Songs of the Self

What do Shane Claiborne and Walt Whitman have in common?  Very little, I suppose.  But they intersect in my mind’s work this week.  Claiborne recently spoke at Bethany Theological Seminary where I am taking a class called Theopoetics.  Enter Whitman.  Lauded by all the leading thinkers and writers in the field of theopoetics, old Walt, named the first theopoet, and apparently solely responsible for the flowering of American poetry, is sacrosanct.  For he is the “poet of the Body” and the “poet of the Soul”, of the profane and the sacred, binding up the things of imagination and God and this world, together.  The discussion in class was needling me.  The lines of Song of Myself were coming back to me from college, words when first experienced made me suspicious; made me ask, is this marvelous–or insanely cocky?

Have you read “Song of Myself” lately?  Read it again, and remember, marvel at its over-indulgence, it’s “urge” and “aroma finer than prayer.” It’s the poem that is unapologetic in its desire, its worship of the Self, and the body, and its libidinous arc just keeps going and going and going, as the poem does.  “Urge and urge and urge,” Whitman writes, “always the procreant urge of the world”.


But this arc that just keeps going is a myth, a delusion.  It’s of the same mythology that saw the American West as empty land to be conquered and filled with settlers looking for gold. The idea that Whitman–and theopoetics as well–demonstrates a re-creative “new”, a rebellion against orthodoxy that charts new territory upon new territory, that is ever-evolving and ever throwing out the old, was striking me as incredibly arrogant, and, incredibly male in its orientation. I suddenly was wondering why we weren’t talking about Emily Dickinson.

Back to Shane Claiborne.  Like my suspicion of Whitman’s effusiveness, there’s something about calling oneself an “ordinary radical” that makes me uneasy. There’s something about Claiborne that is just trying too hard.  Is it his evangelical zeal that makes me uncomfortable? Maybe. It’s something about image-creation, self-crafting, or shaping oneself to fit a certain idea, a certain storyline that says, “we are doing things differently”, “we are un-orthodox”–meaning, we are the real Christians?

Just because you say you are radical, just because you make a show of it, does not mean that: 1) you are actually doing something new;  and 2) you are not beholden to your own embedded theology.  In my own wrestling with whether to leave the church or not, I have decided that staying will require that I be someone who confronts and challenges harmful theology, who pushes the church to be a voice of sanity and justice in the world, someone who agitates for a church that can look inward at its own failings, and grow and change.  Is this someone who is a radical? A subversive?  I think so.  But that’s not the point.

Nothing is new.  We are in conversation with everything previous to us.  John Caputo, in a chapter called “Theopoetics as the Insistence of a Radical Theology” in his book, The Insistence of God writes that the seeds of radical theology are already part of existing, confessional theology, that it is “something unknown in what we know, something already stirring in our restless hearts.”  The point is not to be radical, or arrogant enough to think we are charting new territory, or that we somehow escape our history or that we can opt out of our current systemic problems; the point is to see what is stirring in our own restless hearts, and engage.

I am not ranting against Walt Whitman.  I am wrestling, feeling out the tensions between the joyful expansion of Self, and the joyful emptying of Self. Yes, Whitman’s words are marvelous, like glints of light. And he is arrogant, in every good sense I can imagine that word. And Shane Claiborne?  There really is something irresistible about him.

Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

–Emily Dickinson




3 thoughts on “Songs of the Self

  1. Bravo! You have given clear and refreshing (and I would say “fresh” like what we say to a child who is considered mildly disrespectful) words to what has been my own unease with Whitman. Wrestle on! and please keep sharing . . . I gain so much from your writing!

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