We should keep in mind that interpretation requires a level of careful attention to the whole poem. For instance, a writer may portray sin yet not agree with it; indeed, once one learns to look at the entire work, one may find that the author is strongly disapproving of such sin. Even if the writer seems to be approving of the activity, it doesn’t mean that we will be tempted to emulate wicked thought or behavior; it may lead to our hating the sin more. For example, the gay poet Carl Phillips has written some quite beautiful poetry, and he has also written in support of his homosexual encounters. Phillips has a cycle of poems about an Italian castrato, a young man made into a countertenor for the opera. In a prayer to Christ, the persona wars with his desires, concluding:

I’m sometimes sorry. I’ve licked the broad
tracks that your grace leaves after; sweet?
If I say I’ve found, known sometimes sweeter,
I’m no less yours. In need, Your Servant. (The Blue Castrato, 5.11-14)

The castrato is both sorry and yet still defensive of his known "sweets." Phillips, having done a good job of portraying the persona’s conflict, I suspect, nonetheless sees nothing wrong with such desires. As a traditional Christian, I do (cf. Romans 1:18ff.). Yet I am not tempted by Phillips’ work to change my stance. If anything, I stress for myself what I believe and why.

Because of a world with human poems that are going to discuss. even evince, human sin, we need to learn to carefully draw out the good from the bad in a work; there may be things we can approve, even if we disapprove of others. Indeed, we should expect to. God has placed general knowledge of himself and his truth throughout creation, yet in every case, in every culture, and in every person, that knowledge has been distorted somewhat. We should we beware of approaching the task of interpretation too simply. Isaiah 5:20-23 warns us, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." Making distinctions within a work of literature calls for a sense of balance, even good taste. How do we make the most out of drawing out the pure and the good?

First, we should approach a text contextually. For example, in Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, the lengths that King Priam goes to recover his dead son Hector's body might seem excessive unless we remember that in Homer's worldview, Hector's soul will not find rest unless his body is properly buried. Hector himself begs Achilles in battle:

[. . .] I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents—
don’t let the dogs devour me by Argive ships!
Wait, take the princely ransom of bronze and gold,
the gifts my father and noble mother will give you—
but give my body to friends to carry home again,
so Trojan men and Trojan women can do me honor
with fitting rites of fire once I am dead. (22.399-405)

Thinking contextually doesn't mean that we hold all values relative to one another; however, it does suggest that we should consider the social situation and mores that frame an action or thought. By doing so we better recognize what Priam's motivations and Hector’s fears are.

Likewise, we should encounter a text dramatically. In his years as a pastor, Eugene Peterson often turned to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky in order to recover the importance of his parishioners: "In the flatness and boredom [of suburbia] I lost respect for these anemic lives. [. . .] Dostoevsky made them appear large again, vast in their aspirations, their sins, their glories. [. . .] I discovered tragic plots and comic episodes, works-in-progress all around me. [. . .] There were no ordinary people" (24). To think dramatically is to recognize the shape of a life, to look at its struggle over the course of a story's plot. We celebrate a character's redemption or mourn her fall because we have listened to the arch of her story. In Sydney Lea’s "The Blainville Testament," an old lawyer recalls a supposed murder several years past in which a dead cow choaked on an apple is dumped onto a young worker named Mark:

The service that at last can fall to me
is letting Billy tell us his own version.
No one, while he lived, would ever ask it
face to face of him. And I’ve suppressed it
all these years, "A lawyer’s sworn to silence,"
so I’d claim (my little irony). (123-128)

And we learn eventually that the 79-year-old Billy had to leave his friend Mark trapped under a cow while he walked several miles to tell someone. Billy eventually falls asleep and awakens to a strange sort of lapsarian knowledge:

                   [. . ."] And so I should have died
out by that tree, for that was Mark would live.
And that way, when his brothers came to fetch him,

his blood would jump back in him from the ground,
and Elsie’s cow would fly clean up to heaven,
and Elsie’s fence would always be tight-strung,
and that chocker apple never have grown,
because old Fields had gone before his time,
and Blainville would be better than it was—

the sheep would all come back and browse the hills,
the big barns would still be up and plumb,
ther’d be a foot of soil on every pasture,
and no one would go marching off to war,
and all our men and women would love forever. . ." (312-325)

Billy’s grief and loss is far greater set against the town’s gossip and the lawyer’s secret about Billy falling asleep on the way for help. But we cannot really understand Billly until this revealing speech.

We also need to reflect on a text realistically. Theologian William Lynch maintains that a true literary and theistic interpretation practices the "analogical imagination." An analogy seeks to draw out a connection between two things. Thus, one can draw an analogy between two historical eras, two cultures, or between two figurative examples. Lynch maintains that a clear analogy should be drawn between the actual world and the fictional one. Reality is messy. It is complicated, even contradictory. A work of fiction or poetry that tries to suppress part of this reality ends up being flat and one-sided. Quite often, it is worse: it distorts the truth of our world. The best images are ones that practice a "thickness" of description. If they offer one portrait of reality, they also tend to connect us to other portraits that round out a true sense of how things are. No person is perfect, nor is any human situation free from weakness and failure. Yet neither is anyone all bad. To believe so is to ignore the image of God that all humans share (Bednar 57-68). Sin should be written about. If it isn’t, we are offering a lie about the world. We are claiming things to be one way when they are another.

[Sin] Next ]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding