The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
I ASKED for the last word. “Incarnation” turned up at the barrel-bottom of the Image lexicon lottery. Why would all these writers overlook it? Are other theological concepts more fascinating or challenging? Or is there an aversion here?
In most American Christian practices, we focus more often on Jesus in the flesh than Christ the preexistent—to an extent that may leave an imaginative writer without much to imagine. Remember the bobblehead “Buddy Christ,” inspired by the film Dogma, sitting on the dash like an air freshener? It is an extreme parody of a cultural reality—the second person of the Trinity lives next door and is therefore fully revealed. The representation also suggests a Christianity informed by our particular socioeconomics, less intellectual and more practical.
I can only offer why I might have passed on the word myself: centuries of systematic theologies, from the Christ hymn in Philippians to charges and countercharges of heresy to the recent revision of the Roman Catholic version of the Nicene Creed, a daunting collection of writings by the greatest theological minds. Perhaps that’s why we use “embody” instead, for a broader but related concept. We talk about the embodied nature of poems. Poetry is a made thing, and it has structure. However, poetry can transcend its physical substance of words, syntax, white space, rhythm, and music. This paradox realizes poetry’s attempt at conveying truth. When Paul describes the “already and not yet” character of the realm of God, I think of poetry, already manifest on the page, but not yet a revelatory word until tangible in the eye and ear of the listener and reader.
Another reason I might have chosen another word is that Christocentric theologies make me uncomfortable. How is an absent-in-the-flesh-at-the-moment rabbi/deity more present than an always-been-absent-in-the-flesh deity?
“Incarnate” suggests the present tense, sensuous and immediate. Herein lies a paradox of faith for me: “in the flesh” takes place in a point in time, whereas “one-in-being” or “consubstantial” is eternal. Can my theological, ontological, and soteriological foundation be dependent on an incarnation-in-time and an eternal mystery—indivisible—at once, or must I choose? A pastor in El Salvador told me, “We need a Jesus who eats beans, sleeps in the trees, and walks with the people.” He didn’t use the past tense. Once incarnate, always incarnate?
The Trinity, the perichoresis of three persons in perpetual motion, or as the Roman Catholics say now, consubstantial, resists idolatry. (Buddy Christ does not.) How can I fix and worship a verbal triad? I can’t. Patrick Kavanagh reminds us that through a chink too wide, no wonder comes. I can look for it, like Dickinson does, in the rapid pass of a cat across a doorway, or the crack Leonard Cohen describes where the light passes through. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas tells us to find him in split wood or under a stone. The divine is the pause between pauses. It is the anti-incarnation. Nothing breathing, nothing to hold, nothing sentient—unless I am the incarnation that incarnates the still space, that hears the silence, that animates the overlooked—all through divinely inspired attention.
In 1988 I joined the Catholic community at New York University. A nun regularly delivered sermons. Emphasis was less on politics and more toward the Sunday soup kitchen. Instead of “became man” during the creed, we said “became one of us.” (After almost twenty-five years I have rarely attended a Mass that is as committed to inclusive language for human beings, let alone one that offers alternative gender-based metaphors for God, another stay against idolatry.) The translation “became one of us” is not only powerful because it includes women, but because it reminds us of our own incarnation. We are the community that the Christ joined, not the other way around. The extra iamb or heartbeat in the line reminds me that humankind preexists Jesus. Jesus joined humankind. Humankind was incarnate first. He is “of us” as well as through us, with us, and in us.
So perhaps my affinity for perichoresis is helpful after all. We are the dance incarnate. Rather than the fleshy temple of a divine spark placed in us by a distant God, we must be consubstantial with the Trinity ourselves. We are the second person, and like a Hindu deity or Buddhist postulant, we are wandering around trying to remember who we really are. Hubris? No. True hubris comes from fear, the impulse to push and grab because there may not be enough. When we say, “I get because I deserve,” it is because we believe I really don’t, can’t, and won’t. A Christian theologian in Tamil Nadu once explained to visitors that he doesn’t watch the news because it’s never about him. He went on to discuss the suffering we must all enter into with the crucified Jesus, and almost immediately his audience wanted to create hierarchies of suffering. How, his listeners must have thought, could we consider ourselves on the cross rather than pounding nails into the crossbeam? He looked patient with our egotistical self-deprecation.
The Matrix is among my favorite films in part because of the feminist theologies it integrates. (Don’t scoff. One must enter into the most unlikely quarters in order to transform and be transformed.) Thomas discovers he has never been born, only entombed as a battery in a huge power station for machines. His life has been a video shown for his pacification. He is rescued or unplugged by other “outlaws” on the margins, his progress marked by his change in name to Neo. In a climactic scene, Neo, having already voluntarily become part of the illusory world of the matrix, enters into and becomes one with the violent, compassionless Agent Smith in order to liberate himself. Yes, Neo is a Buddhist-leaning Christ figure who loses his fleshy self to merge with an inferior, simulated world, thereby achieving liberation for himself and others. In this reversal, flesh becomes ephemeral, not the other way around, in which Christ (the ephemeral) becomes flesh. I would note that his partner is named Trinity, and she straddles him and breathes life into him when he appears dead. (There is no incarnation without the creative powers of the Trinity, including the fecund, once called female, power of Wisdom.) Christocentrism, because of our lack of imagination and political contamination, is phallocentric. If the Indian theologian had seen The Matrix, I suspect he would have agreed that it embodies his philosophy of suffering and perhaps his Christology as well. For him, I’m not sure they could be separated.
Jesus may well have come not only to reveal who he is, but to show us who we are. We limit divine incarnation and use parental metaphors, in part, because we remain comfortable in an obey-disobey dichotomy. In this construction, we have no creative responsibilities, no vocation to incarnate the divine from the glimpses, rests, flashes, and strokes we can perceive in this life.
Outside the dichotomy, there is perfect compassion and perfect wisdom, ours to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste—to incarnate.
We can’t help but elevate what we are afraid to be.
Martha Serpas’s two poetry collections are Côte Blanche and The Dirty Side of the Storm. She teaches at the University of Houston and is a hospital chaplain.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.