What is the difference, if any, between writing that is spiritually inspired and writing that is imaginatively inspired?
I ask the question because to me the Luke infancy narrative ( which was probably added as a later preface to the original narrative) strikes me as a wondrous piece of literature of a depth that is both. Conservative readers of the scripture would tend to see it as directly God-inspired so that all of it is both historically and spiritually true. On the other hand -as explored in an earlier post “Inspiration: What Does It Mean to Say Writers Are Inspired?”– inspired writing is not necessarily simply Biblical or spiritual. We remember those writers who say with Blake: “though these works are mine I know they are not mine”. Perhaps both sets of writing are deeply imaginative: though the Biblical is more deliberately God-focused with an apparently definite historical background rather than being seen as simply imaginative.
There are possible difficulties, of course, with the phrase “historical background”. The problem stems from the lack of assured source material. Luke was working with material thirty or so years before the start of the ministry of Jesus. For the birth stories he would have relied on oral testimony traditions that were more distant and obscure. Moreover, for some like the encounters with Gabriel, the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth there was no one to report the details. Again how was it known what the angels declared to the shepherds? The amount of historically unconfirmed material, therefore, as well as imagined material made to fit in with Old Testament prophecies was high. But for generations of readers and hearers to whom the stories are vividly satisfying to their imaginations, the lack of precise historical evidence is neither here nor there.
For I would suggest that it is profoundly meaningful to them that:-
- the mother of the Man, who was to be raised from the dead, is presented as a virgin (a post on the meaning of the virgin birth will follow soon).
- that the birth of the child was of the most humble nature, not in a human residence but in a cave.
- that the birth was greeted both by the most common( shepherds were frequently looked down upon) and the most learned, by shepherds and by Wise Men (though the story comes from Matthew, not Luke).
- that in the background is the reign of Augustus Caesar, who stood for worldly power the alternative Son of God who has established along with Roman rule the Pax Romana under which the new religion of Jesus will spread.
- that the birth was into a world in which power holds terrifying destructive potential as revealed in the Matthew story of Herod’s destruction of the innocents.
- the tale kept true to Old Testament prophecies: the supposed birthplace of the Messiah at Bethlehem, the later connection with Nazareth.
Luke, that is, gained enough from oral sources to weave together a profound tale whose meanings for two millenia have been found to be inexhaustible, inspirational both imaginatively and spiritually.
Within the Infancy narratives there are some beautiful intimate touches:
“For Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart in her heart”
This follows on the visit of the shepherds. Mary is storing in the depths of her mind her experiences and deeply reflecting on them. Luke’s insight here into the female mind and indeed his very dwelling upon it is astonishing.
The reader is invited by the focus on Mary to identify with her imaginatively and seek to understand her feelings.
That verse however does not stand on its own within the narrative. Consider:
“And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying , and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be”. (Luke 1:29)
Here again the reader is invited into Mary’s experience into shock and puzzlement at the angel Gabriel’s opening declaration.
Again later this time in the childhood of Jesus following the return from Jerusalem after Jesus was lost and found and after his pronouncement “Know ye not I must be about my Father’s business” Luke switches his attention to Mary once again: “but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:51) .
Imaginative identification includes the wonderful presentation of Elizabeth:
“And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:41).
There follows Elizabeth’s salutation Blessed art thou among women, the exalted tone of which leads directly to Mary’s inspired response in the speech known known as the Magnificat.
It is obvious that we as readers are not simply being given an account of what happened back then, we are being asked to read with imaginative insight, opening our minds to seek to understand what is going on in the minds of Mary and Elizabeth. The prose is of an astonishingly sustained reverential, annunciatory level that causes the reader to identify with the way in which it is crossing normal boundaries bringing together the divine and the human. The Bible as a whole does this but these stories, in particular, reflect an assurance that there is such a meeting ground.
In their intimacy, in their close identification with the two female characters, they show not only an author deeply in tune with the need to give voice to women, we are also given reading matter that invites spiritual reflection in the reader. You may have heard of the reading and prayer form of Lectio Divina a deeply contemplative form of Bible reading. It is passages like these which make a merely factual reading of the Bible inadequate; rather they require reading much more akin to that of reading poetry, necessarily imaginative.
Again in Luke’s infancy narratives speeches which could not have been passed on verbatim are used to present, again imaginatively, the thoughts and expressions of various characters from the angel Gabriel’s “Hail Mary”, Elizabeth’s acclamation of Mary, Mary’s own Magnificat beginning My soul doth magnify the Lord, the angels addressing the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people followed by the later Hymn of Simeon-the Nunc Dimitus : Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word…….
It is little wonder that such passages, as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitus have been for centuries incorporated into Christian worship, that Handel used the material in addition to apt prophetic Old Testament passages for creating the unfailingly popular music of The Messiah, that the Nine Lessons and Carols still continue to draw huge congregations, and that fom medieval times the common people created joyous folk carols to celebrate and relive the the time when human and divine were brought together in a way that remains permanently meaningful.
Perhaps that is what Matthew Arnold meant when he spoke of “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry”(see previous post). But does that dispose of what Arnold suggested was its failure to represent believable fact? I have given my case for believing not. For it is in the nature of Luke’s inspiration that the imagination meets spiritual truth within a particular historical and religious context.
For the fact is in the meaning and the meaning is the fact.
2 thoughts on “THE UNCONSCIOUS POETRY OF OUR CHRISTIAN FAITH (2)”
In my own experience, imaginative reading of Scripture gives insight – sometimes comfort, direction, or understanding. It sounds like we agree that the Bible was written to be taken in, mulled over, and applied – not just to be read.
Cranmer puts it so beautifullyin his Second Sunday in Advent Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.. ” Many thanks for your comment.