Monday, June 27, 2005

God and Karl Shapiro

Lately I've been digesting a poet with whom I have had only a passing relationship - Karl Shapiro (1913-2000). I wish I had gotten to know his work earlier, for it is filled with unforgettable images of necropolae, automobiles crashing, and under all, the haunting presence of Jehovah.

He ponders the alchemical order and power of the Hebrew letters in "The Alphabet" (1958). Which manages to evoke theophany, order, limits, persistence, heritage, holocaust, palimpsest, and atonement in the space of its first twelve lines.

"The letters of the Jews are strict as flames
Or little terrible flowers lean
Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages,
Singing through solid stone the sacred names.
The letters of the Jews are black and clean
And lie in chain-line over Christian pages.
The chosen letters bristle like barbed wire
That hedge the flesh of man,
Twisting and tightening the book that warns.
These words, this burning bush, this flickering pyre
Unsacrifices the bled son of man
Yet plaits his crown of thorns."

Can any Christian read that and not wonder and wince simultaneously? Another theologically nuanced and compelling poem is "The Crucifix in the Filing Cabinet" (1958). Finding a crucifix in said cabinet, he writes:

"I found a velvet bag sewn by the Jews
For holy shawls and frontlets and soft thongs
That bind the arm at morning for great wrongs
Done in Pharaoh's time. The crucifix

I dropped down in the darkness of this pouch,
Thought tangled with thought and chain with chain,
Till time untie the dark with greedy look,
Crumble the cross and bleed the leathery vein."

I would easily surrender a superfluous body part to craft a poem like that. It steers me to Romans 10:1, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved." Or perhaps Romans 10:26, "And so all Israel will be saved," sadly knowing, however, that Paul is no universalist, even towards his own people.

Karl Shapiro has gifted us with an evocation of the dark, but intertwined relationship between the Christian and the Jew, and it is an image both troubling and yet hopeful.


This is my second blog, the first was more polemical in nature, and was, let us say, "mugged." So this time I intend to write mostly about theological topics, and also the intersection of theology and the arts, especially poetry, but also music and the visual arts.

This will be a non-polemical site, but I reserve the right to occasionally foam at the mouth and make some snide comments. As a conservative, orthodox, Calvinist, Reformed, evangelical Christian (yes I know some of those seem redundant, but they are not, really), I believe that we are called to imitate God by creating things to show Him, as a child shows its parents a painting from school. This is essentially J.R.R. Tolkien's doctrine of "sub-creation," and I think he's got it right (see his article in "Essays Presented to Charles Williams"). I'd like to think that in heaven there is a giant refrigerator where all our works are before God's face - and in which He delights.

As a Christian Platonist, alongside of the cardinal doctrines of the faith, few things are more important or meaningful than the study and the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. In a world of ugliness, where sin and death seem to reign, there is an alternative vision of grace, redemption, and renewal. This vision can be found in the most surprising places, which is why I begin with a Jewish poet, Karl Shapiro.