(Christian Courier, February column, 2014)
At 58, I’m still learning about the Bible. Lately I’ve been learning about chiasmus, a literary structure of inverted parallelism embedded throughout Scripture designed to highlight the main point of a passage. The more I learn, the more astounded I am by the redemptive coherence that binds together these disparate books of literature, history, gospels, epistles and apocalyptic visions.
Agnostics and atheists who convert to the faith sometimes see this more readily than those of us inured to astonishment by familiarity. Memoirist Carolyn Weber exclaimed: “I have to say I found it the most compelling piece of creative nonfiction I had ever read. If I sat around for thousands of years, I could never come up with what it proposes, let alone with how intricately Genesis unfolds toward Revelation. That the supposed Creator of the entire universe became a vulnerable baby, born in straw, to a poor girl who claimed to be a virgin and who was betrothed to a guy probably scared out of his wits, but who stood by her anyway. It unwinds and recasts the world and our perception of it: that the Holy Grail is more likely to be the wooden cup of a carpenter than the golden chalice of kings. No wonder this stuff causes war, I thought as I read, between nations and within each of us” (Surprised by Oxford).
Popular author, Anne Rice, of Interview with A Vampire fame, re-converted to Catholicism late in life and exulted in a similarly lyrical vein about the Gospels: “Also something else has happened to me in the study of these documents. I find them inexhaustible in a rather mysterious way. . . . I’m at a loss to explain the manner in which every new examination of the text produces some fresh insight, some new cascade of connections, some astonishing link to another part of the canon, or the Old Testament backdrop which enfolds the whole. The interplay of simplicity and complexity seems at times to be beyond human control” (Called out of Darkness). Always arcane, Rice has recently been in the media spotlight again for proclaiming, “I quit being a Christian.” Disenchanted with the church, she claims she is still a Christ-follower.
The CRC’s Contemporary Testimony defines the Bible as the “very breath of God,” a revelatory exhalation to help us know him better and walk with Jesus in new life. The Holy Spirit, like a monkish illuminator, gilds the text, transfiguring readers in its glow. Still, as Tanya Runyan’s newest book of poetry suggests, the hallowing can be harrowing.
‘Our difficult rising’
Second Sky (Wipf and Stock, 2013), is an opportunity to scrutinize that divine resuscitation close-up. The words of St. Paul blaze their way through Runyan’s daily activities; they hammer her conscience, sand off impurities and shape her experiences, finally, into 24-carat poems about what it feels like to be refined by a living, breathing God.
Set in Yellowstone Park, “Approach with Boldness” examines how unwitting tourists have been steamed to death by the geyser’s hissing power. Imminent danger lies beneath tinted pools with lovely names like Morning Glory and Black Opal. Imagine the first hunter, eons ago, says the poet, discovering this “second sky” breaking through the ground, laughing as he “thought nothing of reaching in.” The poem, a commentary on Eph. 3:12 where Paul encourages us to approach God’s throne with boldness, contains an implicit warning. Be wary. Be aware. Death comes before new life.
The same caveat occurs in “Newness of Life.” A South African man wakes after 21 hours in a morgue fridge:
“Some burst alive
on the pyres of the Spirit
Some blink open
slowly, alone, packed in ice:
How did I get here?
I never knew I was dead.”
In “Buried With Him In His Death” the poet imagines dying with Jesus, literally, “until we both gave out.” Together they are wrapped and packed in aloe by Joseph of Arimathea and buried in the tomb: “The stone rumbled over the window of light, and then our difficult rising began.”
For Runyan, the “difficult rising” is aligning St. Paul’s divinely-inspired words with a thyroidectomy, driving home in a blizzard with three children in a car, or living next door to a rusting camper and its slovenly, alcohol-blurred tenant. The same ordinary things that we, too, struggle to line up with God’s Word.
This book will re-ignite the wonder of the Bible for you. Runyan’s poems gleam like those illuminated initials in medieval manuscripts, reverently introducing the holy text. But be prepared. God’s Word is not chained (2 Tim. 2:9).
Approach with Boldness Eph. 3:12
Yellowstone National Park
We creak on boardwalks above geothermal pools –
Black Opal, Morning Glory, Emerald Spring.
Clear and bright as cups of Easter dye,
they sputter and hiss to remind us that we stand
atop a caldera heaving molten rock.
Each path begins with the illustrated warning:
a boy in a baseball cap breaks through the surface,
parboiling his feet. I hear the story about the 9-year-old
who lost himself in the steam and plunged into Crested Pool.
They recovered just eight pounds of his body.
Or the man who swan-dived into Celestine Pool
after a yelping dog, emerging with blanched irises.
That was dumb, he mumbled for his last words,
skin peeling in sheets. Thousands of years ago
the first hunter to wander into this basin
must have thought he discovered a second sky
breaking through the ground, a miracle of sorts,
if he knew about those, radiating in the snow.
He laughed, bent his face over the rising steam,
and thought nothing of reaching in.
by Tania Runyan