Musings on an Autumn Morning

September 17, 2000


Musings on an Autumn Morning

I have a couple observations this morning, which although they are not related to each other will strike you, I hope, as both interesting and worthy of being mentioned from a pulpit. The first arises from a very legitimate question: how are we to understand that verse in the great poetry of Genesis which says, “So God created humankind in his image”? I like an interpretation I read last week by an American poet named Chad Walsh, with whom I feel a special kinship because he blended the same two vocations I did. He was Professor of English literature at Beloit College in Wisconsin and a priest in the Episcopal Church. So he looks at that verse in Genesis as both a literary and a religious scholar and wonders what it means when the creation poet says that we are made in the image of God. “Certainly not that God has a nose and a chin,” he writes. “Certainly not that you can photograph him as if he were your uncle. Is it possible,” he asks himself, “that one major gift of ‘his own image’ is creativity? God is credited with making something out of nothing, like a universe. Humankind can make something out of anything. Of words, to be literature; of colors, to be painting; of sounds, to be music. It can consists of materials like flour and sugar and be called cooking. It may consist of factories and offices and marketplaces and go by the name of business. In every case, something new is brought into existence.”
I like the idea that it’s as creators ourselves that we resemble God, and I’m glad it’s s a poet saying this because I’ve been intrigued all my life with the relationship between poetry and religion. It’s unfortunate that so many good people who profess Christianity do not realize how much of the Bible itself was quite deliberately written as poetry. I say “unfortunate” because if this were widely understood it would help us be less literal-minded in reading our sacred library. It’s true that Hebrew poetry does not use rhyme, as so much English poetry does, but it is self-consciously formal and often surprisingly complex — an artificial way of writing as opposed to natural expression.
If you are willing to pretend for a couple of minutes that you are in seminary, I can tell you that the Biblical poetry in which one-third of the Old Testament is written depends most often on parallel lines that echo each other, or contrast with each other. When the lines echo each other, saying exactly the same thing, the technique is called synonymous parallelism. Listen as these lines repeat each other: “What is man that thou shouldst remember him, mortal man that thou shouldst care for him?” or these, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.” There is no progress in thought from one line to the next, and after reading hundreds of those repetitive couplets in Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah and the prophetic books, one can be forgiven for getting a little tired of the slow pace and wondering why the author had to say everything twice. Verses that echo each other seem to be the favorite device of these ancient Hebrew poets.
When they write lines that contrast with each other, the technique is called antithetic parallelism. For example, “A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief” — wise child vs foolish child, glad father vs grieving mother. Jesus knew his people’s poetry well this same device: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,” or “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What does it mean to “find” your life? Well, that, of course, is the teasing challenge of poetry. Jesus was not a journalist.
These are the most easily recognizable forms of Biblical poetry, but the writers also show off their art by poetic tricks that are more familiar to us: onomatopoeia, for example in which words sound like what they are describing. We have lots of these in English: words like buzz and hiss and — to resemble the sound of something dropping — the word thud. Biblical poets occasionally use alliteration and assonance, with their repetition of consonant and vowel sounds, and they are surprisingly fond of punning, clever wordplay which is so difficult to carry across into English that most translators don’t even try. I can give you an example from the translation of Oxford scholar James Moffat, one of the few who has tried to make an English pun out of a Hebrew pun. Remember the story of how Samson killed a thousand of his enemies with the jawbone of an ass? Moffatt is trying to be true to that Biblical author’s fun with words when he translates like this: “With the jaw-bone of an ass I have piled them in a mass! With the jaw-bone of an ass I have assailed assailants!” That must have started a few sober-minded students who bought the Moffatt version of the Bible, and can see why it’s probably best not try a faithful translation, but as an intelligent reader you should know that there are more linguistic games going on in the Bible, and more humor, than our English Bibles can show us.
So why ae such things worth mentioning? Well, partly because they have an impact on that controversial question, “Who wrote the Bible?” since it will seem curious to many readers that God would write in so many different styles and play such elaborate linguistic games. I remember vividly what a jolt it gave my childhood fundamentalism when I discovered that the authors of Biblical poetry were not all equally talented. Having been told repeatedly how God dictated every single word, I recall asking myself why God would dictate rather plodding and pedestrian poetry in one place, and majestic poetry in another. Did he have “off days” or did it simply mean that those who wrote were creating the sacred literature of their people in their own words, with whatever level of talent each one had? It was one of my first clues that the Bible must have been created somewhat differently from the simplistic explanation I had heard from the pulpit.
And just in case I haven’t convinced you as to just how elaborate Bible poetry can get, let me mention that it even contains several of the ingenious trick poems known as acrostic verse. . The most elaborate acrostic poem in the Bible is the 119th Psalm, composed of 22 stanzas to correspond with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the openng stanza begins with aleph , first letter of that alphabet, and the following seven lines in that stanza also begin with same letter. The next 21 stanzas all do the same thing with succeeding letters of the alphabet. That is a very difficult game to play (I’ve actually tried it myself, and had students try it), and to be honest the poet who wrote that long, drawn-out tribute to Jewish law really had to really stran and stretch at times to keep his pattern going.
So much for Biblical poetry and the idea that creativity is one way in which we reflect the nature of God. My second observation this morning will seem light years away from the first, and is prompted by something that happened recently on the campus of Indiana University. An 18-year-old Freshman met basketball Coach Bobby Knight in a hallway and greeted him like this: “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” The coach admits he took hold of the Freshman’s arm and said, “Son my name is not Knight to you. It’s Coach Knight or its Mr. Knight. I don’t call people by their last name, and neither should you.” If I manage to forget for a moment the coach’s often boorish behavior, the nasty temper tantrums I’ve seen him throw (and it’s not easy to forget them), I can almost feel in this particular case a rare moment of sympathy for the man. Not for the stupidity of touching a student when he’s already on probation for previous occasions of verbal and physical abuse, but because what he said to that student is exactly what someone should have said.
I have no desire to say anything more about Mr. Knight, who finally got the dismissal he so richly deserved, but the student’s cocky rudeness reminded me once again of the astonishing lack of civility, of simple courtesy, in so much of modern life. Without reference to religion, just on purely secular grounds, I deplore that loss of respect. With 18th century author Laurence Sterne I appreciate the “small sweet courtesies” that make the road of life smooth. I believe profoundly in the pleasant lubrication of “May I, please?” and “Thank you” and “Excuse me, Sir.” Emerson was right: “Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy.”
The man who enriched early American fiction with characters like Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle spoke of “The constant interchange of those thousand little courtesies which imperceptibly sweeten life.” I think Washington Irving would be amazed at how many of us, young people especially, I’m sorry to say, now imitate the rudeness and disrespect heard on television and in movies. When we constantly hear both real life and cartoon characters sass their parents and teachers, it becomes “cool” to do that, and a waste of time to practice old-fashioned good manners.
Which, by the way, are wise and good, even if you are no more than a jolly pagan, but from a Christian pulpit I can give you a more important reason: We are under orders, from the sacred writings we honor, to be respectful to others. The Scripture text for today commands us “to show perfect courtesy to everyone [we] meet.” The point I want to make is that it isn’t trivial, this business of being polite — it’s part of our marching orders, right up there with a list of obligations that include honesty, prayer, feeding the hungry, and training our children. Life seems a little more promising to me any time I hear a mother remind a child that “Please” is the magic word…..every time I hear a father insist that “Thank you” is the inevitable response to even the smallest favor.
I feel absolutely confident that it is as Biblical to exalt social courtesy as it is to talk about prayer or communion. It was common a generation ago to hear children say Yes, Sir and No, Ma’am to adults. It is now so rare it turns one’s head in surprise. “Am I in the right line?” I heard an older woman ask a teenager in a store. His answer was — “Yeah!” No wonder an 18-year-old newcomer to a prestigious university campus thinks nothing of greeting a man three times his age with “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” I am older than Coach Knight, and I have seen him behave like a spoiled child, but if I met him in the foyer when this hour ends I would say without a moment’s hesitation, “Good morning, Sir. We’re glad you came to visit.” Please hear the text again: “Show perfect courtesy to everyone you meet.”
Partly, of course, because even something as simple as courtesy can be redemptive, and we are in the business of redemption. Oscar Wilde, who had his share of troubles, confessed once that hope was reborn in him anytime someone politely acknowledged him by raising his hat in passing. It is exactly for that reason that I feel an obligation to address the black custodian, the white garbage collector as “Sir.” If by whatever quirk of fate they rank below me on the socio-economic scale, so much the more am I bound as a disciple of Christ to treat them with a courtesy they seldom get. Please listen carefully to an observation by the English poet Hilaire Belloc, who admits in a poem of his that “courtesy…. is much less / Than Courage of Heart or Holiness, / Yet in my walks it seems to me / That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.”
High praise — this finding the grace of God in courtesy, but I believe it’s there — there when your child is respectful, there when the store clerk is pleasant instead of yawning with boredom, there when a noble nature does what William Jennings Bryan did one day in the diner of a train, drinking from a finger bowl after another man did, so as not to embarrass him. One of the greatest of English poets also believed that the grace of God is in such self-forgetful courtesy. Please listen and remember: “For manners are not idle,” Lord Tennyson wrote, “but the fruit / Of loyal nature and of noble mind.” [ From “Guinevere” in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King ]
I said at the beginning that my two musings were not related, but I have thought of a way to join them. If being made in the image of God means we are like God in the power to be creative, and if our culture is desperately in need of better manners, then the modest favor I beg of all of us listening at this moment, both here and on radio in some distant place, is that we watch consciously for creative ways of being courteous to everyone we meet — above us, below us, around us. Amen

God of grace, help us make our manners the fruit of noble
and generous minds, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord.