Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Previously having read mostly that Emily Dickinson “could not stop for Death [so] He kindly stopped” for her, my first significant encounter with the poet, in my senior year at a Christian college, came as a shock.

She was theologian, interpreter, biblical commentator—an exegetical master whose skills exceeded those of the people with access to the pulpits. And I realized that she was saying in her poems and letters the kinds of things I wished I had the mind and the audacity to say but understood to be bordering on blasphemy.

I found her more than simply convincing; I found her, I think, existentially seductive. Her ideas laid a claim on me that I couldn‘t, and didn‘t want to, shake off. And I wanted to claim those concerns for my own—concerns for divine mercy, for equity, for love.

What then could I do but try to convert her, in a way, in my head and in my research paper that fall? I fashioned her into a contemporary Job, similar to the Old Testament hero in her honest perplexity before a terrifying god. This portrait made some comforting sense of the dark, theodicy-related questions she voiced, leaving them unresolved, like Job’s, while at the same time carving out a place for us within the circle of orthodoxy. After all, Job still made it in, right? But in the end, maybe Dickinson converted me.

A few years later—in the middle of grad school and a crisis of faith—I returned to these poems for solace. Dickinson’s work suggests that she was deeply affected, afflicted even, by certain biblical stories, like Abraham almost killing his son Isaac because God tells him to. God and the scripture were important to her, and deeply problematic as well. Her words interacting with the canonical ones explode simple categories of rejection or acceptance, belief or unbelief. Could I follow her lead somehow? It seemed a thoughtful way forward, a way to reorient myself to a spiritual text that now appeared as thoroughly fallible as it was valuable.

“Or maybe folks like Emily Dickinson,” said a family member when I tried to articulate this at the time, “make it more difficult than it has to be?”

Dickinson herself was both poet and pugilist, to borrow her own description of the patriarch Jacob. Wrestling with mystery and divinity, refusing to let the angel go, offering up a blessing of her own. And I think she was correct.