November 3, 2014 / Theology
As Bruce Ellis Benson’s recent book Liturgy as a Way of Life reminds us, “in …
August 16, 2011
I am not certain: what does evangelical Christian mean anymore? I see narrow orders, but any tight definition is limited, fraught with complications. I have met self-identified evangelicals who diverge widely in their Christologies and in their approaches to the Bible. I have met Christians who, by any number of doctrinal criteria, might be called evangelical but who do not self-identify as such.
Despite my uncertainty about the specifics, I believe evangelical still means—something. As I scroll back through my encounters with Christians who I feel justified in calling evangelical and with Christians who call themselves evangelicals, I am inclined to roll up this sum according to a shared disposition, to a common orientation to the world and its putative creator, rather than according to a circumscribed hermeneutics or soteriology.
In lieu of a tight definition, I offer a general observation: all evangelicals I have ever met want me to get it—passionately, thoroughly. Like their universe, they have purpose—one being that I understand the purpose of my (the) universe, which is essential, they believe, to my understanding of my own purpose. The pieces of this universe may be multifarious and confounding, but they all fit. In the evangelical view, things resolve—ultimately. There are answers. There is an answer, and the answer has something to do with Jesus. It is evangelicals’ commission to bear witness to whatever fragments of this answer have been entrusted to them.
Because they take this commission seriously, evangelicals are charged with resolve. Therefore, it is not surprising to find the teleological arc of the universe recapitulated in miniature in evangelical discursive moments. If one knows something about the resolution of the grand narrative—and believes the resolution to provide the key to the rest of the story, the rest of the ostensibly trivial matters, for all of us—one cannot in good faith withhold information when one communicates to others. Whether the good news is “Love Wins” or “Gays Lose,” the messenger has a teleological imperative to deliver it. My spouse and I often joke about how every Sunday is Easter Sunday in evangelical churches. Go to any evangelical worship service, on any given Sunday, and witness the brilliant acrobatics of a worship team who, absent a Mass and (usually) a liturgical calendar, starts you off at Moses, Job, or Kevin Bacon and deposits you in fewer than six degrees at the cross, the empty tomb—the sites where, for evangelicals, it is finished. This is what it means to be purpose driven.
To be sure, many of us are similarly driven—fancying ourselves faithfully completing some good work in others, preaching our own gospels unto someone else’s transformation. In this light, evangelicals are a people set apart only by the content of their message. But the content of their message weighs especially heavily on evangelicals for two reasons. First, evangelicals tend to believe in the universal relevance of their specific beliefs. To believe in your own personal Jesus, to believe that he who is Truth for you in your private heart is true for all humans—that is evangelicalism. Second, evangelicals inhabit communities where the most meaningful acts of expression are literal articulations of one’s specific core beliefs; for what else really matters but preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified? Because there is too much at stake to leave things hanging, the quality of the articulations resides largely in their logical precision, conciseness, and clarity. Bearing witness means baring meaning. Looser, more suggestive language is at best a means to an end, at worst an unholy distraction. When evangelicals go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, their yes should be yes, their no should be no.
If I am correct about the centrality of a strong teleological imperative to evangelical identity, I wonder about the possibilities of an evangelical poet. Do the mechanics of evangelicalism cut against the grain of the poetic enterprise? In part, I think so. But friction is not simply a wearing away. It may be that, if an evangelical poet is possible, evangelical and literary worlds would grow flush with mutual resistance.
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As most people understand them, poems are texts. When some body of interpretive authorities marks some textual event as a poem, this cues people to become responders of a certain variety. We readers of poems attend to different features in the textual event than we would if we were reading, say, a grocery list or birth announcement. Of course, the criteria and expectations vary. Our best avant-garde poets have made a tradition of unsettling a criterion the moment two or more critics gather to enshrine it, but even the most avant-garde poets know they’ll not likely find many of their volumes in the photography section of the bookstore. If they desire a teaching job in something called an English department, they will be glad of this.
Outside of the sublime avant-garde circles in which margins become centers, the fact that poems are texts produces the widespread expectation that poetic language should operate roughly like other texts. When most of us read most poems, we expect at the very least moments of coherence and intelligible syntax—some sense that the poet desires to meet us on a common linguistic territory. We come to the poem believing that someone is trying to communicate with us. The poem-as-textual-event does not reduce to a poet’s unilinear addressing of an audience. Rather, the poem is a genesis pool, a site where meanings are created, contested, and collapsed. Although poets must issue calls, they also must invite responses, responses that, along with the ostensibly original call, co-constitute the poem as event, as art. Even if we allow provisionally that poets are prime movers in the poetic enterprise, poets require partners to create poetry.
Thus construed, poetry poses problems for evangelical communities for whom effective communication occurs more unilinearly—for whom, in the most ideal circumstances, speaker and listener, writer and reader, are fastened ineluctably into an epistemological hierarchy. Evangelical speakers and writers—they are the holders of truths in this hierarchy. It is their charge to dispense these truths to those who have ears to hear.
In such a hierarchy, one might expect the hearers to bear the greater condemnation for communication breakdowns; the hearers are relatively passive, so they are counted as worse than ignorant if they cannot complete so simple a task as to allow the truths to enter them. However, the holders of truths bear the greater burden. They imagine themselves to be elected carriers of the truths, rather than creators or co-creators of truths. Because the truths are considered objective, not quite their own—they do not speak as ones possessing authority, but as guardians of their master’s property—they are terrified of misrepresenting, misspeaking, and miswriting, for they know their master to be harsh (“if anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble . . .”). Their terror is compounded by the fact that they imagine their audience to be sheep easily led astray. Complicating and further exacerbating their anxiety is the reality that in Protestant America—where all believers speak as priests, where the customer is always right—the sheep feel entitled to hold the shepherd accountable, by any number of shifting standards. And the sheep can be harsh masters. Therefore, the transmitters of truths must execute their textual duties in as unadorned fashion as possible. Narrow and straight. No room for metaphor, mystery, audience (mis)interpretation, let alone co-creation. As a result, the textual events that evangelicals value tend to manifest a nervous hermeneutical hording of the author to himself—a passionate guarding of the terms, supposedly undertaken for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the sheep.
How suspicious Louise Glück’s conceptualizing of poetry would sound to the would-be evangelical poet:
At the heart of [the poem] will be a question, a problem. And we will feel, as we read, a sense that the poet was not wed to any one outcome. The poems themselves are like experiments, which the reader is freely invited to recreate in his own mind. Those poets who claustrophobically oversee or bully or dictate response prematurely advertise the deficiencies of the chosen particulars, as though without strenuous guidance the reader might not reach an intended conclusion. Such work suffers from the excision of doubt; Milton may have written proofs, but his poems compel because they dramatize questions. The only illuminations are like Psyche’s, who did not know what she’d find.
Glück presents a paradoxical poetic imperative: effective poets wed themselves to nonweddedness. Poets should bring no obvious finality of vision to bear on their poems, but display themselves as open to contingency. Abandoning “proofs,” poets provide in their poems no more than an arrangement of items that may or may not provoke readers to the conclusions the poets had in mind when they wrote or released the poems into the world.
Any shrewd evangelical will immediately recognize that this noncommittedness is a sort of commitment—one that bespeaks a particular orientation to one’s self and one’s environment, not simply a literary methodology. It requires a poet to possess faith in the necessity and capability of readers. It demands that a poet place greater value on the process of illumination that the poem puts into motion than on the poet’s particular illuminations regarding the world. It asks a poet to produce first and foremost possibility—not consensus, not resolutions.
Is it possible for evangelicals to commit to such non-committedness and remain committed evangelicals, or do poets operate based on a competing, irreconcilable worldview? If evangelicals are as I have described them, I fear the latter is true.
But surely evangelical Christianity houses more tenets than a rigorous teleology and a tightly ordered communicative theory. Evangelicals claim to follow a teacher who described the kingdom of God in parables, who came to call his disciples not servants but friends. Perhaps contingency, uncertainty, and open-ended dialogue with readers are not as inimical to evangelicalism as it seems on first blush.
It may be that evangelicals who dedicate themselves to poetry will come to (re)learn through poetry that commitment to contingency is continuous with their faith—perhaps a centerpiece of their faith. If one key component of Christianity is the recognition of all humans’ creatureliness—that is, recognition of our relative finitude, our non-Godness, our mutability, our transformability, and our perpetual need for transformation and grace—should not an acknowledgement of one’s own creatureliness require a faithful embrace of contingency? If evangelicals believe one of the two greatest commandments is to love their neighbors as themselves, what else does this mean but to open themselves to possible transformation through encounters with others, the very sorts of transformation that evangelicals expect others to be open to when evangelicals express their own proofs and theories? Can evangelical faith really thrive under the denial of risk, the excision of doubt?
If the poetic enterprise offers a challenge to the tight circumscriptions of purpose-driven evangelicalism, it also reminds evangelicals of the more unwieldy, elusive blossoms that spring perennially, if sporadically, in their own garden. I subscribe to a Christian literary magazine whose subtitle is “Art. Faith. Mystery.” The possibility of the evangelical poet may depend upon evangelicals conceiving of the members of this trinity as consubstantial.
 Glück, “Against Sincerity,” in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1994), 45.
Ryan Harper is a graduate student in the department of religion at Princeton University, where he is completing a dissertation on contemporary southern gospel music. His poetry, essays, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Litchfield Review, Ruminate, Potomac Review, Sugar House Review, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Ryan lives in New Jersey with his spouse, the writer and chaplain Lynn Casteel Harper. He is a jazz drummer, avid runner, and lover of the outdoors.