Monday, January 20, 2014

Looking for the Kingdom Coming Down: The Alternative Reality of the Poet-Prophet

by Hannah Paasch

I was driving full-speed on an empty desert freeway, tumbling words & melodies over & backwards in my head and over my tongue like so many gathered crystals. But all of my hoarded ideas & thoughts were already smooth and clean and sparkling, sharp edges & rivets worn into careful, polished submission - the way that I had always been taught to talk to God; the way that I had been told He talked to me. It was all so neat tidy and well-groomed and careful. There was no fear, no reverence, no passion. There was no tremble. Every thought was safe and worn; transactional and tame.

Angrily I tossed my whole virtual scrap-pile of neat turns-of-phrases and swept them right out the doorway. I decided I’d rather be hungry than full & confused.

I grew up on the vague but hopeful imaginings of Jon Foreman and his “kingdom coming down” - every Switchfoot album released until that point, I had pored over & emotionally dog-eared until they were old & dear friends. They had fueled my hunger; my search for honest, sharp-edged, painful truth - to understand the world as it really was, in order to be able to imagine the world as it could be redeemed. And yet, I realized in that moment that I’d never learned how to talk about God in words that were my own. Worship songs and love songs were the only thing language I had been equipped to spew out, along with every other lyricist who ever lyricized. I love you. You love me. Forget me not.

Forget it.

And then, in a voice that was not my own, they began to trickle in - slowly, decisively, past the lazy battle lines drawn by the insipid but persevering forces of distraction & fear, bringing with them streams of life and relief:

Daughter, do not hide.
You would see you are whole if you stepped into the light.

It was then that I realized that my calling as a writer was not to say what everyone else would; but rather to listen for the words that everyone else likely would not listen for.

Art is not only meant to portray things as they are, but also to imagine things as they could be - and it is my firm belief that behind every activist, there was a poet who first got them dreaming. I'll never forget the first time I read Longfellow's 'Psalm of Life' - and it suddenly occurred to me that there was life beyond the deep paralysis of depression and hopelessness in which I found myself.

Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal - 
'Dust thou art, to dust returnest' was not spoken of the soul.'

With all the clamor of Internet-isms & well-meaning critiques devolving into full-blown character attacks, I have to believe that there are other ways to ignite the oh-so-gradual fires of change, restoration, & redemption in society and culture; I have to believe that the tools given to those imagining better futures are more varied than we tend to allow.

Walter Brueggemann says, 'It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures.' It would seem that prophecy is not for prose alone! Toward that end, I asked a couple poet-prophets I know to tell me how their prophetic voices & their individual creative processes work together.

James McCalkins is J. Poetic, an up-and-coming spoken word poet fresh off an unexpected win at the Justice Conference poetry slam, an event that awakened him to the possibility that art could actually be a lifetime pursuit. While his love for hip-hop & making beats had always been a passion he shrugged off as a hobby, he hopped on that plane and flew to Philadelphia. Suddenly, the call of the Spirit was finally too distinct to be ignored.

“I always thought I had to do something more ‘spiritual’, and that being an artist wasn’t ‘picking up my cross’,” James says now, remembering what it felt like to try & earn God’s acceptance, as if that was, somehow, something God required. When he finally picked up his beats & his pen again, he found his calling as both a poet and a prophet. It’s rare to find a blend of faith and activism that plays well with art, but James seems to be well on his way to discovering that balance.

“I believe a prophet was and is someone who proclaims a reality deeper than themselves, as well as points to the Creator of reality regardless of the social or physical consequences,” he says, when asked what speaking into culture looks like from where he sits. “[The prophet] sees a situation outside of the box, or outside of the majority opinion, and tries to help others see that reality,” he asserts, adding, with characteristic self-effacing humility, “Whether or not I have a prophetic voice, I have no idea.”

He affirms that it can be hard to act on the same directives of active love in community that he upholds in his poems, and admits that he’s walking the same dark, barely perceptible pathway toward the Kingdom that his listeners are.

J. Poetic is releasing a full-length album entitled Broken Restored later this year, featuring James’s unique voice (Go check him out on YouTube). Look for albums & singles on Noisetrade.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, a wild-eyed, joyful, loud-mouthed firebrand of a girl has been gaining traction as a performance poet increasingly well-known among evangelical circles, rippling out from Moody Bible Institute where she first realized she could speak her written words aloud & people would like it. Emily Joy Allison studied philosophical theology at Moody - because knowing all the things was more important to her than career marketability. From a little poetry club formed by four unlikely friends (the Friday Night Table also boasted Micah Bournes, another on-the-rise performance poet in evangelical circles) that challenged her to get herself up on that coffee-shop stage, Dichotomized was born. The album is a cry to a God who is not always answering, but always listening, the kind of God you can beat your head against & be held by when your fight gives out.

You can find Emily Joy's work at, & can (& most certainly should) purchase her album Dichotomized right there as well, for free or a million dollars, depending on how generous you're feeling.

What James & Emily agree on - indeed, almost to the point of answering identically - is that Christians notoriously produce bad art.  You try and write positive, encouraging songs that listeners pretend to need, while pretending yourself that you're the kind of person who could truthfully write them. “The most powerful moment of writing for me is the moment of solidarity. What I want people to take away is the ‘Me too’,” Allison writes. That kind of writing requires a level of vulnerability that most lyricists - and I would venture to say, especially operating within the CCM industry - have not yet had the courage to tap into.

“If one pays close enough attention to my poems, (“Beloved” or “Dichotomized”, for example) there are definitely things I am attacking in each of them,” Emily explains. “Part of your job is to equip people with the language to describe what they’re already experiencing.”

Of course, telling the truth is not always a great way of making friends. “I feel like I say a lot of offensive things,” Allison admits. “But the difference between having a prophetic voice and being a jerk is saying offensive things for the purpose of hope and healing and bringing people out of their apathy. You kinda have to offend people, either way. Why and how makes a big difference.”

Allison writes a good deal about her experiences in Christian dating culture, which misadventures, coupled with her probing mind and theological interests, ended up catalyzing a good deal of her thought on the gratuitous appropriation of misogyny and patriarchy within the church. One of the poems on her yet-to-be-released sophomore album is titled "You're not a princess," dismantling many of the lies that Christian culture has used to indoctrinate young women of the millennial generation. “And then no conservative churches will ever want to hire me and I will be poor!” she exclaims, with a bit of light-hearted mischief.

What we often fail to realize is that our artists and poets carry with them the calling to be watchmen on our walls; seeing and discerning the cracks in our pavement long before we come upon them in our trudging. They fulfill a role of bridging culture as it stands with culture as it should be, functioning within its fortresses while still able to look out on the horizon beyond. They are the awareness-raisers; the tour guides; the Calebs and Joshuas who climb up over the hill & return to tell us, with fire in their eyes, that the land can indeed be taken.

Those who heed their calling as prophets alert us to storms ahead; wars we are about to wage; sunsets we were too busy to notice. In the spirit of the sorrowing Isaiah, they warn us to turn aside from the path we have chosen, comfortably careening toward disaster, reminding us that all is not how it could be - that redemption is real and it is imminent. Imbued with the same grieving love the Spirit-God who first stepped into the Garden to say, “My children! What have you done?”, they remind us to grieve & to turn away from the cesspools of self-absorption in which we wallow and urge us, prod us out of our misery & into the hard work of joy. Planting in our minds dreams of alternative realities to be imagined and created, they are the unassuming signs we are always asking God to write on the sky. They are the worn & withered guideposts along this dark, narrow, barely perceptible pathway toward the Kingdom & glory.

All creation is pregnant with the redemption that is to come if we are but willing to listen. 

Hannah Paasch was raised on Jesus and adventure. She is a self-styled storyteller, aspiring songwriter, bridge-builder, and bridge-destroyer, as the situation at hand would dictate. You can follow her on Twitter @thesettingsun07 and read more of her writing at her blog.

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