Poetry and the after-life

posted: 4069 days ago, on Saturday, 2006 Oct 21 at 06:52
tags: atheism, poetry, Bible study, psychology of religion, philosophy.

Death toll and pie in the sky


Once upon a time when I was in high school, we were doing poetry in the Afrikaans class. I enjoyed (English) poetry, mainly because I felt like I was in the presence of something special, like hiding behind a cupboard in Picasso's studio watching him paint, or spying on my Dad soldering a PC board. Poets have an expert way with words, using them in delightful non-everyday ways that require just a little more effort to understand (almost like an Afrikaans-speaking person listening to a Dutchman, if you know what I mean). For various reasons (including Breyten Breytenbach) I eventually became disenchanted with poetry, but not before a particular poem from the prescribed "Senior Verseboek" caught my attention.

I was an exceptional kid because, as far as I know, I was the first one who had a "typewriter" at home. A typewriter is a electro-large mechanical device and is like a computer because it has a keyboard and like a printer because it produces a letter-filled sheet of paper. Mine was an IBM, and with it, I wrote many letters, including regular missives to James, my British pen-pal, who was very impressed by my professional-looking offerings. But I'm getting off-topic [CR]

One day in Afrikaans class we read a poem that described, amongst others, a group of black men in an dingy city alley, huddled around a fire. The teacher explained the deeper meaning behind the poem. It never ceased to amaze me how much depth and meaning and stuff the teacher could get out of a stanza. But this time, I'd had enough.

That evening, I typed out a letter to the poet. In an appendix to the "Verseboek" I learnt that he was a lecturer at Wits (?) University, and somehow came up with a postal address. In the letter, I explained to him what had happened in class, and asked him, if this was indeed what he had meant when he wrote the poem.

Much later, I received a (hand-written) reply in which he kindly explained that no, he had intended nothing of what I had laid out in my letter; in fact, he was merely describing a particularly haunting scene he had witnessed while out walking early one morning. I never did confront the teacher with my evidence, perhaps because he, and not the poet, was responsible for my test and exam marks.

Next, I tried my own hand at poetizing. e e cummings was (and is) a delight to read, but I'm a realist and wasn't going to try and emulate him. Instead, I wrote (sorry, typed) a rather long poem, and gave it to our long-suffering English teacher, a quiet, religious gentle person, more at home sitting beside a pond tossing nick-nacks at ducks than in an all-boy rugby-crazy high school (the only thing he had in common with the school was Christian fundamentalism). Anyway, my poem (in its entirety) eventually found its way into the school year book, along with a Photograph of the Author as a Young Man. The poem was kinda weird.

There was an old man and a baby in a boat, floating down a river that meandered through a chasm, and all sorts of other good stuff, including a gigantic eye that stares at them. I challenged my English teacher to analyze the poem, and he turned it into a class assignment. After much debate and what-not, he came up with his considered but cautious opinion about its deeper meaning. It was very impressive and of course not at all what I had meant.

I know this for certain because I had written the poem thus: (1) take a dictionary of symbolism (2) consider the first digit of pi (3) write a fragment of text selected from the dictionary entry for the digit in step 2. (4) advance to the next digit of pi. (5) goto step 3 but stop if bored. No matter how profoundly my poem is interpreted, it has no meaning. Any meaning the reader finds, is solely his or her own input and creation.

Which brings me to my point (at last!). As an interested bystander, I've noticed that the first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is very blood-and-guts, fire-and-brimstone and you-die-and-go-to-Hell-you-nonbelieving-fucker, while the second part is "Peace out, bro" and "Jesus loves you!" and fluffy and stuff. Far be it for me to account for this apparent shift in emphasis (some would say, image management, or spin-doctoring) but I have been wondering if there's a way of quantifying this.

It occurred to me that, since the God of the Old Testament was heavy into smiting and striking down his enemies, and the New Testament God was more a passifist hippie type, perhaps one could count how many people God killed in each of the testaments?

As it turns out, the first person God kills in the Old Testament is Lot's wife; she dies in 2116 BC because she looked back. The last victim is Ezekiel's wife (Ezek. 24:18) c.580 BC. In this 1536 year period, God kills just over 2.27 million people in total.

In the New Testament, God kills only three people. The first to go is Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, who buy the farm some time after 31 AD and before 64 AD. The final person God kills is Herod, who is "eaten of worms" brought about by an angel of the Lord, in 44 AD.

In the Old Testament, God thus kills on average 1470 people per year; in the New Testament, it's only 0.05 deaths per year, thus confirming my original impression. Note that these are conservative estimates; see Steve Wells' blog for a more detailed analysis.

Some of the victims were zapped by God because they ejaculated (Gen 38:10), blasphemed (Lev 24:10-23), believed wrongly (1 Kng 13:1-24; 2 Kng 7:17-20) or pointed out that a guy was bald (2 Kng 2:23-24). Maybe its just my silly out-of-context way of thinking, but isn't it a bit gauche to kill a bloke by making his bowels fall out (Jehoram, 2 Chr 21:14-19)? Admittedly, that would make a good visual for South Park but then we all know the creators of the show are sick and twisted beings.

Naturally, I could be entirely wrong in my interpretation of what this all means. Perhaps I'm gently pulling your leg, perhaps I'm an idiot, or both. But I can't help wondering, who the intended readers of the Bible are? It seems as if a lot of sophisticated techniques are needed to interpret it correctly. If I apply similar techniques to other chunks of texts (say, a poem based on pi) couldn't I also reveal a lot of deeper meaning?

nothing more to see. please move along.