Human endeavour and the presence of Christ
Despite appearances, one of the strangest things today about Christian belief is not the insistence that the universe is created, ordered, and sustained by a loving God. Rather, it is the announcement that this Creator—whose gift encompasses all the vast and chilly reaches of outer space—makes individual lives his dwelling place, renewing and enabling our humanity by his own Spirit. Confoundingly, it seems the idea is that God is both that big and that close-up and personal. That is, when St Paul says “all things hold together” in Christ, he’s describing a redeeming integrity that is both macro and micro (Colossians 1:17).
Aggravatingly for some, this notion has been around for at least two thousand years and keeps on cropping up. Week in, week out, women and men around the world have been waking up to new life. Whether it comes in a rush or slowly rises over the horizon of their boxed-in lives like the morning sun, they find a life and light within themselves—a power—that seems both wholly new and utterly right. Despite their fear—the knowledge that it will, in one sense, cost them everything—they open the door of their secret life to Jesus. This Jesus is, again in one sense, a stranger, whose presence throws everything into sharp relief, as if elementally lit by burning magnesium. Spend any time in the gospels and you’ll see: one becomes uncomfortable, aware that as one reads light is falling not only on the characters in the stories, but across one’s own life. At the same time this stranger is, it turns out, a most attentive, most true host; Jesus gives generously—indeed, what he gives to those who ask is life itself.
Perhaps most strange, this new life by the Holy Spirit does not displace the person. Rather, as they offer up the whole of who they are and all of what they do to Christ’s loving government, these women and men become more themselves: their natural powers are transformed into gifts for God’s glory and for blessing others; work and vocation is reshaped by God’s initiative and purpose; and sinful lives, past and present, become the proving ground of God’s love. In this way, Jesus draws us into an integrity shaped by his own life with the Father.
This is my story also. I’ve always known deep down that this world is a creation, a great divine making characterised by order, and goodness, and singing truth. But I have also found myself suddenly the guest of Jesus and found, despite my prejudice, that what he offers me is good. Slowly and often stupidly, I’ve learned that he can be trusted with my whole life: my talents and ambitions, my triumphs and griefs, my friends, my spouse and my children, my art, and the past and the present and the life to come—the whole thing. Truth be told, the integrity I long for—a life where good work goes hand in hand with prayer and where I mean what I say and love others as I’ve been loved—well, I’ve only known such wholeness by falling into step with Christ. It’s what Jesus calls the narrow door (Luke 13:24). And it’s a door into life. I don’t mean into my small dreams or even into God’s good purposes for me. I mean into creation redeemed—the fullness of God’s gift of life: into the extraordinary and riotous everyday; into the mystery of God’s own life among us in Jesus, and the promise of all things made new. For he is the divine Word made flesh: in his obedience and selfless death, he overcomes evil as a human, restoring humanity to its purpose before God. Risen from the dead and alive among us, he has become the sorrowing path, the resurrection threshold, and the everlasting living room of friendship with God.
Given this, when it comes to the questions of calling, work, and natural talents, I’ve come to see that Christians often don’t go far enough. True, Christians aren’t hampered by the burdensome secular dogma that humans make our own meaning. And Christians rightly point to the goodness and ordering of God’s creation. Although the world is marred by sin and evil, the human calling to pursue shalom—the flourishing of all creation to God’s glory—remains. And so there is good work to do right across the various situations and opportunities our days grant us. All this is a coherent and compelling worldview. You might go so far as to say—again, rightly—that Christ’s life and example should animate our work. But if it is true that the God of the universe makes our lives his dwelling place, transforming not just what we do and how we do it but who we are becoming, then we’d best throw open the rooms of our lives to this God, calling on him to come and animate our calling and our work—to come and set fire to our unholy ambitions, and draw us into creation’s great dance before this living God. When it comes to real life deep down, that’s what’s on.
In what follows here, I try to bear witness firsthand to the way in which the presence of Jesus transforms our work and callings by reflecting on my journey as a poet. For Christians, the arts are, very simply, one remarkable avenue among many that now lead off from the great field of God’s triumph in Jesus. This is the new centre for all human endeavour, and all pursuits—be they sport or art, bricklaying or litigation—are meant now to lead from this victory where creation’s goodness is secured and where human agency is restored by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gospel—the good news of God’s redemption of all things through Jesus Christ—affirms that there’s good work to do and a good working out for every endeavour.
I’ll pick up the question of what this might mean for the goal, ethos, and practicalities of art-making in the next issue of Common Ground. And you can find a wider exploration of work and vocation in The Good of Work. Here, however, I want to use my story to explore the ways in which the presence of Jesus in a person’s life opens up the artist’s vocation. For at least the past three hundred years, a preponderance of artists have been more than a little concerned with the realisation and expression of a true self. The artist is not just gifted in a particular way to contribute to the human vocation but is inherently special; correspondingly, their art is an expression of this specialness. There’s much we might say here, but, minimally, I would suggest this is an overly narrow, overly self-referential frame. In any case, the process of art-making is typically alive to the question of integrity: how this artwork and perhaps by extension this world—and our life together—can be whole. And creation’s integrity, as I’ve already suggested, is a question that turns on Christ.¹ So what might the transforming presence of Jesus, crucified and risen, mean for art (and by extrapolation, for other endeavours)? That’s the question we’re picking up here.
Note: writing personally does not, of course, make this more reliable (most appeals to “authenticity” should cue us to listen with discernment!). But, as I’ve suggested, one of the places God seems to delight in unfolding his will is in the lives—hidden and public—of women and men. For better or worse, the life I have to work with is my own.
Waking up to words
I think I first woke up to the power of language through name-calling. The rush of language that comes as a child takes up the mysterious human gift of naming is soon accompanied by play with words, play that gets harnessed to naming’s power to bless and to curse. Name-calling is, if you like, proto-poetry: to call a person a “bum bum” is, after all, metaphor. And very early on, we were warned: naming is powerful. In their speech to one another, human beings are typically doing one of two things: they bless or they curse. And as I grew up, I found certain names stuck—small barbed curses to fling at others or to pry out of one’s thin skin at the end of a school day. Words had power to draw out a human person into selfhood or to twist him or her back inside themselves. Far from being arbitrary signifiers or psycho-verbal constructs, in words there was a kind of order operative that arose from the way the world was.
Words, then, had power. But they could also be true and good. I grew up around elders who strove to mean what they said. They read, listened, and spoke with care, preparing teaching and sermons. They blessed people, their words accompanied by the laying on of hands. They spoke out their hearts to the Lord, letting us overhear their honest responses to God. And they called us into meaningful speech, asking us to say grace at the dinner table. However lisping and incomplete, such efforts were received. But the child who turned the grace to their own use by attention-seeking or making commentary on the meal would be invited to try again. We were about to eat in earnest; in the same way, we needed to mean what we said and to use words in good faith, and in keeping with the gifts that surrounded us.
And words were simply delightful. They felt good in the mouth. They seemed to do surprising things in the world (name-calling, after all, is egged on by the sheer pleasure of wordplay). There was a goodness bubbling up here somehow. “There was an old man called Michael Finnigan / He had whiskers on his chinnigan,” my mum would chant, and the tripping, thigh-beating words, with their deliberately ridiculous rhymes, would strike in our minds and flower there all day. A deeper delight came later as in open worship at the chapel an old congregant would call for some hymn to be sung: “All creatures of our God and King / Lift up your voice and with us sing.” And we would, feeling in those end-rhymes how good and fitting it was that the response to such a King should be simply to sing. “It’s true because it rhymes,” the adage goes. But it would be more accurate to say that at its best, rhyme, that delight-filled congruence of sound and sense, often reflects a confidence that there is, deep down, below all the cross-pollinations and auricular play of language, a good, true, and delightful order to things, where our words stand up and agree with one another that the world is so.
A large integrity
But this large, delightful integrity of words and world came home to me most completely through poetry. In poetry, words are rendered deliberately themselves, reduced like a rich stock so that all the natural notes are intensified. Language is pushed towards a condition of music, artfully lodging in memory. At the same time, language is thickened and made touching, the poem composing a shape in the mouth and on the page as if words were slipping a hand into ours or kissing us on the cheek. Above all, poetry is meant—the attestation of a human person, standing up to bless (or curse), answering the world’s integrity with their little integrity. Sometimes—very often—it is a small, self-centred showing, wispy words tethered to little more than themselves. But at its best, poetry’s capacity to bear witness by its own remarkable integrity to the great integrity of this gifted world is exquisite, leaving us murmuring, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
That’s Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was his poems that first conveyed to me the possibility that artful words might enact such confidence in the world, in language, and in God’s gracious holding together of things. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” opens Hopkins’s sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.” The insight isn’t shaped by a concern to be original—this is more or less a riff on Psalm 19’s “The heavens declare the glory of God.” But the improvisation that follows is itself charged with grandeur, the poem proving this truth in its own body. As a sonnet, it takes a traditional form for love poetry and makes it flower in worship:
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Hopkins, then, schooled me in elements of craft: the full chime of springs/wings making concrete the speaker’s confidence in God’s ongoing care for creation, and the finely judged line break of “bent/World,” registering the world’s brokenness in the poem’s own body. And indeed, Hopkins is a great maker, in his innovations actively furthering the traditions he drew on. But Hopkins became exemplary also for the way the integrity of his art—its unsentimental honesty, its well-made excellence, and profound theological confidence—composed a small integrity that pointed to the world’s integrity. His poems sent me not back to Hopkins’s art or to myself but into the world as it is sustained by God’s love—mercifully, into a world I’d learned to recognise.
As I grew older, I learned a little about Hopkins’s thought. I mulled over his confidence that what he called the “inscape” of a thing—its distinct character and nature—bore witness to the divine reality in which creation is gifted its coherence. His poetry quickened me to an instinctive understanding that the word on creation’s lips is not simply “God”, but is “Christ”. It is Jesus’s way of dealing with evil—through the self-giving love and abnegation of the cross—that reveals the true heart of God. God’s resurrection says as much: in this way, does God redeem creation. In this way are things to be made whole. This is the love that fires the sun. And in as much as Jesus by his trusting obedience perfects humanity’s life with God, in this way too is true freedom secured. For humans, then, to give voice to creation’s song is now not only to sing something ancient and true and good deep down. It is to sing of the crisis and gift of the cross, and of resurrection life—and to let this song be true also of the singer. So might we testify to this larger, “truer” integrity: that is, to Jesus Christ, through whom God creates all things and in whom all things—art included—are finally redeemed. At the time, all this remained for me mostly a theological abstraction; but Hopkins’s poetry held hints of a wholeness that I instinctively longed for:
I walk, I lift, I lift up heart, eyes
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour
“Hurrahing in Harvest”
In poetry, words are rendered deliberately themselves, reduced like a rich stock so that all the natural notes are intensified. Language is pushed towards a condition of music, artfully lodging in memory. At the same time, language is thickened and made touching, the poem composing a shape in the mouth and on the page as if words were slipping a hand into ours or kissing us on the cheek.
A diminished vision
I was excited to enroll in the B.A. Prepossessed of a certain confidence with words, I was eager to engage with the length and breadth of literature in English. As a Pākehā five or so generations removed from Europe, there was an uncritical enthusiasm about reconnecting with cultural roots; as a Christian, I was wanting to connect with Hopkins and his forebears. And certain needs, on both these counts, were answered. Human nature being what it is, a substantial body of literature is always, like a great city, unstable and conflicted. The complexities of literary canon and privilege, language and power, were amply framed for us by zealous tutors, most of them at best indifferent to the question of the world’s large integrity. But I did find myself learning to keep company with voices from other times and places. It was, on balance, a good schooling in the humanities, albeit one laced with varieties of metaphysical and moral scepticism. Perhaps, most importantly, I was, on occasion, taught by a lecturer who unashamedly loved literature.
Very few authorities in the modern university—then or now—are inclined to see and love the world as Hopkins did, let alone seek out the God he knew and worshipped. And like many young followers of Jesus who take on the difficult patronage of the modern university, I became adept at putting my faith on silent mode. In subtle and sometimes overt ways, it was made clear to me that Christianity, and above all Jesus, were at best social embarrassments, at worst simply oppressive. What made this most challenging was not the critique (which was often a partially right accounting) but the corrosive incredulity that powered the prevailing literary criticism and the great loneliness that came in its wake. I don’t mean a merely personal loneliness but something larger and deeper. Contemporary lit. crit. was—famously—a vaporous stew of “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Whatever just moral insight floated to the top of the pot was quickly obscured by the overall fume, which left those inhaling it with the overall impression that human meaning-making was basically constructs arising out of—and leading into—incessant powerplay. Word art was heavily invested in this melee: as banker-cum-poet Wallace Stevens put it, “The poet creates the Supreme Fictions to which we incessantly turn.” Meaning what we say, far less giving voice to creation’s song, is not only troubled by sin and evil; nor is it—as some cleverly insist—finally impossible. Rather, it’s become a rhetorical strategy to secure this or that self-interested outcome.
I don’t think I would have felt the challenge of this so acutely had I not begun to write poems myself. Many of these are, unsurprisingly, juvenalia. But I’m struck by the fact that my first real poem—technically, a pastiche of Shakespearean diction and Victorian versification that came in a rush after imbibing one too many of the bard’s plays—runs decidedly against the Zeitgeist. It is an appeal to friends to speak more faithfully. We should, the poem says, mean what we say and not hide from one another all the time in ironic quips, we can have fun in speech without becoming sardonic, and we can be serious and not feel we’re endangering ourselves. All a little earnest. But—technique aside—I’m inclined to stand by it. It does, in any case, help to explain the difficulty I encountered as I began to write. The art of poetry pointed to a world of great integrity, a world I knew to be a creation the deepest secret of which lay, as Jeremy Begbie puts it, “outside its own reality”; that is, in the crucified and risen Christ.
The modern university—now the main patron of the literary arts—has increasingly espoused a kind of puritannical cynicism towards ultimate meaning. Consequently, when it comes to the apprenticing of literary artists, it holds out to them a severely curtailed account of what an artist should be and do. The task is, vaguely, to find one’s unique voice and to express it. The persistent features of poetic vocation—play and delight, attentiveness and witness, the difficult responsibility for wisdom, and the overflow of tradition and form, the answerability to readers and the wider common good—all were grist to the self-centred mill. For me at the time, it was as if we’d concluded that in the ancient house of creation the best shelter we could hope for was to make ourselves blanket forts. All the while, at readings and book launches, a penumbra of specialness hovered about the artist on whom the whole lonely show had come to depend.
Across the threshold
Despite this emphasis on finding one’s voice, it also became clear to me that one couldn’t simply wear one’s blessed believing heart on one’s sleeve. Disappointed and disdainful, I bridled at the diminished vision. At the same time, I’d found I was in some ways cut out for poetry. I wanted in. I became adept, encoding intimations of faith into loosely stacked lines. I started to develop a personal theory of Christian influence, trying to get poems placed in student magazines, then in literary journals. Some of this was a love for the art. Some of it was an attempt to be faithful to calling. But there was a good bit of me hoping for some of that ephemeral currency contemporary arts trade in: the making of a name for oneself.
What complicated this for me was Jesus. The circumstances might seem poetic, but, at the time, a Pentecostal prayer night did not strike me as a happy predicament. Almost against my better judgement, I went forward for prayer and in a vision encountered Jesus. What unfolded that night was an experience of profound inner healing, and a kind of spiritual cauterisation. It seemed to reach into my prelinguistic life, laying claim to all my history. Recalling it now, I’m still overawed. For what I’d feared for so long proved true: Jesus was unquestionably the Lord. At the same time, I’d not reckoned with just how kind, how able, how good he is. Under his remarkable leading, I was picked up, emptied out, and set on a new path, a path that, in subsequent solitary prayer, continued to unfold.
The world that as I child I believed in—the world Hopkins saw in creation—that world now opened more readily before me. Across this narrow threshold, it was far deeper and truer than I had ever understood, a world shaped by love and resurrection life. In the poems following this time, there are signs of this newness. They’re more open, more candid, more playful than before. Although self-involved, they’re often speaking to others and of others. There are awkward and exuberant love poems. There are blessing poems for friends and family. There’s a clutch of wedding poems. There’s a sense of a wider vocation, a meaningful service being rendered, a kind of good office being exercised. And something of the freedom of the artist under the lead of Christ is traceable: an intentness on the world, on the work to hand, and on bearing witness to divine glory.
For most of the following decade or so, poetry remained a place of profound delight. A period of intense study saw the flow of new poems dwindle to a trickle, but the sensibility persisted. Slowly, I was growing to accept poetry as marking a way of being in the world. In 2013, excruciatingly, I relinquished my hope of becoming an academic. As I embarked on a long grieving, new poems came. There’s much about the collection that resulted that is good and much that reflects the difficulties I’ve just charted above. But publication also saw a renewed literary ambition come to the fore. This had, in part, to do with the grief process—I was wanting the comfort of a win, and in the midst of my disappointments, I sought to keep poetry somehow for myself. And at the same time, the post-Christendom dream of worldly influence hovered about—mentioning my name, mentioning God’s, mentioning mine.
Any vocation can be repurposed for the needs of some corrupted creature, be that the nation state or the embattled, grieving self. The call to follow Christ and to offer one’s work and life for the life of the world and to the glory of God is a calling into selflessness and the profound, transforming friendship of Jesus by the Spirit. But we regularly repurpose our work and our talents to enlarge us, to make a name—to tell us who we are. True, the arts are relatively secure from one of the common drivers of this: the allure of money. It is, in a way, a blessing. But there are many other ways to repurpose the artist’s calling, most of them available through the weird machinery and commerce of artist reputation and personality. There are, as I well know, even Christianised versions of the name-building project. In this post-Christian milieu, the fantasy of becoming a Daniel walking and interpreting dreams in the high places of the world persists; typically, it somehow fails to include spiritual disciplines, prayer, and lions’ dens.
Falling into step
Mercifully, such ambition—slyly religious or otherwise—runs against the grain of poetry. As I wallowed in the odd prize short-listing and wrote emails of thanks for grants, the poems dried up. Stuck, I began in new ways to open my art-making to God. In its wrong-headed desire—its sin—my heart had wandered into the unreal and cramped blanket forts of the self. I needed to be apprehended again by the large integrity that Christ is working in all things, not least in my own life and writing. I needed to learn anew just how kind—how able—how good this Master was. And so I waited with God. Gradually, I learned to pray and make, to let these two aspects of life with God rhyme. Memory and the spiritual character of places—two marked features of the traditions of poetry I’m most familiar with—began to emerge in my writing. I began to pay attention in new ways. I donned waders and walked up the stream by our house, wanting to get into the landscape—understand creation as a creature—and wanting to learn to voice just a word of creation’s song.
Around this time I began a new sequence of sonnets. Titled Birdman, they were a composite reckoning with ambition—my own, and others’—featuring a man who, failing to recognise and receive the gift of his life, strives to “make it all work.” The fourth poem in the sequence finds this character at an absolute low point. I recall finishing the poem, shaken by its intimations of self-destruction. I realised the sequence was stuck: I didn’t love this character and couldn’t imagine his redemption. This was something of a crisis, not least because the birdman was, in some respects, myself. Again, I waited and prayed, aware that I was not yet the person who could complete the sequence and that this work of integration—the wholeness that I needed to faithfully do this work—could only come as I fell into step with Jesus. And slowly, as we walked and as I was changed, the final shape of the sequence came together. There’s a new way of working that has begun to emerge here. I can’t pretend that it’s familiar to me yet or that I’ve hit my stride—far from it—but I know that the way ahead for my art means keeping close company with Christ.
Writing this, I’m aware still of an element of shame. You needn’t be too concerned. Shame such as this is, after all, often helpful in the end for it arises out of the gap between who I want myself to be and who I actually am before God. And it’s not a bad thing to be relieved of a false sense of self. But the trace of shame also reminds me of a secret fear that has dogged my life as an artist. It is the fear that, having discovered an art and arranged about it various small ambitions, God might now claim my life, and I would be left with nothing. The blessed irony is, the more I have sought to keep this art for myself the less it has held together, whatever success has come. The more I learn friendship with Christ, the more I see how the self-interested strategy (common enough) of dividing my life between religious observance and artistic ambition, between faith and so-called life in the real world, runs against the integrity of things deep down. Christ has claimed my life and work, and rightly so. And in his gift is what I need: coherence of calling, the good end of my ambitions, blesséd poetry. In this, I remain the empty-handed and increasingly joyful guest of a most gracious, most attentive, most true host.
¹Few theologians have done more in recent times to explore the arts in light of Christ than Jeremy Begbie. His book,Voicing Creation’s Praise, offers a helpful survey of other key contributors to the conversation, going on to situate the arts in relation to Christ, through whom all things were created. See Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (London: T&T Clark, 1991), particularly chapters III: 1-4.