SURPRISED BY MYSTERY: HOW POETRY SAVED MY FAITH
Matthew J. Andrews
It was a typical Sunday morning, which is to say that while my body was planted firmly in a chair at the church I had attended for years, my soul was inching closer to the canyon of apostasy, leaning over the rim and calculating the risks of leaping into the abyss.
Our pastor was talking to us about how we were created in God’s image. He read from Genesis, describing how we were tenderly made to live with Him in a perfect home, a great garden, until we threw it all away by falling victim to the allure of a serpent’s hiss. This, he told us, was why we experienced pain, loss, heartache, and the other symptoms of a world bent towards evil. But it was this very thing Jesus had come to fix, and he would come back again someday to finish the job.
I sat there, numb, as if he was describing something in our shared past I could not remember. I was coming to terms with a very difficult truth: I wasn’t sure if I believed this to be true any longer.
* * *
The story of how I got to this point is, by its very nature, an intensely personal one, with big questions about theology and philosophy compacted into something as small as one person’s heart. At the same time, it’s so mundane, so commonplace, that you almost know it without me having to tell it.
I was raised in an American evangelical bubble: church every Sunday, youth group every week, and retreats every summer. I listened to worship music in the car and read devotionals every morning. I supported the right politicians and upheld the right convictions. I was concerned with being pure and holy in a world full of vice. I toyed with the idea of seminary and wrestled with my sense of ministry and purpose.
In other words, I was a typical youth raised in one of the many Bible Belts of our country. And that term, whether uttered with pride or derision, is spot-on because it was the Bible that reigned supreme, the focal point around which every other part of our life revolved. I was taught from an early age that the Bible is the perfect book, the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God Himself. With a little help from our teachers and pastors who told us what it meant, we obeyed what it said, no questions asked.
Even on that fateful Sunday morning, when I was at my darkest place, I never had a problem with the idea of there being a God. I understand the universe to be so vast and infinitely complex that the idea that it was made seems reasonable enough that I never seriously considered dissent. But my particular iteration of our collective yearning for the divine was based almost solely on the reliability of one book written by dozens of people, all of whom died several thousand years ago. When that foundation starts to crack, the whole thing is in danger of collapse.
This is what happened with me: the cracks formed and I spent almost a decade slowly crumbling to the ground. I was plagued with questions, hundreds of them, for which there were no satisfactory answers, all of them variations on the same main concern: How do I know any of this is true?
In church that day, I feigned interest in the sermon, all the while contemplating the jump into agnosticism. As I usually did while standing above the chasm, I prayed for the gift of clarity, for some special insight that would help me decide whether to jump or turn around.
That afternoon, as I was sitting in my backyard, enjoying the gentle warmth of a spring day, I had an interesting thought, one that had not occurred to me in ages: maybe you should write a poem about this….
* * *
Perhaps more than any other form of literature, poetry thrives in ambiguity, in the liminal places, in mystery.
A poem goes deep into the heart of something meaningful while using a host of devices to keep it at a distance. A poem often says more in the white space between lines than it does in its words. A poem is a paradox: a way of wrestling with something bigger than itself while also surrendering completely to the fight. It was in this firestorm of confusion and uncertainty that I began to slowly step away from the canyon’s edge.
I fished out some old notebooks from my drawers, dusted off my Bible, and gave myself a project: to read through the Bible and write poetry along the way. For years my battles with God had been an internal matter, a campaign waged in secret while I played the part of a good Christian, but with this project, I was giving myself freedom to take put onto paper the things rotting me away from the inside. Whenever I felt a strong emotional reaction to something I read, whether that reaction was positive or negative, I allowed myself to fully explore that reaction in my poetry.
Even the most charitable critic would agree that the early returns were not good. In looking at them now, I can see the oldest of these poems are barely concealed rants in the guise of verse, vitriolic pieces that reveled in their self-righteousness. I had years of built-up angst and disbelief, and it all came pouring out through pages and pages of terrible writing. A poem with an agenda, as it turns out, is no poem at all.
But after this period subsided, a more interesting one arose: I experienced something of a restart, a clearer head that allowed me to approach stories I’ve read a thousand times with a fresh pair of eyes and a less-burdened heart. Rather than seeing them as icons in a stained-glass window, I began to relate to the characters as real people, empathizing with their plights and pitfalls as they grasped for a God that was always out of reach. In other words, I began to see myself in them. My writing became less sure of itself, more nuanced, more comfortable lingering in the unknown.
I would love to say that as a result of this project, I found the answers I was looking for and clawed myself back away from doubt, but that wouldn’t be true. Three years and hundreds of pages later, I’m not any closer to that goal than I was before.
I still regularly face doubts about the Bible, how to read it, and how to find the line delineates truth; the only difference now is I have made some level of peace with the lack of knowing, with the mystery of it all.
This has been the strange gift of poetry: the realization that God is beyond my understanding, that he is so much bigger than the words of any book, bigger than all we could ever hope to think or say. My favorite thing about Jesus is that he understood our spiritual ineptitude, and so he came with parables, little stories about ordinary life that contained truths too vast to be fully and finally comprehended, leaving each listener for the last two thousand years with something to ruminate on as they told it again to each other, and to themselves. Poetry has been this way for me: an opportunity to grab onto a little piece of something bigger than myself and to roll it around in my head as I stare, no longer into the cold, empty, canyon of unbelief, but into the vast, open, sky of God’s inexhaustible nature.
Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer from Modesto, California. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember, is a collection of poems written while working his way through difficult stories in the Bible; it is currently available for preorder. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in inScribe Journal, Relief, EcoTheo Review, Orange Blossom Review, Pithead Chapel, Amethyst Review, and Collateral, among others. He is also an Associate Poetry Editor at Solum Literary Journal. He can be contacted at matthewjandrews.com