[Editor’s note: For our series featuring artists reflecting on their creative process, poet Brad Davis describes how he has learned to ‘honor God’s in-breaking of transformative grace with poems’. Portraying his poem ‘Romsey Christus’, which will appear in the In/break exhibition, as the product of his struggle to capture and convey ‘God’s relational heart, he explains how Peter Eugene Ball’s ‘Christus Rex’ sculpture inspired his poetry, affording a visible representation of the hospitable, generous Jesus that has shaped his theological imagination. ]
Crucifixes, priests and acolytes in liturgical costuming, patens and chalices, the churches themselves and their congregations – all function together in time and space and over time to say what? To effect what? Since early on, my boyhood religion has struck me as something very other and not terribly desirable. Even when I was called to go into that world as a priest, I felt as though I were being sent into a foreign territory. And twenty-five years later when I was granted release from my ordination vows, I was acting on a gift of freedom to return to living outside the religion camp. My Anglo-Catholic friends, with their ontological view of priesthood, could not understand; once priested, always a priest. I think I disappointed them. Or perhaps I never actually underwent the ontological transformation from which return is, they believe, impossible. Certainly, I did not conform to their magisterium-inflected religious cartoon.
Cartoon: a series of drawings that tell a story; a simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal or version (quoted selectively from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary).
I like to think of all human attempts at understanding divine things as cartooning. You do it, I do it, the church through the ages has done it any number of ways, with all sorts of drawing and coloring techniques and materials. Janitors do it, archbishops do it, church haters do it. There’s no escaping it, as none of us has the wherewithal to comprehend the fullness of the unseen God and the difference God does or doesn’t make in our lives. Antiquity is no guarantee of a cartoon’s faithfulness to the whole story, the full picture. But we do have the gospels and their portrait of Jesus; we have the book of Acts and its record of how our faith-story began; we have the rest of the New Testament and its insights into how the early church labored to look after persons in distress and keep itself from being corrupted by the world (James 1:27, adapted). It is this written, apostolic tradition that I’ve regarded as normative as I have constructed and deconstructed and reconstructed my take on – my cartoon of – the way, the life, and the truth.
Even when I was called to go into that world as a priest, I felt as though I were being sent into a foreign territory.
Enter poetry. Specifically, the poem in the upcoming In/break exhibition: ‘Romsey Christus’. But first, poetry as an art, generally. Poems are compact language events packed with the wherewithal to reinforce or change a life. Emily Dickinson said, ‘If […] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry’. After I was laid off during the recession in 2009, I did not realize how vulnerable I was (denial being an old friend) until Bill Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 found its way to me. I don’t remember how it arrived, but I am grateful it did, as it pried me open and freed me to grieve and throw ‘my outcast state’ on God’s ‘sweet love remembered’. Thus, healing began in earnest. Did Bill intend his poem to reach across centuries and comfort, in a whole-body way, a jobless modern? Of course not, but it did. Not all poems do such work or attempt it, but the best have the power to break into our lives and help us see the world and ourselves anew, to wake us up.
Four decades before I needed Sonnet 29, I had learned, as a damaged runaway from boarding school, that I was fully known and loved by the ‘Father of lights’. In 1971, I discovered a Jesus who was the opposite of the uptight older brother in the Prodigal Son parable. Had there been a second older sibling in that story, s/he would have been right there with the father as he ran out to receive the lost son back from his profligate wanderings. Where’s the religion in that? I became convinced that God’s mission for Jesus was not to create a new religion for us; we have proved wildly successful at doing this all by ourselves. Rather, since learning of God’s relational heart, I’ve struggled to live as a beloved younger brother of Jesus and to honor God’s in-breaking of transformative grace with poems, of which ‘Romsey Christus’ is the most recent iteration. And struggle is the operative word. As I was drafting ‘Romsey Christus’, three struggles in particular contributed to its composition: 1. that Western art very early chose to whiten the brown-skinned holy family, often proffering as justification for the whitening various ‘evangelistic’ arguments that I find wholly unconvincing; 2. that so much of American Christianity prioritizes the death of Jesus as the solution for an individual’s condemnation rather than celebrate the whole of the Incarnation, from conception to burial, as God’s obviation of an Old Order religiosity that still has humanity (and many Christians) enslaved to Law and its attendant system/s of rewards and punishments; and 3. that so much of Western Christianity fails to see clearly that the good news is not that my sins are forgiven but that God changed and raised Jesus’ dead body and, in so doing, inaugurated a New Order for which Jesus’ resurrected body is our first glimpse of the new heaven and new earth toward which all things are proceeding. How then contain all this and the concerns of my little life in a poem?
the best [poems] have the power to break into our lives and help us see the world and ourselves anew, to wake us up.
I am deeply grateful that, as I was wrestling with an early draft of the poem, I came across (online) a picture of Peter Eugene Ball’s sculpture commissioned for the St. George’s Chapel of Romsey Abbey entitled ‘Christus Rex’. In many ways it makes visible what I’m leaning toward in the poem: a brown-skinned, resurrected Jesus; the absence of an instrument of death, yet the telltale scars of what was required to obviate the Old Order; an overall appearance of royal welcome and, in particular, the yoke-likeness of his extended arms. This arms-to-yoke association revolutionized my take on Matthew 11:28-30. I had been taught that Jesus’ yoke was the cross I had to bear and the personal disciplines of spiritual living. Now I see it as expressive of Jesus’ longing to befriend us, to throw his arms across our shoulders and draw us in close – ‘my yoke is easy’ – where he can teach us of the Father’s love and our place in his relational kingdom – ‘my burden is light’. I am thankful also that Peter Eugene Ball granted permission to have the picture of his ‘Christus Rex’ accompany my poem in the In/break exhibition. His sculpture is to my poem what live performance is to sheet music.
Image Credit: Photo of Peter Eugene Ball’s ‘Christus Rex’, available with artist’s permission.