“Theologians are not poets, but neither are they philosophers (as, in the Christian tradition, they have often become). Their place… is an anomalous one that partakes of both poetry and philosophy: they are poets insofar as they must be sensitive to the metaphors and models that are at once consonant with the Christian faith and appropriate for expressing that faith in their own time, and they are philosophers insofar as they must elucidate in a coherent, comprehensive, and systematic way the implications of these metaphors and models.” ~Sallie McFague, Models of God
I’m not a poet anymore, really. I called myself that for years—since the fourth grade, when I wrote poetry instead of listening to boring classroom lessons. Then I got to college and discovered that (a) there are people who are good at and even enjoy revising poems, and (b) I am not one of them. The craft of shaping line breaks and subtle punctuation just can’t hold my attention. I’m not knocking myself or my poetry, just being honest. Some people like poetry no matter how long it takes them to decide on where exactly to place that last comma. I am happy to leave the professional poetry to those people.
But there’s a part of poetry that I still am drawn to: the images. My early poems tended to focus on a single image, trying to describe it perfectly so someone else could see it. Even now, images still get stuck in my head.
And now I live on a seminary campus, surrounded by IDEAS. My community, full of grad students in philosophy and theology, never stops talking about racism and sexism, history and criticism—questioning always why we believe what we believe. Sometimes, I’ll admit, it’ll be too abstract for me, going right over my head. But other times, there are ideas—like Sallie McFague’s poet/philosopher dichotomy—that I can’t stop thinking about. What’s the middle ground between poetry and philosophy? Is there a way to combine images and ideas?
Christians have a wonderful story to work with, full of rich images: storms and mountaintops, gardens and tombs, bread and wine. I want to write between the lines of this story, to work with these images that have always been stuck in my head. And I want to be conscious of their implications too. If we’re supposed to be loving God and our neighbors, how do our images help us toward that goal? Good creative nonfiction, and good theology, can inhabit this middle space that McFague talks about—afraid of neither images nor ideas, with the creativity to search for images and the patience to unpack them.
Drew told me once about a dichotomy in how we approach theology. I did it to find out who I am, and he did it to create something new. Well, who I am is a writer. I’ve known that since the fourth grade. And I figure the best way to figure out the rest is to write. It’s served me well so far. To unpack, to reach that stuck point and unpack, freewrite, dig deeper, explore.
Maybe I’ll start with creating a new job description. Not philosopher, no longer technically poet. Some sort of ragtag theologian? Maybe. I am a beloved child of God, and for whatever fool reason, that God has trusted me to help in the work of creation. As she trusts us all.