Snakes—especially the poisonous varieties—evoke a primordial dread in many people, a response sometimes even attributed to God’s curse of enmity between Eve and the serpent in the second chapter of Genesis. Yet as Pete Enns has written, the reputation of the serpent in Genesis and other near eastern texts is complex and mysterious rather than uniformly evil, as the snake seems to have represented aspects of both immortality and wisdom. In the Matthew 10:16 Jesus himself suggested that the “craftiness” of the serpent was not something necessarily to be feared or condemned, but claimed as wisdom when in combination with the “innocence of doves.” Snakes, then, are an interesting example of a natural and spiritual symbol that is equivocal and multifaceted, calling forth both fascination and unease in equal measures, all but requiring us to maintain such competing thoughts and feelings at the same time.
That mental balancing act is nearly the definition of irony described by poet and scholar Matt Boyleston in his recent essay “The Language of Paradox: Irony and Poetry”, in The City:
“Irony describes a poet’s recognition of incongruities and his controlled acceptance of them, or in [critic Northrup] Frye’s words, that irony ‘takes life exactly as it finds it.’ Irony, in this case, is the understanding that life is paradoxical and then dwelling fully in that paradoxical state.” (The City. Volume 3 Issue 2 (Fall 2010): p.19.)
Boyleston continues by saying that for Christians this sense of the irony is not a mere literary curiosity, but something central to our understanding of what it is to be human, the paradox of living both as created in the image of God and in rebellion against our Maker:
“One can only properly understand what it means to be human if one clearly places each of these states, Man’s creation in the image of God and Man’s fallen nature, in an ironic relationship in which one never affirms one state at the expense of the other. . . . If poetry is truly . . . the language of paradox, then to understand fully our paradoxical state as Christians is to dwell poetically. And still further, one must use the language of paradox to properly educate a student concerning this paradoxical, this ironical condition of man.” (p. 20)
Boyleston’s commitment to this sort of education is displayed not only in his classroom and essays but in his poetic work, too—including the piece featured below by which we may connect the discussion of snakes and irony with the regular theme of The BioLogos Forum, that Christian faith and evolutionary biology need not be understood as contradictory commitments.
No fan of the Enlightenment idea that something must be “true” (as in verifiable in a reductionistic sort of way) to be affirmed, Boyleston has said that his interests lie in things that have “resonance with cultural memories of origin and relations to community: What is liturgical, repetitive, cyclical?” Yet, as poets and scientists share an attentiveness to the natural world, Boyleston’s account of looking for creatures at the intersection of science and myth is book-ended by divergence and convergence, concepts that are key to understanding what we find in the biological world.
“Coppermouth” does not propose a solution or instruct on how faith and biology ought to intermingle, but calls us to the practice of searching, always summoned forward by the author of both the World and the Word. In both his analysis and his imagery, then, Boyleston helps us see that cyclical, ironic tensions are not things to be denied or merely mitigated, but are the essence of the human state, compelling us to come together in community in the name of the One who exemplified “dual natures.” In the paradox of the craftiness/wisdom of the biblical serpent, in the irony of faith and science coming together yet remaining apart, we can recognize the tension between what we know and do not yet know, between who we are and who we one day will be.
by J. Matthew Boyleston
We trace divergence.
We are in an old van
on an old bridge
looking for signs:
a snake slip, a warm nest,
the traces of the thought
when we all were one.
The earth has Alzheimer’s.
It forgets all it ever knew
leaving bits and pieces of a shattered
personality flashing up
at us when we dig deep.
The evolutionary herpetologist
from the county zoo with thick waders
and a rusted S-hook
is down on his hands and knees
peering into a dark swamp
and we students fan out in all directions
searching for the Coppermouth,
of moccasin and pit-viper,
a slithering rumor
that someone somewhere had heard tell.
Our Gullah translator,
comes back with filtered stories
and the feral bodies
of two boa constrictors
let loose in the swamp.
But beneath the stories,
there is something here.
Wounds that don’t respond
like a door that won’t open
with a key that fits,
the occasional sloughed skin
with patterns only vaguely
similar to ones we know,
even, perhaps two rotten fangs
tacked to the rafter of a hunter’s lodge.
If such a species were still alive,
we must find it, if only to show
us the process of our combination
and how different we’ve become.
If only to remind us of the God
who looks down on us saying:
come together all things
in my name.
©2009 J. Matthew Boyleston.
A native of South Carolina, James Matthew Boyleston received a BA in English and Philosophy from Furman University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Carolina, and his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He now serves in several teaching and administrative roles at Houston Baptist University, including Interim Associate Dean, College of Arts and Humanities, and Chair, Department of English. His scholarship and poetry have been published in more than two-dozen journals, with his research interests running a wide gamut of topics at the intersection of history, literature and theology: the English Renaissance, Reformation and Civil War; Calvinism, Reformed Theology and Anglo-Catholicism; the relationships between Irish and Southern literature; Modernist and contemporary poetry; and sacred music, liturgy and artistic worship. As he mentions in this video of a reading of “Coppermouth,” he also has “a disturbing and intimate knowledge of snakes.” Additional information may be found here.