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New Harmony: Freshen, don't destroy, the old words and ways

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

A friend suggested I read a book: “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” by Christian Wiman.

Wiman is the editor of “Poetry” magazine — the gold standard for poetry magazines. He is also on the Yale University sacred music faculty.

The book is about Wiman’s return to the Christian fold after many years on the lam. He has come home. But he has brought with him a new vision of things. In short, Wiman is struck by the mystery of Christianity. He cherishes the abstract and feels many Christian concepts are tougher to pin down than beads of mercury.

In spirituality, Wiman is something of an abstract impressionist.

In a way, his journey into the abstract is the religious version of what happened with art and literature at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 1800s, even the most far-fetched novels still took the form of narrative stories. The most progressive poetry still used rhythm and rhyme.

Then came the Modernists, writers who shattered the narrative and blew up all rhyme and meter.

In short, because they had new insights, they felt they had to destroy the old forms.

Now, religious thinkers are in the same position. They are pushing the spiritual frontiers.

But I think the wisest among them refuse to abandon the old words and ways. Instead, they find new ways to apply them.

They know that religion is about ministering. It’s about making connections. So the best of the new spiritual breed hold to the words that have connected people for centuries — words like “spirit,” “redemption” and “salvation.”

They simply infuse those words with new notions.

There is wisdom, I think, in holding on to traditional expressions.

Think of how for thousands of years, people talked about “sunrise” and “sunset” because they believed the sun rose and fell in the sky.

Then science showed that the sun was stationary. Its rising was an illusion caused by the earth spinning.

But we didn’t re-invent all the words to suit science. We simply kept saying “the sun is coming up” or “the sun has gone down,” but with fresh insight. We still used the old ways of speaking.

So it is with ancient religions like Christianity.

The vocabulary is still vital, it is still important.

We shouldn't blow it up and start from scratch.

This new bunch of spiritual thinkers may, indeed, see the world differently, but the best don’t undermine what went before. They try to expand on it.

They don’t destroy our way of seeing things, they enhance it.

The wisest young religious thinkers don’t blow up what we have.

Like Wiman, they build on it.

And in so doing, they help bring continuity to a splintering world.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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