I believe the Christian witness in the public square should emanate a transcendent beauty. Beauty in rhetoric, our speech, our writing, our interaction, our online presence, demands deference, not impudence.
We all of us desire a culture governed by virtue rather than vice. But we, in our public commentary of others, should be careful we do not remove culpability. You and I cannot forget the ripples our tweets, posts, and finger pointing make. We must decide if we value our political views more than our Christian witness.
Which way will we choose?
Hear the Cackle?
Have you ever heard a cackle of birds high up in the tree tops? Crows, an unlikely songbird, will often gang-up on an owl in order to annoy it so much that it will move on, away from their neighboring nests. Though owls make excellent rodent reducers, a benefit for humans, they like to feast on the babies of songbirds.
Owls will invade a crows nest, take their young, and eat them. In this way, the owl can abide as a constant pestilence to the treetop songbirds. You can see, therefore, why it’s completely understandable for the owl and the songbird to hold court, each contemptuously berating the other for their vile existence.
The Owl and the Nightingale
Thus is the context for the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The poem is the “earliest example in English of a popular literary form known as a verse contest.”
What is a verse contest? It is represented in the poem as the narrator overhears a comical debate between an owl and a nightingale about who’s song is more beautiful. The poem is written in Middle English, but you can find worthy translations on the web, or just buy this.
The Nightingale does not like the moralistic and grave Owl. The Owl, who listens to the Plaintiff with puffed chest and supreme arrogance, suggests the two settle the matter as is in harmony with their nature: by force. But the Nightingale does not fall for it, knowing the hawkish features of the Owl would rip it to shreds.
The Owl’s solution is met with more sophistry from the Nightingale, who, along with the Owl, begins to exchange demeaning quips and name-calling. In efforts to prove their points, the fowl reference the human world, touching on issues of marital infidelity, human infallibility, free will, love, and sin. The debate careens into a chaotic harangue, spurred on by the cackling avian spectators.
Here’s one exchange, to whet your whistle. The Nightingale says:
Grotesque thing,’ she said, ‘fly away! I feel bad at the sight of you. Certainly I often have to stop singing because of your foul appearance. My heart sinks, and my tongue falters, when you are close to me. I’d rather spit than sing about your awful guggling.’
The owl waited until it was evening; she couldn’t hold back any longer, because she was so angry that she could hardly breathe, and finally she spoke:
‘How does my song seem to you now? Do you think that I can’t sing just because I can’t twitter? You often insult me and say things to upset and embarrass me. If I held you in my talons—if only I could!–and you were off your branch, you’d sing a very different tune!’
Fortunately, the Wren suggests they employ the services of a mediator lest the debate spiral into violence. So, they fly off to Poresham to inquire with Master Nicholas, the recommended mediator.
We Are All Dirty Birds
I’ve surveyed some scholarship on this poem, and it’s fascinating. Delightfully, both C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield’s names appeared in several discussions. Lewis, in fact, quoted the poem directly in a letter dated July 4, 1955 to Alastair Fowler.
Fun facts aside, the “moral of the story,” as it were, is not universally agreed upon, though most will acquiesce to the notion that the poem serves as comical commentary on the contentious nature of human beings.
Interesting, this word “contentious.” When someone is contentious they are usually causing a heated argument. It has Latin and French origins, which we might translate striven: to struggle of fight vigorously against. Of course we can see “strife” there as well: anger or bitter disagreement over a fundamental issue.
I work from my front porch often. My front yard is basically a wood. The Pileated Woodpeckers, Finch, Bluebirds, Cardinals, Hummingbirds, Hawks, and Owls are all present–and a few I don’t recognize. The Owls often stir a cackle. I watch from the porch, the cacophony of flight and feathers, as the cackling debate ensues.
And I see the same cackling taking place on social media and blogs and news feeds.
After I read this poem I was quick to point out the demise of popular rhetoric, be it the public square or the religious circle. How my heart swelled with the pride of the pointing finger. But how quickly the words of François Fénelon stung me:
“One is very imperfect, when one is so impatient with the imperfections of others.”
Our political times threaten to rip us apart. But, what should be our response and posture as Christians?
We can either heckle the Owl, rip the Nightingale to shreds, or seek another path–another Way. Which will it be?