A poem about pornography and another about rape – not exactly your usual Kerux fare. Somehow, pastoral odes and free-verse reflections on mundanity’s beauty seem more attuned to a seminary journal. However, upon reading these two poems, the editors of Kerux found themselves intrigued. Despite their reservations, perhaps, just maybe, these poems could edify the Kingdom of God? This proposition begs a question though: does art that contemplates the grotesque have a place within the church?
To assist our inquest, let us image ourselves wandering the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. After a quick conversation with a docent, two glances at the technicolored map, and a brief sojourn through the Pre-Raphaelite wing, we soon discover the galleries of the Old Masters. Allegories with Grecian gods and studies of denuded mistresses adorn the walls, but so too do numerous religious works. Rembrandts and del Caravaggios loom, their massive canvases overhead – their intensity arresting us. Elsewhere, expert brushstrokes capture an archangel’s athletic physique or the gentleness of Mary’s gaze, but then others portray repulsive deeds. There’s no simple way around it: Judith severing the head of Holofernes is a violent image. For all its saintly grace, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian still depicts a young man riddled like a pincushion with arrows. Our stomachs turn a little, and yet, centuries of faithful Christ-followers have found these paintings beneficial when reflecting upon our Savior. Should this surprise us?
The Bible, while containing the grand narrative of Christ’s redemptive work for all creation, also catalogues a compendium of incredibly graphic and violent tales. For every feeding of the five thousand, at least a dozen stories exist like those of Jael driving in the skull of Sisera with a tent-pike, the repeated rape and subsequent mutilation of the Levite’s concubine, or Herod’s teenage daughter receiving the gore-smattered head of John the Baptist on a silver plate. Our holy book describes these revoltingly heinous events under the assumption that they can somehow nurture our faith, and why shouldn’t they? We live in a depraved world. Yes, Christ came to redeem what he once called “good,” but such a reality does not deny the current brokenness of God’s creation. If art, like Scripture, serves to point us toward truth, then shouldn’t we also expect it to acknowledge depravity?
Now I do not claim any particular merit for the following poems. Defending the art itself is not my aim here. Although not on par with Rembrandt or Scripture, they have their strengths and weaknesses, and a critical read will reveal both. However, I do desire to defend that such art has a place within the church and can be used to edify the Kingdom of God. To that end, the following poems are presented.
Editor’s Note: The following poems were commissioned by Kerux for its Sex + Relationships issue.
The quarter-sized mauve color-shift of her nipple,
a small bump of skin, released endorphins
into his brain as he sat at his computer
to watch her undress; the stress of his day
slipping away with each strap of her bra.
The pressures to perform, to meet expectations,
to be the man whom someone might call “good,”
loosened their grip on his weary conscience
as each garment fell off, her supple bosom
soothing these anxious murmurs in his thoughts
while she also excited his free-will.
Her video let him control his desires,
mouse-clicks starting and stopping her display
before he selected a brunette he noticed
because she reminded of a former lover.
Here, no effort required, he felt accepted
by these girls who feigned trust for his pleasure
and thrilled with delusions of agency,
indulging he knew how to determine what’s best
despite his actions showing otherwise
– until he started to sense this high was a lie
that teased his heart it could be its own god:
an idol that bound him from loving whom he should.
“For I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”
So how did she relinquish the tension
in her thighs, Bathsheba, for this her second time
with David, her being keeping knowledge
of that first night his eye caught her bathing,
presuming his crown entitled him to command
the lackey arms of unquestioning guards
to pound upon her door and take her from her home,
still wet and barely covered by her robes,
battered by a silent barrage of smirks?
Time had not expunged her visceral sense:
the coldness of the air that cut her pauper’s street,
the darkness of the room where, alone, they thrust her,
the softness of the linens on the royal bed,
and the featureless silhouette, her king,
before his throbbing heat pierced her desperate prayers.
No, just as the protest of her repulsing palms
failed to push away his violation
of both her self and his authority;
as ghostly fingerprints lingered upon her breasts
and water failed to wash away his seed;
as her tongue’s last attempt to wrestle free control
The seed of your deed grows inside my belly
only continued to sprout new shoots of evil;
as the righteous Uriah harbored more concern
for solidarity with his fellow soldiers
than with attending to his wife’s veiled needs;
as David again hid behind his position
and ordered her husband’s companions
to abandon their friend to the slaughter;
as the life within her womb came to term, then died;
so too she was impotent to balm all these wounds.
How could she trust the man who started this?
How could she open her life to his heart?
Could she, unless some outside force then worked
through a prophet’s voice within David’s ears,
changing the whole nature of his person
as a parable’s plot caught his conscience,
causing birth-pangs in his soul as he felt
the warming illusion of his pride flush away
like the afterbirth of the dead conceived?
God’s anointing didn’t make David special:
the king needing to listen, not decree, for the first time
to learn why this woman shrunk at his touch,
why she grimaced as his fingers neared her face,
and why his muscles only aroused her horror
as his public confession, honest, raped her still
until no other Israelite daughter
desired her bed – both stripped of their glory.
How could he even enter her, heal her,
unless, like virgins, they now experience grace;
its intimacy yielding the wisest of kings
who could speak to both despair and eros?
Only then could their union, soiled, blossom into Christ’s vine.
Nathaniel A. Schmidt is currently studying for his M.Div. at Calvin Theological Seminary. His first collection of poems, An Evensong, is available from Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock.