Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Monday, 29 October 2012

Do we value the Bible?


A few weeks ago Edna, a member of my congregation, gave me a leaflet which talked about Bible Sunday thinking it might be of interest.  Well as today is Bible Sunday I thought it might be an idea to look at the Bible.
John Waddey asks: “What price could we put on the Bible? Just how could we measure its value? David wrote in the Psalms that God's word was "more precious than fine gold".  In communist nations disciples are willing to pay a month's wages for a Bible and risk government harassment in so doing. This may seem strange to those who have never taken time to read one of the numerous Bibles in their home. “

Franz Kafka once said: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us ... We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
 This quotation is used as a chapter heading in a book entitled – ‘Wolf in the Sheepfold’ which was one of the required books for my studies into the Bible when I was training. It always struck me as rather a strange concept for ‘The Bible’, to be considered as something dangerous and a book to be wary of.  Of course it was only through studying the Bible that I came to understand that this was so and that there was certainly more to it than I had previously thought.  It was not just a book that was oft quoted by people who had a rather fundamental approach to religion and Christianity, but it was something that needed close study and a great deal of understanding.

Northrop Frye said: “The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the ‘great Boyg’ or sphinx in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?”
 Of course as Unitarians the Bible may not be as central to our tradition as it once was, but this is precisely why we need to look at it and understand it, or at least try to understand it.  Many of today’s Unitarians are unsure about using the Bible at all, and many are afraid to because they do not really know it or understand it.  It is precisely because of this attitude and ignorance of the Bible that makes books like ‘Understanding The Bible, An Introduction for sceptics, seekers, and religious liberals,’ by John Buehrens. And those by the great liberal Christian thinker John Shelby Spong such as, ‘Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism’, ‘Liberating the Gospels’  and ‘The Sins of Scripture’ to name just a few, such interesting and even essential reads.  Books such as these would not need to be written if the bible were not a dangerous and difficult (and misunderstood) book.

If the Bible is indeed important to us as part of our religious life, then we do need to think about where The Bible comes from, how it was written and about the authority of what is written there.

 John Buehrens asks, “Where do religious traditions come from?” and one of his answers to this question is that these traditions come from the stories that have been passed down the centuries about our human condition.  And of course one of the main sources for discovering these stories is from The Bible because as Buehrens said of The Bible:
“it is not so much a single book as an entire library, (and) would suggest that our forebears understood that human life can only be meaningfully understood when we see it as a complex story made up of multiple instances of creation, generation, liberation, exultation, frustration, redemption, expectation, inspiration, proclamation, passion, resurrection, incarnation, salvation and revelation – among other things.” John Buehrens

This is of course one of the most important things for us to recognise, that the Bible is not one book, and in fact even the collection of books that we call the Bible is not definitive, in fact there is no book, ‘The Bible’.  As Robert Carroll says in Wolf in the Sheepfold, “There is no copyright on the Bible. Various translations and editions of the Bible are the property of different publishing houses, but no one person, community, institution or nation can be said to ‘own’ the Bible.   It is a freelance book, loose in human culture though subject to the canons of time-conditioned cultural production and the necessities of interpretation.  Its authors and producers are generally unknown, and the processes whereby it came to have the forms in which we know it, are shrouded in legends of the past.”

We often think of the Bible as a European book because we know it in translated forms and in these forms it reflects Western values. “It is not, of course, a European book at all, but a collection of books from a past not our own and from cultures very different from ours.”  The idea that it is a single book, and that it is our book is one that is very difficult to dislodge from Western consciousness.  So many of us are unaware that there is a different Bible used in different Christian traditions other than the differences of translations, for example the Catholic Bible contains many more books than the Bible that is found in Protestant Churches, and they are often in a different order as well.  The missing books are known as the Apocrypha and they contain some of the most wonderful writings there are in the Old Testament, which of course is the Jewish Bible, in that the Jewish religion does not accept the writings of the New Testament at all.

There is of course then the question of translations.  There are just so many translations of the Bible available today and many pieces can be almost unrecognisable if read from a variety of these translations.   
    One book called Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, is very, very different. It is radical because it changes the names of some of the characters, Nichodemus becomes Nick and Simon-Peter becomes Rocky, and John the Baptist is known as John the Dipper. Not only does it change names but it also includes translations of texts that are not found in any of our known Bibles.  These texts are known as the ‘Nag Hammadi’ collection, and are those writings that were found in some caves in the Dead Sea region in 1945.       

Another very different version is this one  by Rob Lacey:     
the Word on the Street and is written more like a series of articles in a tabloid newspaper and is designed to be understood by a more modern audience.  Then there are the people who have rewritten the bible or portions of the Bible so that it will fit in with their personal beliefs and understanding such as Thomas Jefferson the American president who did a cut and paste version (before computers I may say) producing what is known as the Jefferson Bible. And Charles Dickens  wrote a version of the Gospels for his children.

I hope this gives you some idea about the complexity of the Bible and also some idea about the difficulty there is in studying this complex collection of writings.  But I hope it won’t prevent you from picking a copy up, reading and even enjoying it.

There is a Sufi story about that wise fool Nasrudin, The Lost Jewel,


Nasrudin was on his hands and knees, obviously looking for something, when his friend came up to him and said, ‘What are you doing?'
'I'm looking for a diamond that fell out of my ring.' He said.
'Let me help you,' said his friend, and he got down on his hands and knees and started looking too.
A neighbour was walking by and saw the two men with their heads close to the ground, searching intently. ‘What are you looking for?' he asked.
'Nasrudin lost a diamond from his ring and we're trying to find it,' said Nasrudin’s friend. 'Won't you help us?'
'Certainly,' replied the neighbour, and he began searching too. Soon others came and joined in. But they had no luck. Someone even brought a magnifying glass so that he could examine the ground more carefully, but to no avail: nobody was able to find the diamond.
Then one of the searchers said, 'Tell us, Nasrudin, and exactly where were you when the diamond fell out of your ring?'
'I was in the kitchen of my house,' said Nasrudin. 'Then why on earth are we searching out here?'
'Because there's more light out here,' replied Nasrudin.

In this story, Nasrudin, searches for his lost diamond in the street where the light is good rather than in the darkness of his kitchen where he lost it.  Isn’t this true of most people’s search for God; don’t we often look in writings that are considered by the majority to hold the truth, such as The Bible, The Koran or other sacred writings.  Isn’t it the case that most people do not realise there is a whole collection of writings that are not as acceptable and yet it is often the case that these writings will contain as much truth and wisdom as in the more accepted writings.

In the final pages of the novel The Thirteenth Apostle, by Michel Benoit  are these words: “Truth did not lie in (the words of) the fourth gospel.  It was not contained in any text, however sacred it may be.  It lay beyond the words printed on paper, words uttered by human mouths.  It lay in the heart of silence, ...” (p353)

After all, isn’t this what truth, understanding and religious belief is all about.  Isn’t it ‘that which we feel in our hearts’ when we engage with our faith and belief, not that which we read, that counts.  And isn’t it important that in our quest to inform our inner selves, and as we engage with texts and writings, that we spread our net wide and not just look where the light is greatest.  Isn’t it important that we accept that there is wisdom to be found by reading all writings regardless of how they are accepted by the majority of the world religions with the confines they impose upon the writings by virtue of what was acceptable in the past. And above all, in Franz Kafka’s words, shouldn’t we let what we read, “be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  So may it be.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Does Poetry Matter?

Artistic Afternoons: "Poetry is the language of the spirit and the soul, not of the discursive mind. It compresses the lived truth of the poet's experience into a beauty and wisdom that can slip under the skin of the reader and enter the bloodstream." - For Lovers of God Everywhere
Roald Dahl's "I've Eaten so Many Strange and Scrumptious Dishes. . ." from James and the Giant Peach.

 Address - Sunday 14th October.
Most of you know that I love poetry.  Unfortunately this is something that is not shared by everyone.  Many people have developed as much a fear of poetry as they have of my other love, mathematics, and in a way I guess that it is for much the same reason.  That somewhere in the past a combination of bad teaching and a sense of failure have struck a fear in the heart when we hear the word mathematicss and similarly when we are asked to read a poem.  Despite this though I am sure that for everyone here there is a sense of the poetic somewhere within you.  It might be that a snippet of verse or even a complete poem may have crept into your mind and whenever you hear that familiar line or verse you mentally join in with it.  It may be the poems of your childhood, poems that can contain such wonderful words and pictures that you might never find anywhere else except in a poem.  The poem by Roald Dahl is an example of some of those wonderful words – such as dandyprats, mudburgers and stinkbugs – the pictures they conjure up must surely fire the imagination of today’s children.   

For me it was the poetry of Lewis Carroll – such as Jaberwocky  and ‘ ‘twas brillig and the slithy toves  did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/all mimsy were the borogroves, /and the mome raths outgrabe . . .  

That to me is the wonder of all poetry – the words. . .
Arthur Mampel said: “The poet and man of letters, Archibald MacLeish tells in one of his poems how difficult it is for the poet to communicate reality with words. It is like awakening from a marvellous dream where everything is clear and crystal like—and then, when our eyes are opened, the memory of the dream becomes fuzzy and out of focus and confused.”
I would like you to hear that poem by MacLeish:

Words In Time

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!

There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.

That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.
—(Poet’s Choice page 20-21, eds. Engle & Langland)

“The Preacher of words,” says Mampel, “the Teller of tales, the Weaver of words, the Journalist, the Poet—they all face and share the same dilemma. How do you convey reality to people by the use of mere words?
I think that poetry may be the one medium in print today that still communicates life through words.”

The words of poetry can go on to speak to us of all the subjects that affect us during our lives and in a way that helps us to express all our emotions. 

In 2009 the BBC produced a series of four programmes entitled ‘My Life in Verse’ where four celebrities were asked to share the poems they found moved them or were important in their lives.

 I remember the episode when Sheila Hancock shared her favourite poems which expressed her life and love for her husband the actor John Thaw of Sweeney and 
Morse fame.  


She chose love poems including the famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning  which begins -

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. . . .

  And George Herbert’s poem – Love

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

And then moving on to the time of grief after his death with the Auden poem –

 Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

 And the sonnet by Edna St Vincent Millay

TIME does not bring relief; you all have lied
    Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
    I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
    And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
    But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!

There are a hundred places where I fear
    To go,—so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
    And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The emotions expressed in these poems cannot be denied and I cannot read them without feeling like shedding a tear.
Poetry helps us to express our emotions, whether of joy or sadness, in a unique way.  Sometimes poems can be used to express our feelings when normal conversation just doesn’t work.
Kathleen O’Dwyer says:
“Even with those whom we love it is not always possible to be completely honest. From Homer to Shakespeare, from Bob Dylan to Seamus Heaney, and from the poetic word reverberating in each person’s life, we receive glimpses of reality and of experience that cannot be articulated in other forms.
We need the truth, the courage and the honesty of poetry to keep us real, to keep us connected with what really matters and to continually lift the veil of familiarity and camouflage which disguises and distorts our understanding of the human condition.
Poetry matters because it combines beauty and truth, pain and joy, hope and despair. It accepts the poignancy of the human condition while it celebrates its resilience and potentialities; it rejoices in the fact that we are “human, all too human” and that, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Poetry answers to a universal human need to go beyond conventional modes of thought and expression, and it continually opens us to new possibilities and new ways of being.”
A poem is a tightly woven and highly compressed pattern of images, emotions, perceptions, and experiences.

For me though the poetry that speaks to me most powerfully now, is the poetry that speaks about God, or the Divine; that which is often called spiritual poetry.  My most well read book of these poems are contained in this book 

– Rilke’s Book of Hours – Love poems to God and I could probably just open it to any page and read but I have chosen an excerpt from one poem – it is one that speaks of poetry.

And you inherit the green
of vanished gardens
and the motionless blue of fallen skies,
dew of a thousand dawns, countless summers
the suns sang, and springtimes to break your heart
like a young woman’s letters.

You inherit the autumns, folded like festive clothing
in the memories of poets, and all the winters,
like abandoned fields, bequeath you their quietness.
You inherit Venice, Kazan, and Rome;

Florence will be yours, and Pisa’s cathedral,
Moscow with bells like memories,
and the Troiska convent, and that monastery
whose maze of tunnels lies swallowed under Kiev’s gardens.

Sound will be yours, of sting and brass and reed,
and sometimes the song will seem
to come from inside you.

For your sake poets sequester themselves,
gather images to churn the mind,
journey forth ripening with metaphor,
and all their lives they are so alone…
And painters paint their pictures only
that the world, so transient as you made it,
can be given back to you,
to last forever.

All becomes eternal. . . .
Rainer Maria Rilke

And the other poet whose works I am reading at the moment T.S Elliot ends his work – The Four Quartets with these words; words that describe words:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The most important thing about poetry is that it is read and read often.  It is no good having poetry books on our shelves if they are not picked up and read. If we love poetry, we will read it and re-read it, think about - often, and browse in books of poetry: our attention will will then 'fill out and make radiant this life of ours.'
Yes: our attention will will then 'fill out and make radiant this life of ours.'
So May it Be.     Amen