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Jesus the Poet: What Did he Mean

Posted on: February 01, 2014


©David Gaslton, 2014

It is important in our day to make a distinction between science and poetry. Science is technical knowledge and deals with what we call “facts”: things that we can measure and explain through physical evidence. We cannot, and simple do not, call something a fact for which there is no evidence.

About the year 1600, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, technical science began to displace Christianity as factual knowledge. Understandably many Christians, both then and now, felt or feel very threatened. It seems like science is against religion, and it seems like religion - Christianity in particular - is simply a delusion. There is some truth to this. Science does displace religion as technical knowledge, and religious beliefs, when accepted as facts, are delusions. However, it should be pointed out that this is only true if religion, generally, and Christianity, particularly, are thought to be the same kind of knowledge as scientific knowledge. What if religious knowledge is a different kind of knowledge?

This is where the word poetry comes in. A poet is not interested in describing facts. Statements about reality as it is are not in the purview of the poet. In place, a poet describes a vision, perhaps even an ecstatic one, that could have very little to do with the way things are factually. “Cruelty has a human heart, and jealousy a human face” wrote William Blake in a poem called A Divine Image. Human beings are supposed to be in the image of God; we are supposed to be a “divine image,” but of course, Blake is indicating, we are anything but. Cruelty is the opposite of the divine but the essence of being human, Blake claims. Is he describing a fact? Of course he is not; rather, he is exaggerating to make a point, which is presumably that human beings need to change. Blake has a vision of another kind of human being who is truly divine rather than one who is the mockery of divinity.

Science is technical knowledge that uses abstract ideas to pose theories that explain or model the workings of reality. But poetry is very different. It is not usually abstract. In place, it takes particular things, images, and plays with the image of the particular to demonstrate or cultivate a way of looking at things. The poet “borrows observations” from the common world, as Bob Funk used to say, and tries to see something that is not there or that could be there or even ought to be there. The poet is “ecstatic,” someone who stands outside the everyday world and speaks about the alternatives that few of us are able to see.

The historical Jesus was a poet, not a scientist, and the tools of his trade were parables, stories taken from his everyday world that always tweaked that world and opened to view something different, something extraordinary, something that should be but was not or very rarely so.

My favourite parable is the Good Samaritan precisely because it plays so dramatically through hyperbole on the differences between two closely related people. The Samaritans had a five book Torah from Moses, they had a sacred mountain, a central temple, and a holy land promised to them by God. They were just like their Jewish cousins in every respect except for being the mirror opposite. From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan had the wrong Torah and the wrong mountain. Their temple was in the wrong city, and their land was the wrong holy land. The bitterness of the enmity between the two sides was heightened exactly because they were basically the same people who made the same claims on different sides of a common fence.

Crossing over from one side of the fence to the other, as the Samaritan does in the story when he has compassion for a Jew, was not just a matter of kindness. It was a great risk of trust wherein the Samaritan has to stop being a Samaritan. He has to annihilate the pride of his culture and the teaching of his religion to go over to the Jew and become a Jew with him. And the Jewish victim, because he is helpless, has no choice: he must allow himself to be a Samaritan and to receive the grace of his brother. He must allow himself to be touched, to be carried, and to be cared for by someone he would normally distain.

It is a remarkable story that is fiction: it is poetry, and yet it is a story that happens all the time. Every time such lines are crossed, whether between French and English, Muslim and Christian, Gay and Straight, whatever it may be, that story is told again. Again a Samaritan becomes a Jew; again, a Jew becomes a Samaritan. Again human beings learn to be bigger than their religions or their politics or their genders because, again, they pierce the fiction of the real world to see the reality of a fictional world.

Science describes the world, gives us information about the world, and is no doubt the most fundamental and reliable form of knowledge we have. But science does not “save” us, if I may put it this way. We are “saved,” that is, made the best human beings we can be, through our poetry. We are saved when the world that does not exist but should exist is played out in our imagination as inspiration and as hope. We are saved, that is to say, made right or whole, when in what we do or say we correct the world through overcoming ourselves.

Christianity, along with many other religions, is held back from the potential of its own teaching with two mistakes. One is that Christianity confuses its message with Christianity. It thinks its gospel is about Jesus in the same ways Judaism thinks its gospel is about the Torah or Islam thinks its gospel is about the Qur’an. The second mistake is the assumption that Christianity makes about its own definition. Like other religions, Christianity also thinks that it is determined by the rules that define it. These mistakes happen because the poetry of religion is silenced by the fundamentalism of religion. If there is anything the historical Jesus taught as a poet it is this: religion is not about religion or the definitions of religion. Religion is about being greater than who we are, being something of the person we can be, something of the good news about being human.

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