Easter and the Jesus Seminar

by Arthur Mampel

Listen to Art Mampel read this article (MP3).

Saint Paul wrote, “For we hope for what we do not see.” In Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince, the Fox tells the Little Prince his secret. Said the Fox, “What is essential is hidden from the eye.” “We hope for what we do not see,” wrote the Apostle. It would seem we no longer honor the hiddenness of things. We insist on explaining everything away. We want all of our mysteries solved. We want the ‘curious’ understood. We are afraid of metaphors. Our language is becoming exact and precise. We want everything to sound ‘intelligent’ and ‘real.’

A metaphor was described by the poet, Robert Frost as “saying one thing in terms of another.” Poet and author, Kathleen Norris, said in one of her lectures to a gathering of clergy and church people, “If you’re looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you’re better off with poets these days than with Christians.” Norris feels that there is today a conscious effort to murder the metaphor and to remove from our scriptures and hymnals all traces of its poetic strength, by making the words sound more reasonable and less metaphoric. But what we are really doing, said Kathleen Norris, “is to attempt to live in our heads and not in the natural world.” Strip this away and there is nothing but Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. “Consider the lilies is the only commandment I ever obeyed” wrote Emily Dickinson to her cousin.

When language lacks the power of metaphor, it is too direct, too shallow, too narrow. Its focus makes the audience go away saying, “Well, yes, I can see that, that makes perfect sense.” When instead we should go away saying, “I wonder what that means for me?” Metaphors and stories make us wonder. They personalize and examine everything. Metaphors and poetry make us work. They make us reflect and consider. They make us ponder.

There is a wonderful line in the Hebrew Scriptures that says, “The secret things belong to God.” There are some mysteries and secrets in life that are unsolvable. They are not meant to be solved. For example, the subject of love defies all efforts to define it. Love is unsolvable! So is Grace! So is God! And so is God’s Spirit! There are some secrets in life that belong to God alone! Not every mystery can be validated. During a question and answer period at the Berkley Congregational Church, I asked one of the founders of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, John Dominic Crossan, if their conclusion about the resurrection may have been differently influenced if the poet, T.S. Eliot, had sat with them in their discussions? He said, “I don’t know.” During that time I composed a little poem about that experience.

Easter and the Jesus Seminar

Why does it haunt us so?
What power it carries
this spooky doctrine
of the missing Rabbi.
The Investigators are careful, precise.
They weigh the facts of history
like prospectors
awaiting a tally.
The ancient texts,
the impartial reporting
ponderous and numerous facts
do not dress out nicely.
Logic polls this gathering of scholars
and concludes that Mystery,
like poetry,
will not surrender to the measure
of critical thought

We sacrifice mystery and a sense of wonder if language is only accurate and logical, but lacks metaphor and poetry. Thomas Moore wrote in a recent book, “We want proof before we believe anything, but an enchanted person believes first and then over time is surprised when the intelligence in that belief is revealed. There is no call for proof, which is merely an expression of the anxiety of our times.”

Arthur Mampel in Seattle and is Pietisten's poet laureate.

See all articles by Arthur Mampel