Review by Christopher Benson. Christopher Benson teaches literature and theology at The Cambridge School of Dallas, worships at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Dallas, and blogs at Bensonian.
During Sunday worship at my Anglican church, a lector reads aloud from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Epistles. The climactic moment occurs when a priest carries the Bible above his head from the altar to the nave, where he reads the Gospel. This liturgical gesture communicates two things: first, that the enfleshed Word of God came into the world and dwelt among us (John 1:14); second, that the inscribed Word of God places the church under its authority (John 12:47–50). Before the Gospel is read, parishioners make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips, and hearts, signifying that we should live “on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The bread of the Word precedes the bread of the Table; together, they form the meal to nourish faith.
As I watch the procession for the Gospel reading, I am gently chastened. For a lifelong creature of the church, there is always a danger of rising above the Bible through familiarity and study instead of responding under the Bible through awe and obedience. Nodding to a line of verse from the poet George Herbert, let me ask: With “Bibles laid open,” how can God’s people encounter its “millions of surprises?” Devotional poetry is a vital way to become surprised by the Word again because it awakens the mind’s attention from what Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls “the lethargy of custom,” directing it “to the loveliness and the wonders” of God’s self-revelation. All poetry has the potential to freshen the eyes, alert the ears, and prick the heart, but devotional poetry is set apart for its ability to inspire reverence toward the miracle of divine speech that confronts us in the biblical text.
For anthologies of classical devotional poetry, take up The Soul in Paraphrase, edited by Leland Ryken, and Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson. Although it is difficult to improve upon the likes of George Herbert, John Milton, Christina Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot, I am grateful that the Canadian poet D. S. Martin has put together a fine anthology of contemporary poetry in Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse, which focuses on characters of the Bible, who Martin describes as “saints and stumblers.”
Just as the “the word of God is alive and active” (Heb. 4:12), so too are its readers. Therefore, we need to hear from those poets who speak in the idiom of our time. I will only treat three of the 122 poems in this collection, which can be viewed as a triptych (a picture in three panels) on the characters featured in Genesis 19, surely one of the most bizarre chapters in the Bible.
Matt Malyon is the founding director of Underground Writing and a prison chaplain in Washington State. In his poem “Lot,” told from a first-person point of view, you might guess that Abraham’s nephew comes off more sympathetically, but even this literary technique does not wrest Lot from ethical ambiguity. His legacy is dubious, at best, despite Peter calling him a “righteous man” who was “greatly distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless” in Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:7–8).
My gaze so fixed on the holy,
I had all but forgotten
the feel and look of her face.
My daughters, too, beautiful
and innocent, were strangers—
the easier to offer them.
Who can judge? The two angels,
heralds of the rumored doom,
were under my protection.
The first half of the poem implies that Lot was so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good to his daughters, who he volunteers to the rapacious crowd of men outside the house, or to his wife, who trails behind him as he escapes the burning cities of the plain. Does the pursuit of holiness exonerate Lot from familial neglect? Anticipating the reader’s judgment on his failure of solicitude, he asks, like any good relativist today: “Who can judge?” He justifies the inexcusable offer of his daughters by highlighting his practice of hospitality to the angelic visitors.
In the second half of the poem, the urbanite has become a troglodyte. Evacuation from Sodom returns Lot to primal reality, where anguished thoughts about his salinized wife come to him inside a cave: “Even the feel / of my arms around her brave turn / a memory now, the taste of her / hardened lips less salt than fire.” Those lips taste “less salt than fire” because, despite the merciful rescue operation, God’s fiery judgment rests upon Lot as much as those who were reduced to ashes.
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Source: Christianity Today