Poetry II - The Magnificat

Michaelmas 2012

Simon Perry

The Song of the Pregnant Teenager:

This evening we come to the second in our series of sermons on poetry. And I’d like to begin by quoting a beautifully crafted piece of outstanding poetic elegance from 2003. In fact, these words are among the most influential poetry of the last decade. Since they were first spoken, they have been celebrated worldwide and will be familiar to most of us:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

Now, if you haven’t already drowned in the sheer genius of Donald Rumsfeld’s word-craft, you will notice a gaping logical absence in the sequence: there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But where are the "unknown knowns"? The things we know, that we don’t realise we know. Or as Dr Spock put it, “you know more than you think you know.” It is that knowledge we subconsciously have, that poetry has the power to reach.

I don’t know if Donald Rumsfeld was familiar with medieval Persian literature, but if he was – he would have found a clearer version of his own poetry, without the logical gap: The poet says there are four kinds of individual:

One who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know... He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!
One who knows and knows that he knows... His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.
One who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know... His limping mule will eventually get him home.

And, most importantly, there is

One who knows, but doesn't know that he knows... He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!

There is a sense in which this is very immediately true for students in their first term at Cambridge – the sense that everyone else is very clever – but you are here by mistake and sooner or later, someone is going to reveal you as an intellectual fraud.  Some academics feel that way until retirement, at which point they positively celebrate their intellectual fraudulence.  For me, at every stage of my academic career – I feel as though I have managed to con clever people into thinking I am one of them!  Of course, there is such a thing as having a healthy sense of humility about your own abilities.  But to those who feel they have conned their way into Cambridge, then Dr Spock, along with the Medieval Persian Poet and Mary the mother of Jesus, would all say, “you know more than you think you know.”  If you are a student at Cambridge, it is because you are good enough to be a student at Cambridge.  In that very straightforward way – some poems wake you to your unknown knowns -

That very dynamic is at work in a much deeper way in today’s New Testament Reading: the poem we look at this week – more specifically, the song of Mary, widely known as the Magnificat. Every week, the choir sings these words: a song written by a pregnant teenager to criticise predominant forms of government. The song bursts from her lips when she meets up with one of her older relatives, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a future leader of Israel.

But their get-together is not some sickly kind of messianic baby-shower – there are no predictions about the glorious future of their soon-to-be-born babies. Mary’s song is in the past tense –inviting us to wake up to the world as it really is. To wake up to the reality in which the servants of this God have been living, ever since God first made his promise to Abraham all those generations ago. The purpose of the song within the text, is not necessary to create a new impression of God, but – as the Persian poet would have it – to wake people up. That is, to wake them up to what they don’t know they know, to wake them up to their unknown knowns – the presence and the character of the God they have always worshipped.

After all, it was easy to forget the nature of God as a liberating God – when the Promised Land is occupied by an alien, hostile and dehumanising superpower. The land of Israel was still a land with super-abundant natural resources, still the land flowing with milk and honey – but all the milk and honey was diverted into Roman hands –particularly to a local building programme in honour of Roman emperors. So, with the local economy going up the wall, with widespread discontent, the mood for rebellion was widespread – and probably accounts for the number of followers that flocked to Jesus.

But the message of this Jesus was not a call to armed rebellion. Jesus had said there will plenty of would-be Messiahs, would-be liberators who try to form amateur armies before marching to their doom at the hands of Rome. No – Jesus offered and embodied a way of life that was – in a sense – nothing new. The whole message of the Gospel, is not that God intervenes in human history and do something different – but to wake people up to who this God has always been. To alert them to the God they don’t know that they already know.
This is not only true of the Gospels, but is heard in how the apostle Paul’s prays: he is not praying for God to provide more power, or more stuff for his fellow believers, he prays rather that his fellow believers will wake up to what God has already done! He prays, in other words, that they wake up to what they already know – to their unknown knowns.

But although Mary’s poem – is not designed to incite political rebellion, it does not follow that it is an attempt to spiritualise the longing for justice, or to postpone justice to some state of post-morten bliss beyond the grave. This is a rejection of the predominant, imperial value system that favours pride, wealth and power. The God who is worshipped here is a God who sides with the poor, and the oppressed and the downtrodden. According to Mary’s song – the Almighty God scatters the proud, dethrones rulers, sides with nobodies and opposes the wealthy:

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Locating the God of Universe, outside the official structures of power – is a radically, political act of subversion – because the oppressive regime runs on the basis that its human leaders inflict their injustices and inhumanities, with divine backing. As history unfolded, the followers of Jesus who worshipped this subversive God, were persecuted as Atheists. They did not worship the official gods of the age – the Roman emperors, or Mars (the god who justifies violence to bring about political ends) or Venus (the goddess who entices impoverished citizens to embrace the ideology that crushes them – like the Tea Party movement). Christians refused to bow to these belief systems, and as such were persecuted as atheists.

Mary’s song comes from a young, peasant teenager in a society where she could have been executed for her unexplained pregnancy: she is vulnerable, and fearful – but she remembers the identity of the god she worships.  This song – a poem of political subversion – serves precisely to wake people up, to alert them to the god they already know – to remind people of their unknown, knowns.  The picture of God that emerges from this poem then, is not the distant god of deism, nor the interfering busy body of traditional evangelicalism.

The last conversation I had with Paul Austin was over the dinner table in the Senior Common Room – where we spoke about Christian morality.  The picture of God that our society imagines, he lamented, is a God who is more concerned with drinking, smoking and swearing than he is with the massive injustices and suffering faced by countless thousands of real people in the real world. 

Millions of Contemporary Christians don’t seem to realise that their God is so busy answering prayers about lost car keys, exam results, and supernatural healing for distant relatives of church-goers – that he no longer has the time or energy or inclination to do anything about economic injustice, ecological breakdown, or the atrociously avoidable death of a child every 2.5 seconds.  The awful reality is that so many Christian believers do not realise that this is the God they worship – this God is an unknown known – Maybe we don’t realise the identity of the God we value.

Mary’s poem gives us no new information. 
It is a wake-up call, alerting us to the character of the God who has been consistent from generation to generation all the way back to Abraham. 
It is a poem designed to alert us again to unknown knowns – a poem designed to disorient us out of one worldview, and reorient us within another. 
It is a call to reimagine who God is, and who we are in relation to this God.