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The Clever Trout

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October 9, 2011 Tags: Worship & Arts

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Clever Trout

The Psalmists observed that both the starry heavens above and also “everything that hath breath” praises the Lord; but is this more than a flowery anthropomorphism, a poetic but ultimately meaningless trope? If interpersonal and relational knowledge of the Lord is one of the defining aspects of our humanity, setting us apart from the rest of creation, in what way might creatures (let alone inanimate objects like stars and rocks) who lack our ability to ponder abstract ideas and relationships be said to offer praise to their creator? In the poem given below, John Leax offers an angle on the question that helps us rethink not only the way other living creatures might be giving glory to the creator God, but also how we, ourselves, might embrace a more all-encompassing sense of living, rather than just giving praise.

Leax’s poem “The clever trout” is built around a trio of images—the trout, the popple (or poplar tree), and the blue jay—each engaged in a distinctive act for its kind, a representative response to its environment and others in it. First, the trout sees and then leaps across the water/air boundary to snag a mayfly on the wing. Giving praise to the maker of his sight, the fish also gives thanks for the gift of the light that makes his sight possible—light that is every bit as much the substance of his world as is the water through which he swims. Second, the “slender popple” is defined by its gentle responsiveness to the wind, into which it leans. It is not an image of resistance, but of being willingly shaped by the unseen force that is both constant but also changing. And third, Leax gives us the blue jay, whose attentiveness to its surroundings includes observation, but also warning—giving voice to what is right and what is wrong in the scene. In each case, the poet ends with an affirmation that the creature is doing what it was made to do and being what it were made to be, his implication that this, in itself, is the very nature of praise.

There is still nothing in what I’ve described so far to answer the question of sentience, the question of what makes being even gloriously fit for an environmental niche anything more than a product of biology and time, much less an act of praise. But there is a subtlety in the midst of Leax’s second stanza on the popple that affirms a theological truth and helps us on our way to the second section of the poem following on the first trio of images: the popple is “in the Spirit giving praise.”

While we should notice the implicit conflation of Spirit and wind here (which are overlapping terms in both Hebrew and Greek) and take from that the idea that God’s presence is always moving in and sustaining his creation, the more specific idea to bear out is that it is only on account of the agency of God’s Spirit that anything (or anyone) is able to come to the Lord to recognize His glory and give Him thanks and praise. Thus, none of these creatures are able to praise the Lord in their own strength or ability or on account of their physical attributes, but on account of that sustaining and moving Spirit. “In (and with and through) the Spirit” they are participants in the relational dance of the Trinity, conduits through which the Father, Son and Spirit’s self-emptying, other-directed love is expressed to each other, and bearing witness to “love’s abundance” as it is also poured out and given material form in the cosmos.

With that sense of what it means for the non-human creation to be “made to be” for worship in mind, we can recognize that even in the midst of the third stanza on the jay Leax begins to turn to the distinctiveness of humankind and his prayer that we will likewise express our created selves as they were meant to be. The jay scolds and warns not of some four-footed predator in the wood, but of the danger of Leax himself, because “He knows my nature is not good.” Again, the tension between the how things were meant to be and how they are is evident in nature’s own accusation again man that we have at least partially upended God’s declaration that His nature, His creation was “very good,” precisely by upending the proper relationship between Maker and made in our “wild desire” to claim for ourselves the glory that belongs only to the Lord.

In the concluding lines of the poem, Leax prays that from these humble creatures, emptied of all else but being in the Spirit as they were made to be, he and we might learn to forsake the way of Adam, implicitly taking up the path of Christ, instead. Indeed, that path is the answer to the question posed at the beginning here, and explored through the poem, that asks, “How can we who have minds and wills of our own be like the creatures who know only water, light, wind or danger, but nevertheless give true praise and worship?”

Though our free will and the extraordinary agency imbued in us by God’s own call for Adam and his heirs to exercise dominion in the world are part and parcel of the distinctiveness of human beings, more than a mere exercise of that power, the image-bearing role of those the Lord has called to Himself is to willingly lay that power aside. And though it is only in Christ that we have the model and image of living fully as we were meant to be, it is only through the Spirit (as with the slender popple) that we come to know and follow Jesus as Lord. Through the Spirit we can, like the clever trout, swim in the abundant grace of the Father, and learn to praise anew.

“the clever trout”

by John Leax

The clever trout that nips
the mayfly from the air
is quick to praise
the maker of his sight.
His speckled side
reflects the sunlight;
he swims as he was made to swim.

The slender popple
at the meadow’s edge
is in the Spirit
also giving praise.
Its lean into the wind,
its supple ways
declare it stands
as it was made to stand.

The raucous jay,
that scolding streak
of blue, gives warning
to the quiet wood.
He knows my nature
is not good.
“Beware,” he cries
as he was made to cry.

From these, O Lord,
the creatures of your love’s
abundance, let me learn
to forsake
the wild desire that drove
my father Adam to shake
the garden tree and claim
a glory of his own.

Before them, strike
me dumb. Let me see them
as you made them
in delight.
Then give me grace
to praise as well your bright
presence as the trout,
the popple, and the jay.

from John Leax, Out Walking: Reflections on Our Place in the Natural World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000: pp. 71-72

John Leax is poet-in-residence at Houghton College in the Genesee Valley of western New York, where he taught literature and writing for nearly forty years. He is the author of four books of poetry with a fifth forthcoming in April of 2012, four books of nonfiction, and one novel, in addition to having written a newspaper column and shepherded Houghton’s online literary journal, Stonework. The subjects he has explored include vocation, family heritage, community, gardening, environmental stewardship and civil disobedience, the integration of faith and learning, and the interrelationship of nature and culture. In a previously-featured essay Leax offered a reminder that our science, faith, and art must be integrated in order to fully live out our calling as God’s image-bearers. More about Leax may be found here and here.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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Roger A. Sawtelle - #65452

October 10th 2011

Mark,

Thank you for sharing the wonderful poetry.  I wish BioLogos would catch the relational bug and shed its anti-ecological stance.

Best wishes on Columbus Day remembering how he and his fellow adventurers demonstrated that the earth is truly relationally round and not one or two dimensional monistic or dualistic. 


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