Uncovered Gems #3: “The Singer” by Calvin Miller

“How did you manage to make them cherish all this nothingness?” he asked the World Hater.

“I simply make them feel embarrassed to admit that they are incomplete. A man would rather close his eyes than see himself as your Father-Spirit does. I teach them to exalt their emptiness and thus preserve the dignity of man.”

“They need the dignity of God “

“You tell them that. I sell a cheaper product.”

When Dr Calvin Miller – pastor, author, poet and evangelist – died in 2012, Ed Stetzer said of him in Christianity Today that “Dr. Miller knew the importance of story as well [as evangelism]. A wonderful wordsmith, he would use the element of story in such a way that cold facts and dry doctrine came to life in ways rarely seen”. Poet Luci Shaw, one of the only really talented evangelical poets I’ve come across, said in his lifetime that “Calvin Miller sees with a single eye”, producing literature “full of light”. 

His prose poem The Singer may be a little too much of its time (the 1970s) to earn many readers easily today, yet, stumbling on it in the painfully small Literature section of my theological college’s library, I can see the qualities that Stetzer and Shaw praised.

An extended metaphor on the incarnation and mission of Jesus, The Singer boasts some of the most remarkably pithy lines and phrases that I’ve encountered in 20th-century creative religious writing outside Lewis. The Singer, tasked with singing of God’s good creation and calling a broken world to healing, regularly encounters the World Hater, Satan, whose counterfeit song recalls the two songs of Tolkien’s creation narrative in The Silmarillion. As the two figures of the Hater and the Singer travel to teach their different songs, not all are drawn into the purity and healing of the Singer’s eternal song. Even his mother warns against his singing the final verse “against the wall” of the Great Walled City of the Ancient King:

She cried.

“Leave off the final verse and not upon the wall.”

He kissed her.

“I can’t ignore the Father-Spirit’s call. So I will sing it there, and I will sing it all.”

At times, Miller’s allegory is heavy-handed, as allegory often is. And I wish deeply that evangelical authors could see the value in writing fiction that is not allegory. Yet the merit of Miller’s writing is the way it illuminates more than it retells. Not every detail of his story neatly correlates with a Biblical fact, and much of it is more poetic than doctrinal. But, as Stetzer observed, that’s his strength: seeing the value of story, and bringing back the poetry and power of the story in a way that theology often cannot do.

I for one will be looking for more of what Miller wrote in his rich and grace-driven lifetime.

Earth’s Carol (After Luci Shaw’s “Some Christmas Stars”)

One final poem for Advent, this one inspired by Luci Shaw’s “Some Christmas Stars“. Merry Christmas everyone. May it be a blessed time remembering the wonder of God made flesh.

Earth's Carol

The stars make songs in silent sway,
The roosters wait for newborn day,
And I in brokenness make way

To sing the songs of broken bones
Kneeling at the newborn's throne,
The Godhead's second part, alone.

The angels cannot sing enough
To praise His name. King Herod's bluff
Fools no-one fast. Earth's dusty stuff

Becomes His throne. Thorns, soon His crown,
Entangle round His bed. The sound
Of broken praise echoes around.

Descend, Ascend (After Luci Shaw’s “Made Flesh”)

As Advent draws frighteningly close to its festive conclusion, it’s time to catch up on the December poems for my 12 Poets Project. Today we enter another of Luci Shaw’s reflections on the Christmas story, the beautiful “Made Flesh” which was the inspiration for my next poem.

Descend, Ascend (After Luci Shaw's "Made Flesh")

Now, as the angel's greeting shimmers,
Mary trembles.
The Maker of the stars and spheres
Becomes impossibly
Small: a zygote, an idea,
A point of debate.
The giver of life clings on
For life, umbelical-bound,
Co-dependent, finite, weak,
And then,
As though the insult weren't enough:
The smell of hay, the taste of dust;
Darkness greets the Light of Life,
Cows draw near to see the scene,
Shepherds sing.
Can it be? Son of David, Sun of Dawn,
Pushing out through flesh, now flesh?
How low can such majesty descend,
How high can we reach for answers?
Yet I too, made of flesh,
Need not feel ashamed;
The taste of dust, I know it well -
And it,
Made precious by his hands,
His feet, the knees that crawled in it,
Declares that I am made of him,
Born to his flesh,
His hands, his feet,
Lifted as he is brought low,
And I will rise like him.

“She pondered all these things in her heart” (After Luci Shaw’s “Mary Considers Her Situation”)

The virgin sat,
the angel's words
shimmering around the room. She fancied now that Daniel
might have shared her trembling heart
when Gabriel had spoken truth which did not fully sooth. The prophets spoke of shoots from stumps
and virgins bearing Israel's sign,
and yet she'd never heard her name connected with such wondrous things,
too wonderful for her to bear
and truths too great for words. She sat, a vessel soon to burst,
the weight of truth not settled yet,
the sword not yet descended.

Uncertainty (After Luci Shaw’s “The Annunciatory Angel”)

As we begin the season of Advent, I thought it would be fitting to begin with some Advent-themed poems. The first is based on Luci Shaw’s “The Annunciatory Angel”, which itself is a response to Fra Angelico’s painting “The Annunciation”. Though inspired by Shaw’s poem, I have gone back to the original painting and written my own response to it. I hope that it can help you also to focus on the amazing Christmas story this Advent.

annunciation

Uncertainty (After “The Annunciatory Angel”)

Bent forwards, finger to lips as though
A secret is about to be told,
Crested with gold, saurian wings, more
Bone-like than feathered, halo at the side,
Cone-of-silence-like, to keep the secret:
The angel whispers,

And Mary waits, Medieval fringe her veil,
Hands clasped to chest – does she cradle herself
Or cover her breasts? Blue modesty drapes itself
Around her waist. Wooden floorboards must feel
The shake, the suppressed tremble
As the Angel’s pursed lips disclose a truth
Shocking to the ears, to the senses, to logic,
Then as much as now.

And, wandering beneath the stars,
At stage right, three figures, one haloed, the others not,
Descending a hill towards – something? Towards what?
Fra Angelico does not show,
The only light a glow about
The Angel’s feet and face, and Mary,
Glowing in uncertainty, the prospect
Of scared obedience.

12 Poets: Goodbye and Hello

Well, on this final day of November it’s time to say goodbye to Denise Levertov, the lovely Anglo-American poet that we have been exploring this month. In lieu of an essay on her work, here is a link to the last interview she gave which I think gives a better insight into her work than anything I could write in a hurry.

UnknownAnd, with December frighteningly around the corner, it’s time to unveil the next poet: Luci Shaw, a wonderful poet who now work as Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. I’m looking forward to looking at her work, particularly because contemporary Evangelical Christian poets are few and far between. I trust that her work will be a nice way to see in this Advent season ahead of us.