Theology and Literature: Isaac Watts and the “Event”

I’ve been entirely remiss about including a final installment of this “Theology and Literature” series. The simple routine of life’s proceedings — going to the library, mailing a postcard, eating a bagel — has gotten me off track, or, rather, kept me on track. But that track, in its rigidity, has not been wholly conducive to writing something reflective. I’ve been trapped in a flow of events that somehow has managed to be fairly uneventful.

This idea of eventfulness brings me back to a enduring memory from my nine-month-long stint of studying in Britain, from which I have only recently returned. Back in March, I took part in a ten-day, cross-country pilgrimage that stretched from Oxford, England to Walsingham in East Anglia. It was cross-country in a double sense: our group of two dozen pilgrims carried a nine-foot-long crucifix in three person, three minute shifts 20 to 30 miles per day. We crossed through fields populated by sheep and fat pale hogs and passed by Norman churches with slanted roofs and skewed tombstones in their uneven churchyards. Our first or second evening, we stopped in a church in Bicester for mass. Near the end of the service, we sung a hymn that struck me to the core. I can’t quite explain why. I had actually studied the hymn in an literature class, though I only realized that a few minutes later. Tiredly reading the bare words in preparation for class discussion, however, had not impacted me quite as much as singing them among a chorus of pilgrims and parishioners.

The hymn was “When I survey the wondrous cross”, one of many written by the 18th century English hymn-writer Isaac Watts. A contemporary of his, a certain Charles Wesley, allegedly claimed that he would have traded all the hymns he wrote (and he wrote some 6000) to have written just this one. The verse that really caught my attention in the church that evening was the following:

His dying crimson, like a robe,

Spreads o’er His body on the tree;

Then I am dead to all the globe,

And all the globe is dead to me.

These four lines capture the “Event” of Christ’s death on the cross with such vivid precision — the robe-like curtain of death spreading over him — yet, the most striking feature of this verse for me lies in the spectator’s reaction to the “Event.” The last two verses describe the death the spectator suffers as Jesus himself dies, and the subsequent death of the world in the darkness of his Savior’s passing. Usually, artistic renderings of the Crucifixion focus on Christ’s death, yet here attention is redirected to the death of the spectator and the world that follow from surveying that wondrous cross. Watts masterfully reflects this in the form of hymn itself, which employs chiasmus, the inverted mirroring of words in a pair of lines, to represent the cross: “dead” and “all the globe” switch places from the third line to fourth line, forming an X structure (Chiasmus comes from the Greek letter for X, Chi). What’s more, the subject “I” transforms into the indirect object “me,” as the spectator fades into the background, dying as Christ dies. The loss is made personal, which, I suppose, explains why the hymn struck me as it did.

In a subjective sense, the “Event”-ness of an “Event” resides in the response of the perceiver rather than in the physical constitution of the perceived alone. Occurrences are memorable not just because they are bright or loud or enormous, but because they strike the individual in just the right spot of his or her circumstances, tear a hole in the fabric of the everyday, and settle into his or her memory. Most Events are Events only in the minds of a few individuals primed to receive them. Doubtless, few of my fellow pilgrims would recount that hymnal moment in the church as I did. Though some Events certainly resonate with large group of people, often appealing to a national consciousness, such as in the inauguration of a president or the end of a war, even these occurrences are tinged and colored by an individual’s experience before they solidify into an “Event.”

The Gospels do portray the Crucifixion as an “Event,” one that has been internalized and assigned significance by individuals, rather than a banal historical occurrence lacking deeper meaning, however grand it might seem. In John’s Gospel, we hear how Mary stood near the cross as John, the beloved disciple of Christ, said to her, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26). John experiences his own “Event”, as Christ responds to the disciple, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27), which happens to be an important moment for mariology, as Christ identifies Mary’s role as a spiritual mother to others. In the Synoptic Gospels, the centurion and the good thief comprehend the import of Christ’s death in their own way. Watts captures this personal angle tremendously well in his literary of this occurrence turned “Event,” so well, indeed, that the hymn produced an “Event” in my own life.

When reading becomes eventful, when you can point to a passage and say, “these words induced this or that lasting emotional resonance in me that I can recreate (or at least reproduce a scent of) by re-reading” — that’s when you know you’re reading the right stuff.

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