Monday, February 13, 2017

What I'm Really Trying to Say

A while back I read an article in the Washington Post about a poet named Sara Holbrook who couldn't answer questions about her own poems on a standardized test.  Her writing on the subject is an entertaining and thought-provoking read.  Take a moment now to read it.  I'll wait.  And honestly if you read that and don't have time to come back and finish this one, that'll be ok.  She's a much better writer than I am.

It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Finding Forrester, which I highly recommend if  you haven't seen it.  In the movie, 16-year-old Jamal Wallace has sought out a reclusive William Forrester for help with his writing (I'm sorry for way over-simplifying that).  At one point Forrester explains to Jamal why he only wrote one book.

"Do you know what the absolute best moment is?  When you've finished your first draft...and you read it by yourself.  Before these a**holes take something they couldn't do in a lifetime and tear it down in a single day."
"People love that book, man."
"I didn't write it for them.  And when the critics started all this bulls**t about...what it was I was really trying to say, well, I decided book was enough."

Both Holbrook and Forrester are frustrated by the same reality: communication (even highly polished, artistic communication) is a two-part endeavor.  There is the person doing the writing, and there is the person doing the reading.  No matter how well-written or clear, the written word will always be reinterpreted by the reader, and that interpretation will be influenced by the life experience of the reader.  Best case.  Worst case it will be intentionally warped by the reader to make a point!  The very same words, read by two different people, can (and frequently will) be interpreted differently based on the biases of the readers.

Heck, let's be real.  It doesn't even have to be two different readers.  I interpret the same words differently depending on what kind of a mood I'm in!  Put the proverbial glass in front of me.  One day I'd tell you it's half full.  One day I'd tell you it's half empty.  Some other day I might tell you, "Give me that glass 'cause I'm thirsty."  Full disclosure: I don't usually use "'cause."  I wrote it here for dramatic effect.

Let's take one of my favorite poems: The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Let's talk about the epic opening.  SO MUCH DEPENDS.  That's heavy.  The wheelbarrow, critical to agrarian success, left haphazardly in the barnyard to rust in the rain while the white chickens, blissfully unaware of the unfortunate demise of this critical implement peck randomly at little bits of food, perhaps spilled out of it.  It's tantamount to tragedy as we understand the sequel to this poem (much less known and not actually written until this very moment): The Pathetic Farmer.

so sad a

out after the

with a heavy

has to kill

And then, like my friend Janice suggests, I hydrate and take a nap.  Then I come to the poem again.

All of a sudden I'm not so sure this is quite so tragic.  Rain, after all, is life-giving.  The the wheelbarrow is red, maybe even bright cherry red.  Upright.  And the bottom, just full of water, is a welcome bath for the birds circling overhead.  It leads to a very different sequel in my mind (and just as made up on the spot as the last one): Chickens in Spring

do you see

fat from their

the farmer is

he pushes his

This isn't such a big deal if we're debating the underlying themes and messages of poetry.  The stakes there are pretty low, really--I've never seen a coffee house debate over Thoreau get ugly, and I doubt any of you are seriously considering throwing a brick through my window because of my interpretations of The Red Wheelbarrow (if you are, please note my address: 1 E 161st St, Bronx, NY 10451.

Aaaaaannnndddd....this is the problem with Biblical interpretation.  You can believe the Word is inerrant if you want to, inspired or even written directly by God.  But as long as we have free will, we can interpret that any way we want to.  And friends, that really can get ugly.  Because while we may not get all up in arms at the coffee house about going out into the woods to live deliberately, whole wars have been fought on what the Bible says and what certain people think it means--or more specifically how that conflicts with what some other people think it means.

The problem is there are just so many ways to misinterpret it!  Shoot, you can twist that thing to say just about anything you want.  And a lot of people have.  You can use it to argue both sides of just about any debate.  If you want, I can point you to a FaceBook conversation I had the other day about heaven, hell, and salvation.  I stated and defended Biblically that I don't believe in hell.  Another person stated and Biblically defended that I would likely wind up there!  Who is right?  Well, I don't know.  Of course I hope I am in this case.  I also hope I can't answer with authority for a while.

In a book (or a library, as the Bible may be) filled with a lot of confusing and conflicting information, I find the words and stories of Christ to be refreshingly straightforward.  What should I do in this life, Jesus?   "Well, you love God, you love neighbor, and you love yourself."  Who is my neighbor?  "Everyone.  Especially people you don't like."  Well, crud.  I don't like it much, but there it is.

In fact, interpreting Jesus, at least as I most often see it, boils down to this: if you're using the Scripture to justify hurting folks or judging them, stop it.  You have heard it said your enemies will suffer hellfire and eternal damnation, but I tell you not so fast!

But understanding that reveals my own bias.

We get into trouble if we use the Bible to judge other folks, because we always wind up judging them by our own standards.  And even if we're really really convinced that we're right, we might be really really wrong.  Because we're human, and we "start making up bulls**t about what [God] was really trying to say."

So maybe it's safest to use the Bible to judge our own behavior and leave it at that.  Because sometimes I wonder if God would be able to answer the questions about the Bible that we come up with.


  1. Have just discovered your blog, and I love this piece!
    Cathy Hunt (former DFUMC choir member, daughter of Diane Wright, and an English teacher)

    1. Welcome! So nice to meet you. Wish you were still here!

  2. Excellent post John. You said it so well. If we could just get people (politicians especially) to listen....