Today I’m pleased to begin a new blog series in which I plan to share one poem or article from my mother, Elaine Gingrich, each month.
Mom has been a life-long amateur wordsmith. She loves literature, especially poetry, and has spent many more hours enjoying literary arts than this English Literature graduate ever has or is likely to. I have a fond memory of Mom joining me in class for a day, meeting my Victorian literature professor, and then writing a poem based on the experience in amazing imitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to the delight of student and professor alike.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I hope to share that poem another day. For today I’d like to share a more ordinary poem, one neither too complex nor too simple, one that most of you should enjoy.
Why else have I chosen this poem? I think “Two Trees” hints at Mom’s way of drawing spiritual analogies from the world of nature–although in this case she is following analogies prepared in Scripture. Sometimes she draws more directly from the world of nature outside her door in Parry Sound, Ontario. I also thought I’d share this poem now because its themes overlap with some posts I’ve been sharing recently on original sin.
Before I scare you with visions of abstract theological unknowables, here is Mom’s poem. Enjoy!
In the center of a garden stood a tree to make one wise,
Dripping fruit ripe-sweet for eating and most pleasing to the eyes.
Eve reached out to pluck the knowledge in the fruit, twice bittersweet.
She would know both good and evil. She would take the risk and eat.
“You shall be as gods,” the promise of the serpent taunted her
As she hid from God with Adam, His displeasure to defer.
Plagued by thoughts of guilt and evil, savouring things of Satan’s sphere,
Less a god and more a devil, trading innocence for fear.
This can be no godly wisdom, this confusion, grief and strife.
Earthly, sensual and devilish–bringing death instead of life.
Sorry wisdom that she tasted, sorry reaping to live by.
For this tree of bitter knowledge was a tree to make one die.
Near a garden on a hillside stood a tree to make one good.
Here the apple of God’s eye was nailed and Calvary’s tree dripped blood.
From this wine rough-crushed and scarlet came the only antidote
For the ancient cursed enlightenment Eve’s awful morsel wrote
On each cell of mind and body. This rare blood God sacrificed
Gives the damaged human seeker the transcendent mind of Christ!
Free to know the pure and lovely, yet untainted by the sin,
All our world becomes God’s garden, Satan banished in chagrin.
Truly this is godly wisdom–hating evil, loving good.
Fellowship with God restored and peaceful living understood.
Sweetest fruit man ever tasted, gladdest wisdom time could give.
For this tree of sacred suffering was a tree to make one live.
— Elaine Gingrich, December 4, 1998
“Poetry writing has been one of the avenues God has given me to learn to know Him better. My deepest desire is to honour Him with everything I write, and to live what I have learned from Him.” — Elaine Gingrich
A Three-Part Postscript
First, some technical details.
- Please don’t republish or repost Mom’s writings without asking permission. Links to this page are always most welcome, as is printing off a copy for a friend.
- If you want to thank Mom for her poem, you can leave a comment here, message her via Facebook (if you are her friend) or email her at .
- I’ve retained Mom’s Canadian spelling. So “savouring ” is not a spelling error.
Second, some reflections on “Two Trees.”
I like the way this poem builds on nature imagery found in the Bible, and how the second stanza builds on the imagery of the first stanza. For example, compare the opening lines of each stanza: “In the center of a garden stood a tree to make one wise” becomes “Near a garden on a hillside stood a tree to make one good.” Here we have Eden versus the garden of Gethsemane; a tree in the middle of the garden versus one near a garden (but banished outside); a tree to make one wise versus a tree to make one good. This garden imagery reappears later in the second stanza, in one of my favorite lines of the poem: “All our world becomes God’s garden.” This is Eden turned into New Earth via Gethsemane. Only God!
Two themes central to this poem are the themes of goodness/evil and of wisdom. As I trace these themes through the poem, beginning with the opening lines of each stanza (“a tree to make one wise/good”), this paradoxical thought arises: If you make wisdom your primary goal (“a tree to make one wise”), you probably won’t end up either wise or good. But if you hunger and thirst above all to be made good (“a tree to make one good”), then you will gain both goodness and wisdom. And as the final lines of each stanza show, lusting for wisdom leads to death, while hungering for goodness leads to life. Ponder that for moral formation.
My only theological complaint about this poem is that I think Adam gets off too easily! 🙂 But perhaps that’s a gracious result of the fact that the author is female.
There is much more happening in this poem, both theologically and literarily. What do you see? Enjoy the craft and worship the Christ!
Third, a question: Why share poetry on a blog about biblical interpretation?
Here are several answers:
- This blog features biblical interpretation, but is also interested in other kinds of exploration. Remember my three-part website vision (see here): “Exegesis, Ecclesiology, and Exploration.”
- Poetry underlines the necessity of the interpretive task. Some of us like to think that we can just read the Bible without worrying about interpretation. But almost no one thinks this of a poem. Rather, some of us rather dislike poetry for this very reason: it demands interpretation. Poems are often rather cryptic. The formal constraints of poetry (such as meter and rhyming patterns) tend to leave little room for superfluous, explanatory sentences or footnotes. These formal constraints force poets to choose words consciously and purposefully. Readers, in turn, are forced to slow down their reading in order to trace or produce meaning.
- Poetry trains readers in the interpretive task. Slow reading helps readers ask “Why this word and not some other?” In bad poetry the answer too often is merely “Because it rhymes!” In good poetry–poetry where the author masters the form rather than the form mastering the author–or, better, poetry where the author has learned to sing in the key of her chosen form–the answers to “Why this word and not another?” are more profound. But, quite apart from the question of how profound the answers will be, the mere asking of the question trains readers to ponder authorial intent. What did the poet mean by this sentence? The more cryptic the sentence, the more we wish the author were at our side to explain it. But the author is not present. So, in the absence of the author, we are forced to try to discover authorial intent through the words on the page. Now, with biblical interpretation there is a crucial difference: For the Spirit-filled believer, the divine Author is present. But (a) the human author is not, and we must not overlook the significance of human participation in the writing of Scripture, (b) words are still a primary–I would argue the primary–way in which God speaks to us, and (c) even with the Spirit’s presence to guide biblical interpretation and speak fresh words, many Christians seem to be in dire need of reminders to actively seek Authorial intent.
So, to underscore an important point and bring this to a close: Reading poetry (wrestling it, riding it, meditating on it, singing it) can help us become better readers. And, all else being even, better readers are usually better Bible readers, too.
What do you think? Share your comments below!