To be a disciple is fundamentally to be a learner. But while a geometry student submits his mind to a proof or theorem, a learner of Christ is called to submit his whole being to God. And while the student may come to internalize a truth, the disciple can come to embody God’s presence. This is because both Learning and discipleship happen through a process of poetic formation.
In previous posts, we have focused on the poetics of learning. Today we will look look at the poetic structure of discipleship.
The Poetics of Formation
Poetry in the classical sense means creative imitation, what Plato or Aristotle might refer to as mimesis. While this is certainly the stuff artists and writers, poetry is hardly limited to the page or stage.
According to the Scriptures, everything that exists exists poetically. In the beginning God created (ἐποίησεν–as the Septuagint translates Gen. 1:1). The entire creation is imitatively patterned upon the invisible Image of God (Col. 1:15-16), and man is preeminently formed in this divine Image (Gen. 1:26). Those who are in Christ are, further, a new creation, formed distinctively in Him as His workmanship (ποίημα) for good works (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10).
For all these reasons, we are imitative, through and throughout.
Poetic activity structures all that we do: our most basic interactions with the world, our school learning, our empathic responses to one another, our artistic creativity, our hopes, our desires, and of course, our relationships.
Poetry in Motion
Discipleship (or sanctification) is the poetic activity by which a Christian comes to bear a new and living likeness to the Creator. Remarkably, one could say this that this formation happens simply by living with and looking unto God. By having a relationship with Him.
Consider how a child comes to imitate the expressions and mannerisms of her father, simply by internalizing how he lives and moves. Often without trying, she instinctively reproduces his habits and gestures. Such is the earliest poetry of our childhood.
In a similar manner, children learn to walk, to talk, to socialize, even to love. But while some formation comes to us almost without effort, there are others which require labor and practice.
Let’s try to connect the process of Christian formation with practice.
If I were to demonstrate the mechanics of archery, you would in some sense know the art. You could probably pick up a bow, nock an arrow, and shoot at a target. But your first efforts might not be too impressive. You would need practice.
Practice not only refines knowledge and reveals imperfections, it completes an aspect of the learning process.
As you repeatedly pull back the bow, steady the arrow, and settle into the stance, the pattern which was demonstrated becomes more than an abstract idea. The pattern actually changes how you use your body. In other words, you come to know the art of archery in an incarnate or embodied sense. You enter into a process of being conformed to a pattern by being guided by it. Through practice, a pattern which is at first only notional becomes a robust inner logos (cf. part 1, 2, & 3 of this series).
This is the poetics of transformation. Just as a poem is the patterned imitation of some reality, discipleship is the poetic process, ordained by God, through which Christ comes to be fully formed in us.
With the Eyes of Our Hearts
Two things are indispensable in poetic formation. First, we need to be able to see that which we would become like. The pattern or exemplar must be known to us. Second, we need to continually fix our gaze upon that pattern. There must be commitment, desire, even covenant to behold the pattern and be disciplined by it.
For how can we imitate He whom we have not known or seen? We must be made capable of seeing with the eyes of our heart (Ez. 36; Matt. 13:15).
And why do we look unto Him whom we have not loved? We must find that He first loved us (1st John 4:19).
We are like indoor plants who need light. But if the curtain is not drawn, if the window is not clean, we will wither and die.
Because our hearts are hardened and minds are darkened by sin, we are no longer capable of or willing to behold God’s glory. This is why Jesus’s mission is both to be lifted up upon the cross that all who might look to him should be healed, but also to transform our hearts and minds so that such looking might be made efficacious, and even desirable to us.
By the grace of God, we receive hearts of flesh in order that we might become vulnerable to Him (Ez. 36:24-31). Jesus tore the veil so that in our innermost being we might be transformed in beholding the light of his glory(2nd Cor. 3).
Rebirth in Christ creates both the conditions necessary for robust lifelong repentance (metanoia) in which we do not merely turn from our idols, but turn unto Christ.
The Greek is helpful here. The ‘meta’ of ‘metanoia’ preserves a tension between directional-turning and change; they go hand in hand.
To authentically turn from sin and self requires change. To turn from self, we must hold ourselves before God in all our mediocrity.
What we then begin to experience is the light of God’s glory: righteousness and mercy, acceptance and forgiveness, provision and liberty. It is here that our notions of straw give way to active love.
The Practices of Repentance
Because we are imitative, we not only can know the truth discursively, but can also be conformed to it. The truth can take hold of us and reshape us from the inside out, but the Truth desires that this happen, in part, by our take hold of Him.
In this we discover God’s faithfulness, his love for us, our dignity as His children. It is only the light of love and gratitude reciprocally activate the poetics of discipleship. Perhaps because it is in this light that we find we are now free to serve. But it is important not to isolate the spiritual mechanics of sanctification from its material aids and practices.
For instance, a Christian who confesses to God in secret only, may fails to take hold of the healing and grace which God ordained we should receive through one another. A Christian who relies upon the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit alone, forgoes the guidance, correction, and encouragement which are offered through Scripture and fellowship.
While Christian sanctification is noetic, it is not gnostic! God changes us from the inside out, but has simultaneously appointed means by which we can and must partake.
When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
Every step we take in obedience to this calling, in loving our neighbor, in reading scripture, in prayer, in worship, in communion can become a means of dependence upon Him, of vulnerable and prayerful waiting. The entire process of discipleship is ultimately ordered to the prayer that we might behold the face of God, now and forever.
Paul describes our discipleship and sanctification as a privileged form of such looking, of being transformed by a vision of God (2 Cor. 3:18). What makes our discipleship so strange is that we become better spectators by becoming better participants!
Like a daughter who takes on the habits of her father, but also like an athlete whose body comes to reflect his regime of exercise, we take on the likeness of He whom we love and put on. We come by the grace of God, not merely to outwardly imitate our Father in heaven, but to be truly conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:19). Remarkably, despite all the effort and practice such formation requires, our primary work is simply to behold Him and know that He truly is God!