Ephesians 2:8-9 is a passage I have often turned to for a tight summary of the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works so that no one may boast.” What I love about these two verses is that they explain why we need to be saved by faith and not works: so that no one may boast. When Christians are prideful about their salvation, that means it hasn’t worked. But it’s actually the verse after these two that God has really tattooed on my heart in the last year.
The NRSV rendering of Ephesians 2:10 is this: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The translation is deceptive. The grammatically awkward
“what he has made us” is actually a single word in Greek: poiema. It is the root word for our word “poetry,” though in Greek it refers to an artistic creation in general rather than just a combination of words. Still, I see no reason not to translate this verse to say that we are God’s poetry.
I think that it helps correct the demise of the beautiful in Western modern Christianity to remember that God is every bit as much a poet as He is a judge, king, father, etc. When we talk about the glory of God without any concept of God as an artist, then all too often end up with an utterly impoverished vision of glory as aesthetically indifferent power and terror: God as the presiding fuehrer at the 1932 Olympic Games. God isn’t some power-drunk dictator; God is a wild, beautiful artist who gets downright giddy about His human poetry when it flows the way He intended.
Now if we put Ephesians 2:10 in context with the salvation by grace / justification by faith in verses 8-9, then what we end up with is the assertion that we are God’s poetry, rather than God’s poets. Part of our function as His poetry is to be poets, but we are only poets insofar as we are poetry first. Here’s how I put it in my spoken word piece for Wild Goose this year (if it’s not too pretentious to quote yourself):
You cannot be your own source. Your beauty is a gift from beyond. You are an icon that glows brighter and brighter the more you are emptied of all except for the fullness of the light and breath of the source. Make yourself an instrument of light; let it breathe you into the song that you were made to dance. To obey the light is to be enlightened; to obey the breath is to be inspired.
I am convinced that true inspiration, which is the source of all genuine art, is always a gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s what inspiration means: breathed into. That’s the logic of Ephesians 2:8-10: unless it’s a gift from above, it’s not true poetry. All art that humans produce is a mix of spirit and flesh. Sometimes the need to be ironic or crude or trendy tremendously overshadows the kernel of truth being expressed aesthetically by a work of art, but I’m not sure I’m willing to believe that any art is so utterly cynical and Warhol-ish that it is bereft of inspiration.
Here’s the other thing: to live as a Christian and as an artist is not an oxymoron. The degree to which Christianity has become
unimaginative and uninspired in Western modernity is the degree to which it has lost its soul. Our vocation as God’s poetry is to be beautiful. When we apply this vocation to our search for truth and our quest to be disciples, it means that privileging logic and “correctness” above all else is inadequate. Just because beauty cannot be pinned down to a logical formula does not mean that it isn’t a critically important criterion of truth. It’s reasonable to ask, for example, whether there is a way to describe a scriptural truth about God that is more beautiful than how we’ve been describing it; that isn’t merely “sugarcoating the gospel”or “being subjective.” There is an objective standard of beauty; the wonderful (and for some people infuriating) thing about it is that it is completely inaccessible to our deductive reason.
The other thing about being God’s poetry is that God doesn’t only write one poem. He has only one Word, which is why Ephesians 2:10 says we are “created in Christ Jesus,” but this Word is intended to be refracted through an infinite pattern of different identities. I am the poem of God that has been tattooed primarily with 1 Corinthians 1:28, Matthew 9:13, John 1:5, Psalm 119:113, and Ephesians 2:10.
That is the part I have been given to sing, and it certainly will continue to evolve. But any quest to find the “right” five most important verses in the Bible or even the one “real” gospel is completely misguided. We are all differentparts in an orchestra. My duty is to be an instrument blown into by God to play the notes He has carved into my heart. I will continue to cry out for the despised ones, even those whose three syllable humanity is incomprehensible to a religious tradition that has only known people in two syllables; I will continue to proclaim that mercy is the goal of all Christian discipleship and holiness and not God’s capricious taste for sacrifice and obedience for obedience’s sake; I will continue to defend the dignity of the beautiful Poet whose power takes the deceptively weak form of light and whose law does not look like an ugly concrete building filled with gavels and chains and small rooms with bars and locked doors, but rather the perfect song that His creation sings more radiantly to us the more our hearts have been breathed into and enlightened.
As a poem of God, it is not my duty to convert you to the poem He is writing me to be; it is rather my duty to help you discover how to listen and become your own perfect instrument of the Light and Breath of the Source of everything.