Dinah Livingstone Poetic Tales: Logosofia Down to Earth (Katabasis, 2010)
A review by Judith Bore
(Reviewed February 2011)
In this small book Dinah Livingstone takes on some biggies – literalism, postmodern non- realism, capitalism and, wait-for-it the ‘Trinity’.
It begins with an essay on the necessity of poetry. The final paragraphs of this essay are for me a useful summing up of how much humans need poetry both to be and become the creatures we are and can be:
“Although the Earth and our material bodies are given to us, in another sense humanity is also what we make of it – it is a project or goal, what we as individuals and a species can become. Humans are ambitious and want to know not only how to survive, but how to live with meaning. They make art, and once made, this art shapes them. They try to make living an art. As poetic animals we keep seeking a ‘thicker’ – expanded, intenser – consciousness and here theology comes in as a sister art to poetry, creating supernatural beings, who nevertheless “reside in the human breast’. That poetic quest remains even for those who have ‘taken leave of God.” But not everyone likes writing or even reading poetry. But here poetry is a paradigm for every kind of knowing how to that becomes an art, every grace that is ‘pure poetry.’
She then goes on to look more closely at the great ‘supernaturalizing’ metaphors of religion – Father and Mother- to discover their value and limitations, and to claim new meanings. “If we keep ‘God the Father’ as a metaphor for the cosmos which generates and sustains us, and for our cultural heritage from previous generations, it is a metaphor that applies in quite complex ways, bringing out positive and negative aspects of fatherhood, as are found in human fathers.”
Chapter three sees our writer considering the central images and narratives that together form the ‘grand narrative’ of Christianity, formulated and proclaimed in the scriptures of the New Testament.
They are Jesus of Nazareth’s own, the kingdom of heaven; Paul’s great metaphor of the ‘body of Christ’ as the new transformed humanity: and thirdly, the images of the beautiful city and the bridegroom and bride from the imagination of the writer of the fourth gospel and the book of Revelation.
Many contemporary thinkers consider that humanity has suffered enough through the passion and fervor generated by ‘grand narratives’ and want to dispense with them. What is more, it is said that, they have lost their power. But we have to ask, can human society flourish and even function without these enabling dreams?
Her explication of the Christian vision that emerges from the NT throws into perspective the anti-social soft underbelly of our beloved capitalism, which in its most strident form creates very unequal societies. She refers to the book ‘Spirit Level’ by social epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett who point out that in those societies where the gap between the rich and the poor is the widest, indicators of lack of wellbeing such as infant mortality, mental illness, drug use, obesity, literacy, social mobility, public trust, homicide and imprisonment rates are the highest. But the biggest culprit is the USA, which, she says, is probably the most religious. Our politicians continually try to persuade us that they can ‘deliver’ and we hope to hell they can but the older we get they no longer ‘pull the wool over our eyes’. And our author here does not pull the wool over our eyes with her reading of the poetics of the NT. For her the supernatural guarantee is no longer there. She tells us it is all down – or up - to us. But she is no born-again postmodern non-realist. For her religion is about engagement with the real world; the earth beneath our feet, the water that surrounds it, the air we breathe, and the bodies we ‘bump into’. And then finding a way of making the ‘bumping into’ productive, sustainable, joyous and just: in other words ‘kind’.
Human kindness is the title of the last chapter of the book and in it she explores the ‘Trinity’, as an image both of human society’s struggle to evolve and to infuse that society with love, i.e. kindness and respect, and equally of the individual’s struggle to achieve self-expression through loving and being loved.
This chapter was harder to follow; drawing as it did on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, among others and I for one will need to go back to it.
Many progressive Christians want to do away with the ‘poetry’ of Christianity and the ‘performance poetry’ of the Mass, Holy Communion or, as I knew it in rural Methodism, ‘Sacrament’. Dinah has attempted to show us how vital such ‘remembering’ and enactment is to the achievement of a more humane humanity, both personally and collectively. And importantly she has examples to show that this poetic historical activity is alive and well and active on our city streets. We recall the past to generate the courage and strength to be out there transforming an unjust society.
She soberly reminds us that this ‘Christian’ agenda is out of copyright and those who call themselves Christians are not the only ones out there fighting the good fight.
And this final point reminds me that I saw an Australian play recently, “When the Rain Stopped Falling”, a play about family history in the context of climate change. During the opening monologue a large fish falls from the sky. This same fish is the centrepiece of the family meal at the end of the play, the ‘family’ being the immediate forebears of the newly reunited father and son. In the discussion with the actors following the performance a question about the image of the fish came up. Was it a deliberate ‘Christian’ symbol? The final meal, someone said, was about love and forgiveness. Someone else quipped; Christians don’t have a monopoly on love and forgiveness. Of course they don’t, but to me the argument about the symbol is interesting but also a non- starter: the symbol of the fish is a human symbol, which happens to have been elaborated within Christianity. It is part of our linguistic and imaginative heritage. It is both just human and Christian.
Dinah suggests that the Churches might become more useful to humanity if they gave up their claim to have privileged access to supernatural beings. This book is however an expression of her belief that we should not let go of the poetry of Christianity. To be kind, to become kinder, humankind needs the energy that poetry can generate. Certainly I think Sea of Faith needs a book like this to remind us that head and heart need to work together.