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Saturday, January 30, 2010

New books by friends, 2: "The Teaching of the Twelve," "A Syllable of Water"

Tony Jones, The Teaching of the 12 (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2009)
A Syllable of Water, Emilie Griffin, Editor (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008)

The Didache is a curious little document that reflects the workings of a young church innocent of the teachings of St. Paul and with its eye on right practice, and Tony Jones has mulled over this work and considered how it might relate to the house-church movement. His The Teaching of the 12: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community seems a well-researched—that is, a book based on scholarship and based on face-to-face examination of what the Didache can mean to a specific group of people who meet in homes and public spaces in small groups, seeking to return to the days and ways of the primitive church—investigation of the early Christian era.
The simplicity of the Didache is appealing: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death! And there is a great difference between the two ways. The way of life is this: First, you shall love God who made you. And second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.” These words sound like the Shema, and there are other elements that sound like the Sermon on the Mount. But there is much in the Didache that’s a bit startling. “My child, don’t observe omens, since it leads to idolatry. Don’t be an enchanter, or an astrologer, or a purifier, or be willing to see or hear about these things . . .” The sections on the Eucharist don’t even mention the sacrifice of Christ but focus on the idea of the fruit of the vine of David and the gathering together of the church. The unforgiveable sin (always a special interest to a lover of Hawthorne!) proves to be this: that one judges a prophet who speaks in the Spirit. Visiting prophets who want to stay should have a craft and earn their bread. One is to fast as well as pray for one’s enemies, for injustice.

Some of the interest in all this is the way that Tony Jones imagines the community that might have used this and considers what is forbidden, setting it against established culture ways of Roman, Greek, and Jew—sex ways, marriage ways, child-rearing ways. An often-implicit contrast with our own culture ways is clear, as well as the reasons that the Missourians who call themselves the Cymbrogi long for the simplicity of practice, the simplicity of love that was a hallmark of the people who used the Didache.

While much of the Didache is straightforward and bent toward an apprenticeship in how to live, there are grace notes of beauty—the church is gathered from the four winds, the broken bread is scattered over the hills and brought together into one. Love is the rule of life.

Lil Copan of Paraclete sent me Tony’s new book; she also sent along a copy of A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art. I only know one of the writers in this book—Doris Betts, novelist and short story writer—and I am enjoying meeting the others, all members of the The Chrysostom Society. It’s one of those books to read slowly in ruminant fashion.

My favorite essay so far is by the poet Scott Cairns, whose poems I have enjoyed for some years. His contribution is “A Troubled and Troubling Mirror: On Poetry,” which I like very much for the somewhat self-indulgent reason that I see some of my own thoughts returned to me in fresh clothing stitched up by Scott Cairns. It would be a grand essay for any young poet to read, but I found it quite interesting even though I am no longer a young poet.

Here are a few of my favorite lines from Cairns:
1. Poems are, instead, about language, and about how language—when we learn to trust it—is able to operate as a way of knowing.
2. What a poem is finally about cannot be understood to have preceded the actual making of the poem.
3. …real art is, for the artist, far less referential than it is generative.
4. When we’re talking about poetry, however, success lies primarily in the opacity of the language, the ability of the words to draw attention to their own cobbled densities, and to invite the reader to encounter his or her own reflection in their surfaces.
5. The degree to which a fiction, an essay, a drama obtains the poetic is also the degree to which it is literary.
6. Also, a great many contemporary texts—posing as poems—are more correctly understood to be verse essays, verse anecdotes, verse declarations, verse gripes.

Aren’t those good? What a simple, clear definition of “the literary.” And how pleasing that a poem is regarded as a realm of experience—new, not recapitulated—and a place where the reader will have new experience and discoveries.

There is much more in the essay, and more in the others of A Syllable of Water. In Emilie Griffin’s words, “Our best experiences with literature and the arts are contemplative, a union of ourselves with the beauty before us.”


  1. Marly, thanks for the recommendations. Tony Jones always has something new going on. How interesting that someone whom I knew as an authority on postmodern Christianity is turning with such care to past Christian practices. I also always enjoy your insights about poetry. Whenever I wonder why I do such a frivolous thing as poetry, I need only turn to your writing, in whatever form.

  2. Deb,

    Tony must have been hyperactive as a child! It would be interesting to talk to his mother... He has a formidable ability to do many things at once.

    Poetry is rather frivolous compared to, say, digging ditches or performing a spinal tap on a feverish child, but I have at various points in my life found it to be essential for survival on planet Earth.

  3. Forgive me for contacting you this way, but I've been trying to find an email address and failed. One of your poems has been nominated for a 2010 Rhysling Award and I need to send you a formal request for permission to reprint the poem.

    Could you email me at rhysling2010 at gmail dot com?

    Thank you.

  4. Hi Marly. Interesting stuff. The passage you quote does indeed sound like the Shema, and other parts echo parts of the Torah, in different words. Clearly, these were people who converted from Judaism, probably quite recently. I don't know the period he is talking about, but that's what it sounds like.
    Considering the Judaism of the Temple periods, the one described in Leviticus and Numbers, the small group religion described here would be appealing to those who found the hierarchies of Temple Judaism alienating and inappropriately political and the sacrifices brutal and disgusting.
    RE: the rules on poetry, they are very wise, and indeed, even an old poet like myself can learn something from them.
    As for what is a useful vocation on this planet, I don't worry about it. I do what I'm meant to do, and trust that it will be of some use to someone. Of course, the fact that I teach is already somewhat useful, or so my students tell me.

  5. Jaime,

    I wrote you, but if you didn't get it, please leave me another note!


    The Didache is believed to have been written about the same time as the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, usually dated 60-110) so it's very early.

    Tony's take: "Second, remember to whom the Didache was written, and try to read it from their perspective. To the Didache's original readers, Jesus' death and resurrection was within recent history--even memory. They were converts to Christianity, either from Judaism or from Roman paganism. And, most significantly, remember that those readers didn't have the Bible as we know it; they knew the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), but much of the New Testament had not yet been written--the stories that we know from the New Testament, they knew because they had been passed by word of mouth from town to town."

    Also: "In AD 70 or AD 110, Christianity really wasn't the Christianity that we know today. First, it was primarily considered a sect of Judaism. Jesus had been called a rabbi during his life, as we frequently read in the Gospels. Those who continued to follow his teachings, and to believe in his messiahship, after his death and resurrection were called 'followers of the Way' or 'Nazarenes' (since Jesus was from Nazareth) in the early days; in the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that followers in Antioch--near the Didache community--were the first to be called 'Christians.'"

    Tony talks quite a bit about the fuzziness between Christianity and Judaism in the early days, so what you say is congenial with what he says.

    Hey, doing what you're meant to do is vocation! Right? Mother, daughter, writer, teacher. That's a lot.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.