Rereading Sacred Text, With a Poem


In my last post I mentioned in passing the feminist interpretation of the Biblical record.  There have been many kinds and layers of this.  I was involved in a number of them.  I attended meetings of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus.  I read Daughters of Sarah and Free Indeed, two periodicals produced by women seeking to reinterpret what they had been taught.  Both survived only for a time, which is typical of small magazines of all kinds. Free Indeed took its name from the passage from John, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”  Daughters of Sarah published a few of my poems.

I learned to think for myself through looking at the many different women’s approaches to scripture.  I had gotten through college as a very good student who believed what I read, whether it agreed with my own experience or not.  Amid all the women’s perspectives, it was necessary to make choices, and one of the keys to those choices was “does it fit with my experience” instead of “does it fit with what I’ve been taught.”  This approach was the gift, for me, of feminist interpretation.

There are many stories about women in the Bible.  Some are extensive, some seem to be only fragments.  At one time I concluded, “The named woman is the one who got into trouble.”  Here is a poem I wrote during this period.


As I circle stony islands
where ten foot tides turn ledges
into granite waves,
threats to an outboard propeller,
I hear Delilah sing
with Jael and Judith.

On a bluff of ragged rock
these three women, servants
to god and country, sing by turns
of Sisera, Holophernes, Samson,
of tent peg, sword, and scissors.
The song repeats like blues,
like scissors, rock, paper,
break, cover, or cut
to the next story,
the next severed head
served up on a fine platter.

The trays have corroded
on which the tribes they served
once served them empty honors.
Their hungry song blends
with calls of cormorants and gulls.
From such contagious sorrow
I flee to deeper water.

Among other things, this poem is meant to suggest that the situation for women is similar on both sides of the conflict; Delilah was, in the history, an enemy of Jael and Judith, yet I imagine their stories were similar.  I’ve placed them not in the Mediterranean but on the Maine shore, which I know, can describe more vividly, and have used to reflect their mood and situation.

Many of the women whose work I was reading in those days gave up on the patriarchy of Christianity, and Judaism as well, altogether; some became Wiccan.  I stayed in my tradition, but continued to rethink the reading of Scripture.  Now I look at my sacred texts from many points of view.  Some days I take the words quite literally, but I am convinced that, however much inspired, they were written down by people who could only communicate in the language of their time.  Other times I am struck by how much of our God language is, and has to be, metaphor.  Always I find it a rich source of story, language and reflection on the human condition.

“Sirens” was published in Daughters of Sarah in 1990.


A Pure Beginning: Reflections and Poem


In the nineteenth century, when John Emerson Roberts was a liberal preacher, there were many people who believed in an original “pure” Christianity, before things got messed up with doctrines and debates and rules.  One such person was Alexander Campbell, whose follower were first called “Campbellites.” They eventually became the denomination Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.  Another case was that of Joseph Smith; he  avoided creating one more denomination among many by developing a whole new Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In the twentieth century there was another kind of belief in an original Christianity as feminist scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza gathered together clues of the roles of women in early Church communities, before the bishops made them second class members.

Current scholars recognize plenty of evidence that there was no original “pure” Christianity.  The letters of Paul reflect lots of discord: “You shouldn’t eat that!”  “You shouldn’t do that!”  “My way or the highway!”  In fact, the writer of the Acts of the Apostleswhom we call Luke may have been the first to imagine a state that never existed, one of harmony and agreement among all.

What I imagine in the early church is a stronger fellowship.  But it may be that strong fellowship requires a common danger.  Those who see “true Christianity” as beleaguered in today’s “secular” culture, probably are able to build such fellowship more easily than others.  Here’s my image of then and now:


The half-light of half-learned lessons
cuts us off from elders
of the sharp-edged pagan years.
Outlined by evening sky
they walk toward prayer,
leaning over their lamps.
By flickering light they stand
in corners cut in damp earth
holding each other tall.

Old story told once more,
we rise from cushioned pews,
let fall each other, uninstructed
in the catch of shifting weight.
Shadows of wistful wishes wax
in failing light.   The dark
is out there.  Who can teach
the bending into it?

I don’t recall what darkness concerned me when I wrote this poem.  Perhaps I was just discovering that darkness is a part of life, not to be avoided.  I learned through dance that catching one who falls can be taught; we were also taught how to allow ourselves to be caught.  It’s the same with emotional support – we can learn to give and to receive, but it is something we do need to learn.

Thanks to Allen Matlins for returning this poem to the light by posting it on his blog last November.  It was published in Christian Century in 1983.  Rediscovering it has led me to look at other poems I wrote about that time, to ponder how things and people change over time, and to find several which are still “good enough to share.”