Biblical Literalism, Interpretive Lenses, and the Poet Billy Collins
A few months back, which was several years later than it should have been, I stumbled on poetry by Billy Collins.
All you English majors, he’s our mascot, our beacon of hope, our implausible rock star: a wildly, winsomely, successful poet.
Mr. Collins wins his readers with charm, and wit, and startlingly sincere, weighty, and intense observations and truths great and small.
As it so happens, I had dinner with Mr. Collins two nights ago…while listening to him recite his work on Prairie Home Companion. The kids and I tune in every Saturday evening that we can, curled up on our couches, a simple supper at hand, ideally with the fire roaring to complete the scene. There he was, in our living room, we silently (until he made us laugh) munching our meal as he rendered his words.
You really should read this poem, called The Lanyard, which will make you grin while also rediscovering that repressed lump in your throat, or this one, named “Marginalia,” which will move you to check out books, fall in love, and scribble notes to borrowers never to be met.
The point of this blog, however, is this poem below:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Now, read it one more time, slowly, and notice the images of the invitations and then the final wallop of the last two stanzas.
This poem, this one I read not as an English major, but as a theologian.
I understand where Mr. Collins going with it, I understand his loyal agenda to his vocation here, but as for me, I read it and wished I’d written the exact same piece except sticking in ‘biblical text’ wherever Mr. Collins wrote ‘poem.’
Granted, the flow isn’t as nice, but the point is neat.
I’ve long been fascinated by the way some people cling to biblical literalism: that belief that the Bible must be read as factually, incontrovertibly, exactly true.
The desire to be faithful to the text is noble.
But the urgency is bound up in something generally completely alien to the very people whom literalists want to honor.
The rigid commitment to a certain notion of truth is tied, like a horse to its post, to our habit of testing and proving and our valuing verifiable facts over story, over Mr. Collins’ craft. (If you don’t believe me, just look at pay scales of professors teaching in the humanities and religion departments in comparison to those teaching in the sciences, or notice how wonderfully jarring it is that a poet has groupies!).
To boot, the literalist overlooks that we all have lenses, sometimes lenses of which we are powerfully unaware, through which we see everything, not least of all the Bible.
These lenses can color, clarify, distort, and highlight everything we see through them…except, of course, the fact that my kids are smarter, more compassionate, creative, seasoned, delightful, deep, and are generally a greater gift to the world than any other child born before or after.
That, my friends, is incontrovertible truth.
That, um…that just sort of unintentionally made my point, didn’t it.
Let’s go back to using Scripture for this thought thread.
Junia. In Romans 16:7, the early apostle Junia has, in many biblical translations, had her name rendered Julian. Junia, as in female…Julian, as in male.
Because women of course can’t be apostles, silly.
Not only have these mistaken translations been more faithful to the translators’ literalist (mis)understandings of Scripture (not to mention God), but for centuries–including our own, depending on which translation is being read–if you are a literalist reading this passage, you are literally and (not figuratively but) literally again simply wrong, and with grave consequences for women and those who could have benefited from their leadership.
(Feminist biblical scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza helped pioneer a new way of reading and interpreting Scripture, leading us to a new vantage point from which we can’t, with integrity, return.)
But even if you push all of that aside, biblical literalism ignores the complex history of the development of the Bible (that link is to an OMG blog that covers in a crazy short and selective way how we’ve come to have the Bible)…and to boot, doesn’t seem to recognize that there is translation after translation after translation after translation, all which differ in notable and noteworthy and substantive ways.
Or a different, um, perspective: Luke 19:3 says that Zaccheus had to climb a tree to see Jesus because he was short. It’s not, actually, entirely clear to whom the “short” refers, Zaccheus or Jesus. That is, did Zaccheus need to climb up the tree to see Jesus because the crowd was so big, or did Jesus need to climb up a tree to see because the crowd was so big? It could be the only instance in Scripture where we hear some description of Jesus. Turns out that it might have been shorter distance to get that sheep up around Jesus’ shoulders than all these artists have thought it was.
And then we have the question of what is truth anyway (that’s another OMG blog that covers in a crazy short and selective way the notion of Truth).
So, for example, if you and I are on a hill, and you say that you can see for 17.4 miles, and I say that I can see forever, which one of us speaks the truth?
If I say that I love you, is that a one-dimensional statement meaning only one thing for all time? Or can those words enclose any number of fluid meanings, some of them even, on the face of it, contradictory?
Is it possible that what one said once in the past is no longer, given new circumstances, true now?
Or that what is true in one context isn’t true in another?
Or, as Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice discovered in “Much Ado about Nothing,” is it possible that “There’s a double meaning” in words, even beyond one’s own awareness?
Now, I understand that words must mean something. I work with words all the time: words are my schtick, my gig, my vocation. Vacuous words, words that not only point to a reality that is all relative, but are themselves relative lose all meaning and meaningfulness.
But still, I believe that Mr. Collins has some words of wisdom not only for students of poetry, but students of Scripture.
With his poem in mind, now pick up your Bible and then dive deep into it (not literally), put it under a microscope and before a telescope (not literally), have a few drinks with it (not literally–well, you may beside it, but don’t bother offering one to the Scriptures), read it at 3:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. and in 450 CE in Ireland and in 1945 in Central Europe and in late March, 1980 in El Salvador and in late August, 2014 in Ferguson MO and in your life when your heart is glad and when it despairs…and then see what happens to it, and to you.
As for the mouse in Mr. Collins’ poem, he didn’t truly mean that. That for sure shouldn’t be taken literally.
I sure hope he didn’t literally mean that anyway. It wouldn’t be enough to make me give up Billy Collins, but I’d read him only in the day time in someone else’s house.
My recent “Aha” moment of reading Scripture through the lens of art came from seeing Terrence Mallick’s The New World.
The extras on the Criterion disc describe Mallick’s thorough attention to detail in getting the makeup, costumes, and settlements right. He even grew corn that looked as it would have looked back then as opposed to modern hybridized corn.
But as far as the historicity of the movie itself, Mallick took broad liberties with the plot. He was more interested in being artistically faithful than “factually” faithful.
Well, this comment is only unhelpful insofar as now I am eager to watch it…and have no time in the next several weeks to do just that!
It is officially on The List.
I did, however, have time to poke around the internet to learn more about the film. So this fellow liked it more than a little bit: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/dec/10/the-new-world-terrence-malick “The New World is not a movie you simply watch it is a movie that happens to you, overwhelms you, like the weather, or true love. Malick took his time with this, his one true masterpiece, and so should you. As everything else rots away, it will abide.”
Ebert was a fan too: “The are two new worlds in this film, the one the English discover, and the one Pocahontas discovers. Both discoveries center on the word ‘new,’ and what distinguishes Malick’s film is how firmly he refuses to know more than he should in Virginia in 1607 or London a few years later. The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future.”
So without having seen the film, I can see why you posted what you did. It, in turn, makes me think of a thing I’ve used for some time, an essay and sketches by Henri Matisse, a retrospective of his art called (in English) Exactitude Is Not Truth. Take a look at this link to find it: https://books.google.com/books?id=xm-4k5Xs9DcC&pg=PA179&lpg=PA179&dq=%22exactitude+is+not+truth%22+matisse&source=bl&ots=xhK0zDkd8f&sig=WmqFC6ZDt2w5f1AV7Hh-X0OTOvY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Xg8wVfy5PIGpNrPfgcgL&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22exactitude%20is%20not%20truth%22%20matisse&f=false
That is, truth is not exact…nor, as you point out, is faithfulness. I appreciate very much your insight, and your post…and your film tips!
This is incredibly written. Thank you very much for sharing this! It is written in such a way that is thought provoking without demeaning anyone who holds a literalist interpretation of the scriptures. I’m neck deep in your post about the history of cannonizing the Bible (linked in this blog post), and I’m finding that equally as constructive. Anyway, thanks again.
I am very glad that you enjoyed it so much! One can’t go wrong when beginning a thought with Billy Collins, truly. Peace to you!