Friday, December 25, 2015

Book Review: The Singer

(Reclaimed from Blogjob, where it was pre-scheduled to appear on Christmas Day, and did. Tags: devotional book for Christian artistslife and teaching of Jesuspoetic fantasyrestaging the Passion Play.)

Merry Christmas, Gentle Readers (whether you actually celebrate Christmas, or feel inconvenienced by it, this web site hopes it's merry). I'm not online; I've pre-scheduled most of this week's posts, including this one.
Title: The Singer
Author: Calvin Miller
Date: 1975
Publisher: InterVarsity
ISBN: 0-87784-639-1
Length: 151 pages
Illustrations: drawings by Joe DeVelasco
Quote: “Earthmaker set earth spinning on its way / And said, ‘Give me your vast infinity / My son; I’ll wrap it in a bit of clay. / Then enter Terra microscop­ically / To love the little souls who weep away / Their lives.’ ‘I will,’ I said, ‘set Terra free.’”
Most of this book doesn’t rhyme...but the quote gives the idea. The Singer, The Song, and The Finale are a three-volume “poetic retelling” of the New Testament.
The New Testament did not need such retelling, and Miller’s poems are much easier to understand (and to enjoy) if you’re familiar with the New Testament, so what purpose do these poems serve? What some critics might call the highest purpose; they expressed Miller’s joy and gratitude in ways readers could use to express theirs.
My own copies of these books are cherished souvenirs of the years when I, and other Christian musicians, used to carry these books around with us and read them aloud as devotional texts, before saying a prayer and going out on stage. My feeling is that that’s primarily what the trilogy is for. Parts of The Singer could also be read to audiences during intermission, and were.
The Singer is the volume that deals with the Gospel account of the life of Jesus. He is, of course, called The Singer, whose active ministry is re-envisioned as “singing” love and beauty. If you’ve not read the book and you’re picturing nineteen-year-old divas using it for devotional reading, you might think that there’s some potential for grandiosity here. All I can say is that I never saw that potential actualized. Frankly, although the churches tried to protect college-aged singers from any influences more unwholesome than an occasional temptation to stay up late, they sent us into some situations that are terrifying for the very young—hospitals, prisons, nursing homes—and I think the image of Christ as a Singer helped some people deal with panic.
Some lines aren’t literally true. “We are sane as long / as we hear voices / when there are none. // We are insane when / we hear nothing and / worse we are deaf.” Heretical tendencies in this book is, however, fairly well confined to this sort of poetic outburst, or to Miller’s and DeVelasco’s picturing the story in sixteenth-century Europe rather than the first-century Holy Land; they don’t reach a serious level of conflict with received theology or with anything else.
The Singer will end up on a “great machine” that would have interested Torquemada, rather than a Cross...which, probably accidentally but pleasantly, leaves no room for finger-pointing between people who identify with the first-century Jews or Romans. In fact, there’s no room for finger-pointing even at Mark or Peter; no details about anybody slicing off anybody else’s ears, or anybody being caught by his shirt and wriggling half-naked into the chilly night. There’s not even room for Mary Magdalene, whose character here melts down in with those of the male disciples, the soldiers, and the gardener: “A workman finally spied the giant / tension cable that drew the heavy / chains...the manacles were empty. / And where the Singer should have / been there lay only a key...”
If you’re familiar with the Gospel story you may feel that a great deal has been left out, throughout the story and especially here. Then again, perhaps a bit of distraction from mentally staging your usual version of the Passion Play may help you look beyond the familiar details of the skull-like crag and the ladies carrying embalming ointment down the cobbled street, perhaps all the way up into the meaning of the story. At least, I think that was Miller’s hope.
The Singer is recommended to Christians who are familiar with the story as it appears in the Gospels, and won’t be confused by a short remake.
Although Calvin Miller no longer has any use for the dollar he'd earn if this were a Fair Trade Book, I still have to charge $5 per book + $5 per package. You can find better prices. However, if you buy it here, you can add Fair Trade Books to the package (The Singer is a small book) and show support for other writers who are still alive. Payment can be sent to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen (above the colorful ad).