Loaves of Poetry, Loads of Faith

Lying in bed last night, enjoying one of those moments of matrimonial bliss (you know the ones – that come from an hour of silently reading your novel beside someone else silently reading a novel), Wife-unit turned and asked me “Does anything else beside bread get described as ‘a loaf’?”

“A loaf of pigeons?” I helpfully proposed. “A loaf of turnips?”

I googled it this morning and the magic auto-suggest function gave me “a loaf of bread” and “a loaf of poetry”.

Loaf of poetry

Don’t worry, I don’t use Internet Explorer, except when I want to mimic a result that Chrome has already amassed into its hivemind data-portrait of me. The particular poem “Loaf of Poetry” is fine. It is a little comparison between yeast-risen dough and making a poem. For a man hoping to do a PhD on the parables of Jesus, yeast-risen dough illustrations have to be simply divine to get my attention.

One of the things that I have grown to appreciate even more passionately as my hairline recedes and my hipness ratio diminishes, along with the unique satisfaction of infuriating my wife by making her laugh just before she falls off to sleep, is poetry. I attribute this new depth of appreciation to patience. Growing old requires spending more time with yourself. That time, if spent well, makes you more patient about things because you see more clearly how slowly you achieve the good.

Well, that’s my experience. Maybe you are so impressive you don’t even need to be patient.

That doesn’t sound all that impressive, actually.


People ask you questions on the internet that they would never ask you in person. Some of the questions I have been asked in person in the last few days include: “Are you staying for the wine reception?”, “Will you have another glass of wine?” and “Are you meant to drink that wine straight from the bottle?” But today on the internet, someone asked me to help him believe in the inspiration of Christian Scripture.

Although I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Scriptures and how they came to be and what it is they meant when they were being put together and what it is they mean now and all kinds of questions that would make me an interesting person to randomly be stuck beside on a long-haul flight if you liked obscure ideas, I have very little to offer someone on the internet who wants some short sharp answers to shore up something that gets called “faith”. I would have once relished such a task.

Today I almost dreaded it. The only thing worse than someone languishing in doubt about God is someone convinced by off-the-shelf frequently-asked-questions about Him.

Later in the day, (already) utterly exhausted, I started reading Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss. Early on he writes:

Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’ve been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by your life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life – which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived – or have denied the reality of your life.

The book begins with a poem he has not been able to finish:

My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

Wiman says what interests him now is not what to believe but how to believe it. (He believes in orthodox doctrinally fussy Christianity just like me, but he can’t settle there.) I think this is the heart of my apologetic aversion. I have a good grasp of the gnostic Gospels and can explain what actually happened at the Council of Nicaea and I can briefly outline the different ways different Christians at different times have considered the authority of the Scriptures. I have even managed to acquire enough knowledge to stumble through reading the blasted books in their original languages. But the end result of these years of study is not: “Look at all this pristine data at my disposal!” but “Thanks be to God that there is more to consider!”

I was once an apologist. The “what” of what I believed was that communicating truth propositions about the Gospel was important. But the “how” of that belief meant engaging with the life of Jesus in a way that rendered that first stage of apologetics irrelevant. The “what” led to a “how” which changed the “what”. This is not a redescription of losing faith or becoming “liberal” or settling for the wishy-washy. It is a movement. It is a journey. It is a pilgrimage. It is faith.

It isn’t finished yet.

Which is why Wiman is so trusted a guide when he leaves his poem to close on a colon (* thanks JM) dangling…
Your Correspondent, Then he waddled away, ’till the very next day.

5 Replies to “Loaves of Poetry, Loads of Faith”

  1. 1. My google search also came up with “loaf of processed cheese food.”
    2. I can’t believe there’s a real person called “Christian Wiman.”
    3. Surely that’s a colon and not a semi-colon?
    4. We love the duck song.
    5. These are some good thoughts. Thanks!

  2. Great post. But this seems a little harsh: “The only thing worse than someone languishing in doubt about God is someone convinced by off-the-shelf frequently-asked-questions about Him.”

    Surely you can’t blame someone for wanting help, for wanting a fresh way of looking at things? In my experience, contemporary Christian churches often don’t inspire. In one church, I actually heard the Bible called a “How-To Manual” for life.

    And isn’t doubt natural?

    I’m happy to see that Wiman’s book is being read ’round the world, though. I think he’s brilliant, and that he’s got a lot of interesting and important things to offer.


  3. Thanks for the comment EDW.

    The sentence you pull out as a little harsh is exactly that. Often by blogging something I see not just the flaws in what I am thinking but the place for spiritual growth. The trajectory of spiritual growth that I described in this post will obviously be incomplete as long as I can’t get back to an enthusiasm for clear and straightforward apologetics.

    I once heard Jesus described as our “caddy” in life. So I have a fierce empathy for your underwhelmed response to much that passes for contemporary Christianity.

    But one of the things people say to me at the end of sermons is “That really made me think.” I find this really discouraging. If doubt is natural (and it is!) and if we are underwhelmed by contemporary Christian worship (which we practically all are!) then why are we not prompted to think about it all?!

    It is in that context that I made the comment about off-the-shelf answers to our profound existential questions. The purpose of apologetics seems often to be to anesthetize our thinking as opposed to stimulating it.

    I hope that makes more sense.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    I hope you don’t mind me making another comment here — I’m doing so only because I think your blog is interesting, and because I think this is an opportunity for an interesting discussion thread, not to be antagonistic.

    You are clearly more well-educated about religion than I am; I had to Google “apologetics” because I didn’t know what you were talking about. Once I’d done that, I could see why you might eventually loose your enthusiasm for it, however attractive it might initially be for the intellectuals of faith. It seems to me that one could try arguing the “reasonableness” of Christianity until one is blue in the face, but ultimately, God, Christ, the Virgin, and the saints must be experienced. Faith is ultimately unreasonable. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith.

    Nevertheless, I don’t understand why you’d be disappointed to have helped someone think! IMO, there’s far, far too little thinking going on in Christianity today, at least in the US. Does all Christian thinking = apologetics? I believe we do need priests, ministers, and teachers to help people understand scripture and to give them fresh ways of thinking about things. When it comes right down to it, the average member of your flock is probably not praying very hard for his/her own experience of the Divine, or doing much grappling.

    In the case of the person who wanted help being inspired by scripture, maybe they weren’t looking for a well-reasoned argument defending the Christian perspective, but for someone to point out the poetry in a Psalm, or the heartbreaking metaphors in a parable, for example.

    Just a thought. Thanks for responding.

  5. I don’t mind your commenting at all. I really appreciate you taking me up on this and it has provoked me into sharper thinking.

    I think you make an important point when you suggest that the pathos of the Psalms and the vividness of the parables is where we locate the authority of Scripture.

    I think that very often when people are asking formulated questions in general such as “how is Scripture inspired?” they are asking, even if they don’t know it, for an answer that will a priori be unreasonable. The question (and questions like it) have an assumed idea of universal reason that needs to be complicated.

    So I suppose that I need to go back to the hunger for well thought-througness that apologetics tries to address and find a way to create answers that subvert the expectations of the question. Apologetics as a process of questioning our questions perhaps?

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