Reading Songs from an Empty Cage means joining the heavenly host of poets, writers, theologians and glorious “bad ones” (224) that illuminate the world Jeff Gundy so voraciously loves. This love glows on the pages here and it lights up anyone who sits down to read his collection of essays. One senses that it’s this passionate love for things of the world that drives Gundy’s call for an Anabaptist theopoetics: a space “where poetry and theology cross paths, and especially when poetic methods of exploration are brought to theological questions” (31). To be sure, an Anabaptist theopoetics of this sort cannot and does not seek to possess anything approaching certainty on such theological questions. Instead, it hopes to liberate us from the drive for certainty in the first place. Here, Gundy calls on James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers” (83). I’ll add to the mix the voice of Carrie Newcomer, a Quaker singer-songwriter and theopoet in her own right: “Just beyond my sight, something that I cannot see / I’ve been circling around a thought that’s been circling round me / Like the vapor of a song that is just out of earshot / I thought I knew the question, but I guess not” (“Every Little Bit of It”).
Before there are answers, there are questions. Before the world we love is created, there is God. At least that’s what we’ve been told by the orthodox guardians who hold the key to our religious, theological and ecclesiological cages. In his opening chapter, a rich smorgasbord of questions on the possibility of an Anabaptist theopoetics, Gundy asks, “If the world, and God, are bigger and wilder and stranger than we can imagine, what makes us think that we can bind it with propositions and belief-systems?” (38).
This question haunts the entire collection of essays. It haunts me, too, but I am neither a theologian nor a poet, at least in formal terms. I am a Mennonite pastor, although not Mennonite by virtue of birth, but by gentle persuasion. Part of my task on occasion is to spend the week wrestling with ancient revelation in order to stand in front of a few hundred people on Sunday morning and tell them something I believe about God. And so I am interested in similar questions about language, the human search for meaning and whether any of it matters when the “world is so large, and the spaces within as well” (41). I also struggle, as any postmodern troubadour would, with my own identity as someone who speaks from within the traditional, institutionalized church, yet has never found that a very comforting place to inhabit. If we should choose to grant Gundy’s claim that “theology seeks closure and clarity; poetry resists them” (106), then what do we make of the work of discomforted pastors? Can we resist, too?
I had the mysterious fortune of being sent to a Mennonite school when I was a teenage boy. My parents told me that Mennonites had some “weird ideas about war but are normal Christians like us.” Having no concept of culture or shock, I had fallen face-first into a strange new world. About a week into it, the social studies teacher pulled me aside into her office in the corner of the hallway. I don’t recall my offense. However, I do remember her looking me square in the eye and telling me, “I just don’t like the way you carry yourself!” Looking back, I think I know what rubbed her the wrong way. With my Nike basketball shoes on, with my headphones playing the latest Eminem track, I must have appeared incredibly of the world.
As the years went by at the Mennonite school, Anabaptism soon began to awaken my soul in ways neither I nor my social studies teacher expected. I discovered in Anabaptism a passionate love for the world rooted in Christian faith that I had never encountered previously. It is a beautiful irony that Mennonites, historically “quiet in the land,” also, as a form of discipleship, embrace and serve the world in wholly unreserved and transformative ways. The rejection of the sword that set the first Anabaptist rebels apart from their Protestant and Catholic neighbors finds expression both as cautious fear and patient embrace of the world.
As a Mennonite raised Nazarene and theologically educated by too many Presbyterians, I’ve found this tension dynamic because I think it leads us to explore questions most of our God-fearing friends would rather not. Questions like, for example, how might I love my enemy? Or how might I speak prophetically into our political context without propping up the “powers that be”? These are questions without easy answers, questions with capacity to resist closure and encourage engagement with the world amid its baffling complexity. They are pastoral questions, too, and best addressed by those influenced by the substances of theology and poetry equally.
I came to identify as an Anabaptist at age 17 when a stranger found me alone in the back of the sanctuary on one of my first visits to the local Mennonite church. In ordinary fashion, he invited me to join him for coffee and conversation the following Sunday. I responded by rudely standing him up. He invited me back anyway. Those conversations have now grown into a friendship that has spanned 13 years. Looking back, I am not certain why this person patiently embraced me, but I am a pastor now because of it.
“Sometimes I look out over a roomful of faces and bodies and think I know them all too well. Other times I realize that what I know of them is just the tiniest shred of their whole beings, that they carry burdens and griefs, joys and preoccupations that I will never glimpse” (134). Gundy writes eloquently of the mystery of God and of the world, but I find him most compelling in instances when he alludes to the layered mystery of people. I suppose this is because I am a pastor. If the best theologians ponder the mystery of God, if the poets ponder the mystery of the world, and if the theopoets ponder the threshold where both collide, then it might be the pastors who ponder, with questions only, the mysteriousness of people – scaffolds of fear, dreams, disappointments, cancer and punctured hearts they are – and choose to love them anyway.
Perhaps, maybe, that is how pastors resist. The same propositions and belief systems that are used to force closure on our yearning to behold the mystery of God and the world function to force closure on our yearning to behold the mystery of ourselves. But we are also bigger and wilder and stranger than we can imagine. People, too, cannot be bound up in propositions, belief-systems and the “ways things are.” They are always worth embracing, even when they stand you up, even when they rub you the wrong way at first. Who knows what might come of it? Gundy’s pen supports me in this pastoral work and for that I am grateful.
Do not resist the undertow of wonder that pulls you into its wild ocean, where mystery lurks in the subliminal language of dolphins and killer whales. Resist instead the urge to remain on sand, safe and certain of ground. And once your curiosity and your questions give way to the undertow, bring a friend along with you. As Jesus teaches, love is how we make our way in this world. Beholden to mystery, we can choose either fear or love. To summon the voice of the theopoet Sufjan Stevens: “My prayer has always been love” (“Drawn to the Blood”).