Post 18, Poetry and Religion: Josef Greig, Henry Lawson, John Donne and More

Graeme Sharrock epitomises something that is so good about the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Oh yes, he is passionate about “religion” in the widest sense. Or should that be faith? Or the “Divinity” that is implied in the name of “his” part of the University of Chicago? Or all of the above and much, much more?

For over a quarter-century Graeme has been a “people-helper” in Chicago, listening to human beings in distress and journeying with them in their search for meaning. But he is as omnivorous as the Divinity School: he is “into” literature, social science, photography, as well as theology, history, and poetry. Why mention Graeme Sharrock in a blog about Adventist Studies?

Because Graeme is well along in writing a PhD dissertation about Ellen White and her “testimonies.” How does this genre of writing resonate with American culture in the mid-nineteenth century? What form does it adopt and develop? To whom are the testimonies addressed? When I read his draft of a chapter on this theme for “The Ellen White Project” (see the earlier blog about that subject) I was thrilled by its insights. Now I hope that Graeme will let me read and review his dissertation on the testimonies, when it is complete.

But the real reason why I am hurrying off this blog on a glorious Spring morning is that in an e-mail just received from Graeme, he has alerted me (and others) to a website (http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2011/11/04/day-break-jabbok-talking-myself) that makes available some of the poetry written by Dr A. Josef Greig, not long retired as a professor of Old Testament at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Some of my readers will remember Joe as an insightful member of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, as a writer of articles (not least in Spectrum), and as a teacher capable of thinking outside the square. During all the years that I have known Joe and cherished his biblical exegesis, I was unaware of his skill with poetry.

Anyway, I have just read Greig’s fourteen verses entitled “Day Break on the Jabbock: Talking to Myself.” It starts this way:

I am an old man now, beyond three score years 
and ten, if that counts for anything. Have I not 
entered the circle of the wise? I can take my hand 
off my mouth and speak. I have a history with God.
 The journey was first paternal, then stormy, 
at last seismic. The model that I first took 
for God was my earthly father. He was loving,
 dependable, fair, faithful, self-sacrificing, 
though not a professed believer; a difficult 
act for God to follow. I would not have been
 so disappointed had the roles been reversed.

The poem speaks to me because its author is a highly-skilled biblical scholar so, like the Book of Revelation, his verses are a mosaic that presents Scripture in a new and arresting way. There is a starkness about the lines that reminds one of Psalm 22, or the poetry of Dr John Knight of “Post Pressed” and universities in Queensland, Australia. Yet there is more. “Day Break on the Jabbock” refers to “The Latter Rain, “The Time of Trouble,” and numerous other terms known only to Adventists, or at least narrowly-defined by us.

Earlier this year I presented a sermon on the religious verse of Henry Lawson (1867-1922), an Australian balladist much loved by common people. Lawson’s life was an unmitigated disaster, but he could look into the souls of his fellows in ways that most others found impossible. Often Lawson is totally wrong theologically, but so “true” biblically. (Ever read Dr Gottfried Oosterwal on the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ?) In his poem, “Saint Peter” Lawson declares:

When I reach the great head-station⎯Which is somewhere “off the track”⎯
I won’t want to talk with angels Who have never been Out Back;
They might bother me with offers Of a banjo⎯meanin’ well⎯
And a pair of wings to fly with, When I only want a spell.

Lawson’s desire to be understood is a powerful application of the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation. I admit a far greater depth in the sublime poetry of John Donne. There is, for instance, majestic meaning in his expression, “in his purple wrapped receive me Lord.” Or in his “A Hymn to God the Father.” We Adventists define the theology of such works-of-art as “Righteousness by Faith.”

So, thank God for Graeme Sharrock, Josef Greig, John Knight, Henry Lawson and Alexander Carpenter (who facilitated the posting of Greig’s poetry).

Arthur Patrick, 6 November 2011

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
This entry was posted in Alexander Carpenter, Dr A. Josef Greig, Dr John Knight, Ellen White's "Testimonies", Graeme Sharrock, Henry Lawson, Righteousness by Faith, SDA theology. Bookmark the permalink.