Sunday, April 12, 2009

Let Us Not Mock God With Metaphor


By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

From Updike, John. "Telephone Poles and Other Poems" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,1961).

I love Updike's beautiful poem, especially his sense of the literal nature of Christ's resurrection and the miracles that accompanied it, reflected in phrases like "weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair" (Call me a nerd; a reference to Max Planck in an Easter poem made me grin). I have appreciated the opportunity I have had this semester to visit the places where the stories of the scriptures occurred, and to become acquainted with the real places and real people involved in the stories I have long loved. Now these places are real to me--full of meaning, their dust blowing in my eyes and their birds chirping in my ears, their water lapping at my feet and their trees shading my face, their cool stones giving me a refuge and standing as a monument against time.

The scriptures are about us, it is true, but there is another side to the coin. The scriptures are about people who were very different from us, who lived in places far from our homes. They are beautiful metaphors, but they are not just metaphors, not just morality plays. They are also wonderfully literal explorations of the loves of real people, who lived in real places, felt real emotions, and had real experiences with the divine.

My testimony is of the literal reality of the scriptural accounts of the life of Christ. I know He was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and worshipped by shepherds. I know He fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. I know He healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, and raised the dead. I know He suffered in Gethsemane, was crucified on a tree, died, was buried, and literally rose again the third day. I know He stands today at the right hand of the Father, and He will literally come again to judge the living and the dead.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, for He literally lives.


  1. Great poem. I, too, appreciate the nerdness of the mention of Planck's quanta. :)
    God is real, whether we consent to it or not. Amen to that.

  2. One reason I read your blog regularly and take time to comment from time to time is because your rhetoric is so frank, hard-edged, unadorned with metaphor and analogy. One of my big complaints about my co-religionists (and maybe of all religious people, I don't know) is the weak-kneed insistence on using metaphor, analogy, etc., to discourse about the Gospel and about God. When a good man, a bishop, all arrayed in white shirt and shaven chin, stands at the pulpit, and proceeds to do a third-rate Neil A Maxwell routine, I cringe. The cliched sermon is enough to make anyone wish he was Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, anything, if he can only escape the unexamined faith. So, even though your writing is annoyingly implacable at times, I will continue to read along, if you don't mind. I like a dose of clarity now and then.

  3. As much as I love poetry and Updike, for some reason I had never read this poem. Thanks for posting it, and thanks for your wise words.