Friday, April 22, 2011

A very tentative 'I believe'

Today is Good Friday - the day when we're told that Jesus died for our sins - and I'm going to go to church. Not because I'm a particularly orthodox kind of believer, or because I'm even that sure if there is a god or not, but because despite all the doubts, I still call myself a Christian.

Now part of the reason for this is a refusal to give up the title to the fundamentalists and dogmatists who insist on telling me I'm going to hell for not believing that God created the world in 6 days in 4004 BC; but some of it has to do with the sense that there is something inexplicable about the universe. And to say that there is something about the figure of Jesus, whether or not he is the 2nd person of the Trinity, that is attractive. His teaching that love of God and love of neighbour are basically one and the same thing in practical terms (that by loving your neighbour, you're loving the God in them) seems to be still axiomatic for me.

And I'm fully aware of the questions, and they don't scare me. They don't scare those whose faith is not dependent on literalist readings of scripture, or ticking the right boxes in the Creed, because we are always aware that any faith formulation is only ever an approximation of what the divine might be like. I've been fortunate enough to meet several people recently whose faith is not limited by the formulations, and they're all actually poets themselves. I think a 'poetic' understanding of religion is the only one to take: the Bible is a book full of poetry and story. There isn't much literal history in it; even the life of Christ is essentially a series of stories, not a literal history.

I still find it difficult to read the Bible, since I rejected my evangelical beginings; but it's actually getting a bit better now. I can read Jonah without thinking about how a man can live inside the belly of a whale; I can read the Gospels without wondering how it's possible for someone to walk on water, because ultimately, that's not the point of those stories. The Biblical writers were not concerned with how miracles happened; in fact, the writer of the Gospel of Mark seems very anxious at times to play down the miraculous stories, in order to get to the nub of the message. I can sometimes read the gospels now without being sidelined by questions of historicity; but I still have some way to go before I get to just reading them as stories.

The questions of spirituality are all around us, I feel. Not, how do I prove the existence of God, because ultimately it's a non-question. God doesn't in anycase 'exist' in the way a computor or a table exists. Some theologians - taking a lead both from ancient mystics and the work of Paul Tillich and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, would say that any god that 'exists' is a kind of idol. God doesn't look down on us from a great height like some ancient middle-eastern satrap, nor does he direct the traffic of life like the Fat Controller from his office in the sky. If God is in any sense real, then he/she is intwined in the fabric of life, immanent, among us, not apart from us. I suspect (let's try out a very tentative, 'I believe' shall we?) that there is no God out there, only the God in each one of us.

And that's why I'm about to go to church: not to celebrate the judgemental God who needs constant appeasement, but to celebrate the God who comes down among us all the time, who lives - if he lives at all - in the secular heart of the world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poetry Eating Itself

The last Other Room was a really terrific night - to think that it's already got to three years is quite stupendous. Derek Henderson live-streamed from Utah was one of the highlights, as was seeing the poet and editor Carrie Etter reading from her Shearsman book, Divining for Starters. Ken Edwards was also good, as was Alec Finlay. It was an interesting evening that brought up some issues.

I really liked Derek Henderson's reading, for instance, which was a conceptual piece based around taking out every repeating word or phrase from Ted Berrigan's Sonnets. I enjoyed this because I'm aware of, and have probably been influenced by, that very seminal book; but it also brought up a question. Not the obvious one about 'ownership' of Berrigan's words; but of the very fact that I knew the derivation of these poems; but not everyone who might read Derek Henderson's book would have read the original. So it seems that's it's essentially art talking to art again.

Which is all very well and interesting to those of us who are artists; but does it not seem a rather solipsistic game to those who are not so well-versed in the arts as we are? It is a very enjoyable game to play with other writings in this way; but how much does the reader need to know before he or she can take part in the game?

It's not simply a question of elitism; none of the people I've met are at heart in the least bit elitist. If asked, I'm sure they could all explain in relatively simple terms what they're about. It would be in part a distortion, because about art there is always an unspokenness, a silence around the concept that can't be put into words. But it would be a start.

However, I find myself worrying when poetry just feeds off other poetry in this way. I liked the result of it; and this is not a criticism of Derek Henderson's poems. But if this were all that poetry was, I'd wonder if it hadn't become rather clinical and distant, and maybe a little decadent.