I think by that age I had already become attuned to the sounds and beauties of words at church in hymns, sermons, and prayers.
TOJ: Who are the poets that have most deeply influenced you, and what is it about them (or their words) that captivates you?
DR: I chose to study sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British poetry as my academic field because I love the way poets of that period—Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and many others—depict contours of thought in their poetry. I am also fascinated by the way these poets are able to work within symbolic fields they could assume their readers understood—such as religious symbolism. This makes possible not only insight but also humor. Among contemporary poets, I read and like many different styles. I especially appreciate those who can take small moments or scenes and invite a reader to look through them toward some startling insight or connection—people like Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, and (a very recent favorite) Julia Kasdorf. I favor a view of poetry that Scott Cairns describes as a sacramental poetics, in which the poem is not merely a piece of communication or a record of an event, but an event in itself that has the power to change the way we read other things, including the world.
TOJ: In your writing and poetry, do you find yourself returning to particular themes?
DR: The Bible is the dominant source of language in my imagination, so I often return to the stories of the Bible as an inexhaustible resource. My approach to engagement with God has been shaped over the years by the Psalms, and I think that shows in my poems as well. Lately I have been reading twentieth-century American women poets and thinking quite a bit about anger and about how women’s embodied experiences influence their spirituality.
TOJ: Have you been surprised by your writing?
DR: Oh yes. That’s the greatest pleasure of writing. Many writers say “I don’t know what I think until I write it,” and I have certainly found that to be true for me. I am constantly surprised by the way the oddest things spark connections as I write—an incident that occurred yesterday connects with a memory from childhood which connects with something I read last week… It’s like the way a single ocean wave will spill a peculiar assortment of driftwood and sea glass and fish bones onto shore. I’ve also been surprised by the pleasurable freedom in writing, especially poetry. I enjoy creating voices that are not me, but have a part of me in them. It’s wonderfully freeing to let other voices speak.
TOJ: You have written about the experience of motherhood in Great With Child: On Becoming a Mother. How has your experience of being a mother altered or stretched your use of language and articulation?
DR: The copyeditor who reviewed the galleys of Great with Child noted numerous occasions when I had used hyphenated nouns—an unusual grammatical construction. This surprised me, but it signaled my need to create new language to describe the experience of motherhood. I had to jerry-rig new words together, as it were.
Great With Child is characterized by a very wide range of tone and language register; it ranges from crude, irreverent, and wry, to matter-of-fact and descriptive, to intellectual and even sublime. I worried some about inconsistency of tone as I wrote but I concluded that such a range was necessary to convey truly the nature of this experience.
TOJ: Obviously, motherhood is, by mechanics, a uniquely female experience. Has it changed your perspective of the character or nature of God?
DR: Profoundly. I have a much greater trust in God’s love now because I have experienced the power of my own love for my children. I also understand God’s anger better, because I know what it feels like to be angry and frustrated with someone precisely because you love that person so much and want what is best for that person. Paradoxically, I have also begun to trust God’s delight in us. I had not thought much about this before becoming a mother, but my own delight in my children has helped me believe that God also delights in us wherever we are in our spiritual development, while also urging us to grow. I did not expect my children, at age two, to act like adults. I delighted in their wonderful two-ness and gave discipline appropriate to their development, knowing my way of relating to them would change as they grew. In the same way, I think God wills and enables our spiritual growth, but delights in us along the way as well. It is hard to trust this, but I am learning.
TOJ: What are some of the main challenges that you think women who are mothers face in our culture? In the Christian church?
DR: Women hear strident and contradictory voices about how we should arrange our lives. Throughout our education we are encouraged to develop our gifts and achieve. When we become mothers, however, we still hear strong voices about work and achievement but then come the other voices urging us to be perfect mothers, dedicated with every bit of our time and energy to the greatest possible development of our children. Public discourse is set up so that women can’t win: whatever choices we make, we are doing something wrong according to somebody or other. And of course, it’s all about women’s choices. I am continually astonished by those who claim to worry about the well-being of children and who are always ready to criticize mothers for their choices, yet rarely have a word of rebuke for fathers, government, and employers for the kinds of choices they make, choices that fail to promote the well-being of children and make good parenting very difficult.
At heart, this is a patronizing attitude toward women, the sort of cultural paternalism that women in the 1970’s were keen to point out and discredit. Unfortunately, some conservative pockets of the church have been at the heart of a return to paternalism. I think this is a response to a complex, pluralistic society: people long for a neat, even rigid ordering of society, and religion can create a powerful justification for such a view. Some people also deeply fear women’s power. So what we have now can fairly be described as a conservative backlash.
What I long for instead is a better response to the freedoms we enjoy in an affluent, pluralist culture. What a blessed opportunity we have! Christians must respond to contemporary culture not with simplistic role-playing but with responsible and creative use of our freedom—economic and political. More so than in any other society in history, women have the education and economic security to develop their gifts—their intellectual, artistic, leadership, healing, athletic, and every other kind of gift. Surely, this is pleasing to God, the giver of gifts. For women to do this, however, the job of raising children must be shared. This is another opportunity. We as Christian communities can model a better way to raise children. We can demonstrate the wonderful benefits that everyone receives when fathers fully participate in the day-to-day raising of children—and make sacrifices at work to do so—and when institutions give parents ways to arrange their work life to allow time and energy for their children.
Work-family balance should not be all about women’s choices. Raising children well is something the whole community must be designed and dedicated to doing.
TOJ: What would you say that the Christian tradition offers for women who are unable to have children?
DR: There are conservative Christian voices out there today claiming that singleness is unchristian and stay-at-home motherhood an imperative for women. This is contrary to the Gospel and does not reflect the biblical witness. This attitude is also cruelly oblivious to the beauty and variety of women’s gifts and to the unpredictability of life. The good news of the Gospel is this: our identity and our value are found in Christ, and our calling is to follow Jesus and use our gifts to serve the Living God. In Christ, we have salvation and life. Out of that salvation, we are invited to follow the Spirit’s guidance, not simply adhere to cultural roles.
Parenthood is a high and noble calling, but it is hardly imperative. Paul in I Corinthians 7 expresses great ambivalence about marriage and parenthood. He suggests that marriage and parenthood can be a distraction while singleness can be a state that allows great freedom to serve the Lord. I don’t understand how anyone can ignore the evident wisdom there. The Roman Catholic tradition has long recognized this and in various ways honored singleness among both men and women. I think Protestants have so far failed to develop a biblical theology of singleness. The time has come to work on this, as I know some people are doing.
TOJ: What does it mean to you to practice Christianity? What does it mean to be spiritual?
DR: The word “practice” has come into its own these days. In many quarters, Christians are recognizing that for too long the emphasis has been on believing the right things, on being right. Of course, what we believe is important. But we are also realizing that faith is not all up in the head. Faith is about actions, and more practically, habits of life. This is not a new insight, of course (consider the book of James), but the sort of thing we have to remember over and over again.
Faith is formed in us by the Spirit not only through instruction, but through the way we shape our days and years, our habits of prayer and worship and service, the formal and informal rituals we practice, however consciously or unconsciously. Many recently published books of Christian apologetics (including my own) feature chapters on Christian practices like prayer, Bible-reading, worship, and service.
The ancient metaphor of the journey or pilgrimage has been important to me in understanding what it means to be spiritual. Spirituality is about growth and change, opening oneself to the work of the Spirit. Just as with any sort of long journey, the spiritual life brings great moments of joy and discovery as well as struggles and rough spots. God, through all of this, is both our provision and our destination.
TOJ: You have also written another type of poetry within traditional musical forms—hymns—and I understand that you are working on a book about the language of songs used for worship. Can you describe that project, and why you think it is valuable?
DR: My literary training emphasized the power of language to shape our imagination and in turn our thinking and actions. For Christians, worship is arguably our most spiritually formative practice. Yet churches typically spend very little time carefully evaluating language in worship. Or they focus on a few aspects of language without taking into account the whole picture. When this happens, we wind up with a severely truncated view of God, a lack of vision for what the church is and how it relates to the world, a misunderstanding of salvation, and any number of other troubles.
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (which operates on the campus of Calvin College) asked me to write a practical resource that would help people think carefully about how language in worship forms us spiritually—our songs, prayers, sermons, and everything else that gets said or sung in worship. The book will address numerous topics such as authenticity, repetition, the use of metaphor, and worshiping with the global church, and will include many practical examples and exercises.
Working on the project has made me both sad and excited. Now that I have been visiting many different kinds of worship and observing language carefully, I see how thin and poor our language for God and the faith often is. I have felt myself falling into a kind of spiritual poverty after months of living on this thin fare in worship. At the same time, I am excited because through writing and leading workshops and visiting wonderfully creative churches of many styles and traditions, I have seen that it’s not too hard to make huge improvements. Small changes can make a big difference.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.
Debra Rienstra is an associate professor of English at Calvin College. She has written two books, Great With Child: On Becoming a Mother, a personal meditation on motherhood, and So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, which is a gentle introduction to the Christian faith. Rienstra writes literary non-fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, and teaches early British literature and creative writing.