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2014 04 13 (8.0 MB)

2014 07 13


Fine Arts Series 2014: “Poetry, Poiesis, and Making Really Cool Stuff”
First Mennonite Church of Denver
July 13, 2014
Copyright Jeremy Garber

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-14

The Holy Spirit is more than what we sense. When we look at what the Bible says about Spirit of God or Spirit of Jesus, the images and stories point us beyond our senses and beyond our notions of knowledge and scientific measurement. The Hebrew words rűa? and Greek p?e?µa point us toward such invisible and intangible phenomena as breath, spirit, and wind. As Scripture itself points out (John 3:8), we can feel the effects of all these phenomena but cannot encounter them primarily.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit is often represented impersonally as the power of God. That is, the Spirit does not have what we might think of as human personality, will, or emotions, contrary to how God is often portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. This impersonality is a key part to a fuller understanding of the Holy Spirit and its connection to other intangibles such as meaning, language, and interpretation. The Spirit then is the impersonal action of God in the tangible world.

For example, references to “spirits of all flesh” in Num. 16:22 and 27:16 seem to portray the spirit as something within human bodies that animates their physical bodies, perhaps related to consciousness or merely physical movement. It is something that God grants or takes away, not something generated by humans (Gen. 6:3; Ezek. 37:1-14).  More generally, Spirit is connected to power itself (Zech. 4:6; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8), that which is at the root of any action or movement.

 When the apostle Paul thinks about the Spirit, we have to be careful to understand what he means. For Paul, the vices of oppressive power structures are connected to the flesh, while the virtues of God’s community are explicitly connected to the spiritual (Gal. 5:16-25). The spiritual person, moreover, does not merely have the movement of desire, but possesses or enacts the creative spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:12-3:4).  To simply inhabit the static realm of the flesh is death, but to move according to the flow of the Spirit is life (Gal. 6:7-8; Rom. 8:1-17)—to move, to grow a rhizome, to interact with God, the world, and with the community of meaning attached to life-giving spiritual virtues rather than deathly empires. To trace the movement of the Spirit is the same as to trace the flight of desire out of static orders, through government bureaucracy and life-stifling religious stagnation, into the creation of the new.

Likewise, the concept of “inspiration,” or being literally “breathed into” by the animating Spirit/flow of desire, is reflected in early biblical materials as a very specific way of speaking. The very concept of prophecy, or speech occurring under the influence of God’s spirit (e.g. Num. 24:2), is directly connected to the manifestation of “peculiar” behavior (1 Sam. 10:6)! In the ebb and flow of sedimentation and disruptive behavior in the governmental assemblage of Israel, the ongoing tension between king and prophet reveals itself in the narratives from the pre-exilic period right up to the formation of the early Christian church (Acts 2; Heb. 6:4; 1 Cor. 12:4-11). Prophetic “speech” includes not only actual speech acts but also street theatre and fantastically creative writing (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16, possibly Heb. 3:7 and 9:8). So inspiration is spoken and acted in the world through the performance and transmission of new, creative and bizarre modes of behavior – what we nowadays might call art.

So what about the title of this sermon? Let’s look at the three ideas I’ve mentioned. To continue our look at the spirit and art, I’d like to look at the poetry of medieval images of the Spirit. Unlike the very systematic and logical arguments about the ontological and economic workings of the Trinity (I’m not making this stuff up), medieval theologians almost always find themselves using images and metaphors to describe the Holy Spirit. I’m just going to read several of them, and invite you to picture them in your mind as I read:
• Gregory the Great (6th c.):
o “The perfumes of the anointing of the Lord are the virtues; the perfume of the anointing of the Lord was the Holy Spirit.” (14)
o “Flame was the medium of the Spirit’s revelation because God is an immaterial and indescribable fire (Heb. 12:29), coming to kindle the hearts of the frigid and the materially minded with the love for God. Tongues were the shape revealed, because the tongue produces words, and whoever is touched by the Holy Spirit confesses the Word of God, his only-begotten Son.” (14)
o Pentecost as reversal of Tower of Babel.
o Spirit is both dove and fire because we are meant neither to be meek nor excessively fervent (15).
o “What a skillful workman this Spirit is! The Spirit’s very touch is teaching. It changes a human mind in a moment to enlighten it; suddenly what it was it no longer is, suddenly it is what it was not.” (15)
• Venerable Bede (7th c.):
o The Spirit appeared in fire and smoke like Sinai (Exod. 19:18) to cause disciples to be inflamed with zeal and skilled with words (23).
• Anselm of Canterbury (11th c.):
o Analogy of the Nile: a spring flowing through a river accumulating into a lake, neither of which are each other but all of which are the Nile
• Bernard of Clairvaux (12th c.):
o “the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their indivisible unity … the love and the benign goodness of them both….When the Father kisses the son, he pours into him the plenitude of the mysteries of his divine being, ‘breathing forth love’s deep delight.’” (53)
o 7th sermon on Song of Songs – soul progresses from slave, wage-earner, student, son, lover, and then to kissing the feet, hand, and mouth of the Bridegroom (54).
• Hildegard von Bingen (12th c.)
o Vision at age 42 of the Trinity: a bright light in the middle of which was a man the color of sapphire ablaze with a gentle glowing fire.
o Another vision saw triple pillars surrounded by green and red fireballs representing the water of creation and the fire of the Spirit in redemption (91).
o Poem:
Holy Spirit, making life alive,
moving in all things, root of all creative being,
cleansing the cosmos of every impurity,
effacing guilt, anointing wounds.
You are lustrous and praiseworthy life,
You waken and re-awaken everything that is.

o “Just as the flower (Jesus Christ) was born in the Virgin’s womb and breathed forth a perfume of justice by deed and word, so the Holy Spirit awakens human minds mystically and secretly. As the Spirit rested on the flower in a sevenfold manner (Isa. 11:1-3), so too will the Spirit give gifts to those born from the womb of baptism.” (94)
o Book 3, Vision 9: Building with seven white marble pillars seven cubits high, which supports a round dome of iron on which stands the Wisdom of God ; seven pillars are the seven gifts of the Spirit, ‘seven modes of the purifying inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which drives away all adverse storms’ (94).
o Scivias book 2, vision 7: devil as a large and long black worm (dragon), bristly and covered with ulcers and pus and full of deadly poison. Nose and mouth of a snake, hands of a man, short and horrible tail, breathing flame (95).
• Gertrude (13th c.):
o Saw herself as a frail plant that grows into a green tree whose branches are divided into a trefoil fleur-de-lis. Upward petal is God the Father and downward petals are wisdom and love of the Son and the Spirit (100).
o “O heavenly kiss, let me not slip from thy bonds in my littleness and lowliness; lavish upon me thy touch and thy embrace, until I become one spirit with God. … How great is the delight of embracing thee in thyself and of being united unto thee, the living God, my most cherished love.” (101)
o Later vision saw a cave in her heart being filled with a stream of honey coming from the heart of Jesus (102).
o Jesus planting a tree in the middle of her heart, containing little spikes from which grew beautiful flowers (102). Trees of spiritual gifts: counsel and fortitude had cords of gold, and wisdom and understanding had delicious flowing nectar.
• Catherine of Siena (14th c.):
o Father as table, Son as food, and Spirit as the waiter (114).
o Spirit as the captain that brings souls to the port of salvation.
o “Catherine preached a message of relief to the poor. She taught that the Holy Spirit intended for Christians to enlarge their hearts, so they would hold back neither their hearts nor their hands from charity to the unfortunate among them. When the Spirit possesses the faithful, said Catherine, they become not so much possessors of wealth as distributors of wealth to the poor.” (116)
I picked that last quote of Catherine’s on purpose, to help us make the transition from poetry to poiesis. I already talked a little bit about poeisis with the kids. Poďesis  is etymologically derived from the ancient term p????, which means "to make". This word is actually the root of our modern word "poetry", was first a verb, an action that transforms and continues the world. Neither technical production nor creation in the romantic sense, poďetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world. It is also used as a suffix, as in the biological term hematopoiesis, the formation of blood cells.
In the Symposium, Plato describes how mortals strive for immortality in relation to poiesis. In all begetting and bringing forth upon the beautiful there is a kind of making/creating or poiesis. In this genesis there is a movement beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay. "Such a movement can occur in three kinds of poiesis: (1) Natural poiesis through sexual procreation, (2) poiesis in the city through the attainment of heroic fame, and, finally, (3) poiesis in the soul through the cultivation of virtue and knowledge."

German philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to it as a 'bringing-forth', using this term in its widest sense. He explained poiesis as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies underline Heidegger's example of a threshold occasion: a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another.

In their 2011 academic book, All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly conclude that embracing a "meta-poietic" mindset is the best, if not the only, method to authenticate meaning in our secular times: "Meta-poiesis, as one might call it, steers between the twin dangers of the secular age: it resists nihilism by reappropriating the sacred phenomenon of physis, but cultivates the skill to resist physis in its abhorrent, fanatical form. Living well in our secular, nihilistic age, therefore, requires the higher-order skill of recognizing when to rise up as one with the ecstatic crowd and when to turn heel and walk rapidly away."

Furthermore, Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly urge each person to become a sort of "craftsman" whose responsibility it is to refine their faculty for poiesis in order to achieve existential meaning in their lives and to reconcile their bodies with whatever transcendence there is to be had in life itself: "The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there."

Whew. A long time and a lot of philosophy to get us here. But hopefully you get the idea: how poetry moves to poiesis to making really cool stuff. That’s what our summer art series is all about: Quilting. Hymns and Pete Seeger. Television and films. And, I hope, Scripture and sermons as well. So for the last part of our thoughts together today, I want to look at how God makes really cool stuff.

Genesis is the Beginning. The Hebrew name for Genesis is “bereshit,” in the beginning. Appropriate for the first discussion in our series! So let’s look through this verse and connect the poetry of Genesis 1 with the poiesis of God’s creative Spirit in action. Verse 1 tells us this simple but revolutionary mind-boggling fact: God is a creator. Things begin in chaos – but the Spirit is present in the chaos. The word used here in the lovely poetry of the first chapter of Genesis is the same word used in Deuteronomy for an eagle in relation to their young, sometimes translated “brooding” (Anchor 5). Verse 3 reminds us that God is the creator of differentiation – that being different and not all the same is not only good, but is at the foundation of all creation. God loves to create and calls it good!

Our reading from John 1 reminds us that not only does God make really cool stuff (i.e. everything), Jesus Makes Really Cool People. The intro to John is really a theological hymn, written in different, more intricately poetic and theological language than much of the gospel. Scholars say that it is “An early Christian hymn, probably stemming from Johannine circles, which has been adapted to serve as an overture to the Gospel narrative of the career of the incarnate Word” (Anchor 1). The poetry of John 1 connects with the poetry of Genesis 1, “The choice of the eagle as the symbol of John the Evangelist was largely determined by the celestial flights of the opening lines of the Gospel.” (Anchor 18) John wants to remind us that Jesus is there in the beginning with God and identical to God: Jesus is part of the creation process too. “The fact that the Word creates means that creation is an act of revelation.” (Anchor 25) Jesus gives life to all people: in a creative reversal of the Genesis story, Jesus gives the fruit of life that was denied in Eden! (Anchor 27) Jesus’ light is stronger than darkness – a reminder that the creative way of Jesus is stronger than the life-killing ordinary ways of the world.

Unfortunately, as many artists and other countercultural people know, being creative isn’t always very welcome to people who don’t like change. Verse 10 reminds us that the world does not recognize Jesus. Even Jesus’ own people and context didn’t recognize him. The good news of the gospel, though, is that those who recognize and believe in Jesus are part of the power of creation. This adoption is through the power of God [the Spirit]. The central belief of Christians, I would argue, is that Jesus came to the world and lived with us and showed us God’s intentions for creation. That’s the gospel – the good news. And the further good news is that we are invited to make really cool stuff along with God and Jesus.

God is a creator. The Spirit is present even in our chaos and frustration of everyday life. God is the creator of differentiation – a celebrator of difference in gender and skin color and hair color and sexual attraction and our ability to paint and write and film and do complicated accounting. God loves to create and call it good, and since we are made in the image of God, we get to create and call it good too.

The further good news is that we don’t have to do it alone – we have a whole community of connection to help us out. We also get to make cool people with Jesus. This, in a nutshell, is what the church is all about. Jesus, as creator with God, shows us the way to give life to all people. Jesus’ way is stronger than the way things ‘ought to be.’ There are witness to the light today – even in art and pop culture! But these are not necessarily the same as Jesus, or Jesus’ way. Jesus is part of the world, not apart from it. As we know, the world does not recognize the Jesus way – even a lot of Christians don’t recognize the Jesus way! But those who recognize the Jesus way are part of the power of creation. We are part of this power of creation through the power of the Spirit. Jesus’ way is the way God wants people to live – and to create.

As you’ve all heard me say before, being Christian is being weird – or in more positive terms, being creative. The majority is that conception of reality to which most people ascribe—because it is imposed by the hierarchical State as a standard by which to measure deviation. “Common sense” represents the affirmation of the power workings of a particular political assemblage that is far from universal. In the majoritarian understanding of medieval Europe, it was “common sense” that a “subject” was born into a particular occupation and social class because God had willed that subject to be born there, just as the subject’s parents had been born into that occupation. If your parents were farmers, you were a farmer, and your children would be farmers as well; if they were meant to be something else, they would have been born to different parents. Those who might have dared to question their seemingly inevitable positions in the complex structure of production and consumption would have been regarded as both insane and heretical. (If indeed, because of the ubiquity of majoritarian understanding, that cognitive option would even have presented itself to the average peasant.) To follow “common sense” was to embed oneself in the static stratification of reality.

If philosophy is descriptive, theology is creative; if study tells us what is, religion additionally tells us what might or ought to be. Creative beliefs and practices assemble those who think/feel/do them into a community, not just an accidental collection of individuals. Religion thinks something and in turn creates it—not as an illusion, as evidenced by religion’s immense longevity and creative power. But we can’t create a reality unless it is shared; religion creates a set of beliefs and practices through symbolic thought and action that transport the individual beyond the self. This is why religion is so often connected to art.

The movement of the Spirit of God in Christ is the flight of desire out of death-dealing order, the fundamental winds of change at the heart of existence that are constantly moving toward creating something new. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible like Samuel and Ezekiel preached this movement of the new toward the dangerously radical life-giving creation of God and warned against those who would try to contain it in a worldview that satisfied those who already had and took away from those who had little. Coming from the Creator of the World, the Spirit always creates. The Spirit cannot be seen, touched, heard or felt, but its effects always can, and can always be judged by their movement on the surface of the world. And the Spirit is the animating principle of human life itself, particularly in human life’s abstract form, those modes of emotional connection, intellect and creativity which as far as we can tell are unique to humans.

God is a creator. Jesus is a creator. We are creators with the Holy Spirit in the poetic poiesis of signs and symbols of love, peace, justice, and joy. Isaiah spoke of the spirit’s hope for transformation, the desire for renewal that cannot come without the rűa?. The Spirit brings blessing and life, creates the new thing . The Spirit brings the people of God together in a community, an assemblage, without distinction for gender or race, social class or financial success, an assemblage-of-becoming that is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but one in Christ. No one owns the Spirit in the minoritarian community, but all are free to participate in its creative endeavors. In the midst of a starkly sedimented community of stratified distance, the Spirit provides the power for the people to symbolically reimagine what a community of equal becoming might resemble—and to empower them to move their own assemblage toward such a community in the midst of majoritarian resistance.


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