This is in response to an exam prompt. Usually I wait until after my exam’s been returned to me before posting; however, this is so excruciatingly particular that I’m going to release it before I even hand it in. In deference to my professor, however, you’re going to have to guess the prompt!
As a Girl Scout of Scots-Irish ancestry, I’m predisposed to assume anything and everything could be useful. Broken matchsticks help one re-attach coat buttons; plastic zip-bags can be washed and then store parts for the Christmas tree stand. I minored in history during my undergrad, so I’ve a demonstrated fondness for the past. But this essay can’t rest on my willingness to suspend judgment and to wait for a perfect moment in which to slide a germane aside into a conversation, however well that’s worked for me before.
Now that I’m 50, I’ve grown more bounded in how I articulate my vocation. I’ve seen plenty of initiatives disappear into vagueness or diffuse through scope creep, so to raise my odds of seeing this one through I say I’m called to explore theology through poetry, by way of a Ph.D. After that, or perhaps during that, it seems likely that I would teach, but that is merely theory at this point. It’s poetry I’m drawn to, or more precisely the ways we try to see God more clearly using poems as lenses. Any work that facilitates that, I’m interested in.
Thus I could say that history, Christian or otherwise, is beside my point. Literary criticism might be a more obvious choice of toolbox; poetry is commonly approached as one of the Higher Arts, needing specialized tools to handle its unfamiliarities. But I don’t want to say that. One, I don’t think that poems are nearly as alien as my 12th-grade English teacher tried to make them out to be. Two, or One-B, common tools are good tools for everyday work, including or especially everyday work with poems. Poems that talk about God, rather than being specialized, can be part of everyday work. Christian history makes one good basic tool for grappling with that work.
For my immediate activity, Christian history shows me places to go fishing for God-focused poems. Not only can I shadow arcs of Christian thought, looking for poems that arose alongside, but I can make shrewd guesses about the themes likely to present themselves in each timeframe’s works. By knowing Christian history as it interleaves with wider historical narratives, I can dive into spots of tension, conflict, or cognitive dissonance: where there is mental friction, there are frequently poems alongside the prose.
And it’s these historical moments that will later go onto inform what and how I might share these poems with others. A converse of Santayana’s famed phrase is that in the midst of struggle or strain, one can sift through the past to find echoes of the same, and when one finds the echo, one can find colleagues in one’s trouble. It is this intuition that guides many to turn to the Psalms for solace; the principle, however, will hold true for more mundane poems.
I described my calling as an academic exercise. If I once entertained the idea that what I’ve embarked on is solely for my and my potential Ph.D committee’s edification, four semesters at APTS have shown me how what we learn inevitably ends up feeding Christ’s community. And really, I would never have been able to keep this to myself. I evangelize for God and poems, for the particular connections we make to God via the crystalized language poems expose. Don’t you see? I say. Here is another balm for your heart, another way to wail aloud. My ministry is to open eyes yet another way: Look! See how God works then, how God works now, how we who follow Christ are together—in the past, in our present, into the future, until Christ comes again and singing in poems is our natural expression.