The Opposite of Poetry

The opposite of poetry is, presumably, prose. But there is poetic prose and prosaic poetry. So what is the opposite of poetry? I’m not sure, but I’d like to present a possible example. It is the copy on a can of Bomber Brewing IPA, which is brewed about 2 kilometres from my house in east Vancouver.

I usually like reading the quasi-literary descriptions on craft beer cans and bottles. There’s a challenge to describing taste in an elegant and enticing way that can capture some of the experience of tasting the beer while also leaving a little mystery so that the person holding the can still has some agency. It should enhance the drink and not dictate it.

Two beers sit in my fridge. The copy of one is adequate and the other makes me feel stupid and not thirsty.

The adequate one is from Phillips Brewing and the beer is Electric Unicorn White IPA: “Electric Unicorn is a hop-infused white ale; best enjoyed while riding a mystical mono-horned laser beast, racing through the galaxy to the sonic backdrop of screaming metal guitars.”

It’s silly, but it captures a little of the whimsy a white ipa has in its mere existence. It’s kind of a silly beer. Not sure about that semicolon, but it doesn’t get in the way, I guess.

The bad one, Bomber IPA: “Like the northwest convergence of the ocean and mountains; only the best hops enter our brew kettle, combining with balanced malt for this complex configuration of quaffability. It’s a beautiful thing…” (semi-colon and ellipses in the original[!])

What? I’ve met the people who brew this and they are native English speakers who are clearly pretty smart. I do not understand this description. What is like the convergence of ocean and mountains? The hops and kettle? Or is it the hops and malt? And if it’s the hops and malt, how are they converging like the ocean and mountains in the northwest? Are the ocean and mountains a “complex configuration?” And how is it like the best hops? And why the semicolon after a dependent clause? It’s not a beautiful thing… it sucks.

There are 23 breweries within walking distance of my house. I don’t need this abuse.

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Psalm 23 scans not as a Hebrew poem // English poetry in my ears is the 23rd Psalm

Some passages unanimously deemed poetry may not be so, in fact. Ps 23 is a case in point…       ––Wilfred G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques (1984), p. 45.


Leaving aside the strange presumption that only he knows what is right about something deemed otherwise “universal,” I think Watson is onto something here. I may actually agree with him that Psalm 23, despite its beloved status in the Church throughout history, may not be poetry. At least insofar as it bears very few of the hallmarks that make up Hebrew poetry.

On the next page of Watson’s 450 page guide to Hebrew poetry (in which the only reference to the most famous Hebrew poem is that it doesn’t qualify as Hebrew poetry), Watson provides a table of indicators for discerning Hebrew poetry from the biblical era. The table includes: presence of established line-forms; ellipsis; unusual vocabulary; conciseness; unusual word-order; archaisms; use of metre; symmetry; parallelism; word-pairs; chiastic patterns; envelope figure; repetition; sound patterns.


Watson’s “Table of Indicators”

It’s not that Psalm 23 lacks any or all of these indicators. Rather, those that are there (parallelism, envelope figure?, unusual vocabulary?, word pairs) are loosey goosey and no more heightened than in many examples found in universally deemed prose. One has to look very hard to find semantic parallelism and those examples that exist are absent of any elegant grammatical parallelism. The line translated “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” is at once, grammatically on the nose, while still seeming incidentally parallel. Even the Masoretes (medieval editors) didn’t bother to arrange that line to make the parallelism work on the page. I guess they thought, why bother?

Any argument for Psalm 23 as poetry based on accepted indicators or hallmarks (use of prefix and suffix conjugations interchangeably, no sign of accusative, no definite article) must still deal with the fact that we have hundreds of other witnesses of poetry in the Bible alone that do have obviously more claim to the poetic. If all Hebrew poems were like Psalm 23 would we even know about parallelism?


This is not a good use of the word “unanimously” (What we don’t talk about is him inexplicably including Psalm 1 in this category!)

In the end, any analysis of Psalm 23 as poetry should probably conclude that the psalm is either not poetry at all or is a poor example of it.

I’ve actually felt this way about Psalm 23 for a while but excused my concerns because of some poetic turns of phrase, which happen to be some of my favourites in the Bible, particularly the last verb weshavti (וְשַׁבְתִּי), which, without vowels could be translated either as “and I shall return” or “and my dwelling is” so that the first reading points to the pursuit of goodness and mercy in the first part of the verse and the second reading points to the house of the LORD in the second part of the verse. Such wordplay, however, is common in biblical Hebrew prose, so it doesn’t make psalm 23 any more poetry than some passages in the narratives of Jonah or Genesis.

Despite my concerns about the lack of poetic indicators in this “poem” it wasn’t until a conversation I had with a theologian and friend named David Taylor last week that I wondered, if Psalm 23 is not poetry, why is it universally deemed such.

David was teaching a class at Regent College last week on the Arts in Worship while I was teaching Hebrew and he told me that one of the questions he had his class do was finish the sentence “Poetry is…” In previous classes he said his students could not either answer the question or come to a consensus after sharing their answers. In fact, David said, poets themselves cannot agree what poetry is.

Which raises the question as to why I can even claim that Psalm 23 is not poetry. I should clarify: I’m not sure Psalm 23 qualifies as Hebrew Poetry. However, it should be pointed out that in Watson’s table of indicators, very few indicators translate well into English poetry.

For instance, I doubt if any of David’s students have ever claimed that poetry should contain parallelism. If so, they would have taken out of contention a very large swath of English poetry. Rhyme is a type of parallelism, but not one that Hebrew poets use with any regularity and that is absent in even universally deemed and acclaimed English poems (see Paradise Lost). Perhaps metre could be seen as another type of parallelism, but metre utilized or understood in Hebrew poetry is very different than in English poetry.

Such discrepancies between what constitutes Hebrew poetry and the general conventions of English poetry is why, I would guess, Psalm 23 is so beloved as an English poem while seeming somewhat anomalous in the Psalter itself.

Parallelism as often translated into English, can seem clunky and necessarily corrupts the word order, word order being a feature that can accentuate semantic parallelism in Hebrew. In fact, very few of the hallmarks of Hebrew poetry translate at all into English and when they do seem out of character to poetry in general (e.g. chiastic arrangement).

On the other hand, imagery works well in both and Psalm 23 has evocative images of shepherding that are surprising and yet easy to imagine and understand the significance of. More so than, say, images of ancient Near Eastern coronations, which are perhaps too foreign to translate into everyday life. In Psalm 23, the reader identifies with the helplessness and cluelessness of sheep in the wilderness. Such imagery is humbling, yet comforting, and if it seems played out, that is likely due to the ubiquity of the psalm itself in our culture. Psalm 23 is specific enough to imagine, yet vague enough to apply to any stage in one’s life.

“Please stop perpetuating the tired stereotype that sheep are helpless and clueless.”

There is also enough mystery (inconsistency?) in the imagery to bring us back and explore again. How can a rod and staff comfort me? What does it mean to have a table prepared before me in the presence of enemies? How does the table scene fit with the rest of the psalm? Is a sheep eating at the table?

Such ambiguities are important for second, third, and fourth readings of poetry as we understand poetry. I can work hard at understanding the psalm without feeling I need a degree in Assyriology or Ugaritic. Its qualification as English poetry, despite its impoetic* nature in its original language, may be due to accident or perhaps the skill of the translators of the King James Bible. But given the psalm’s ability to comfort people in times of trouble, to remind them of God’s caring and protecting nature, perhaps it was no accident at all. Or, perhaps even the early canonizers of the Psalter read the psalm, knew it didn’t seem to fit, but thought, like many of us, “I don’t really know how to define poetry, but I know it when I see it.”

I’ve printed the psalm from the KJV in full below (as a prose poem) for you to decide if it’s poetry or not.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Ps. 23 KJV)

*I know “impoetic” is not yet a word, but it should be.

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An Addendum to the Greatest 3rd Place Team in Baseball

The reason I revisited the 1991 Texas Rangers earlier today was because my favorite sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen” had asked its listeners about their favorite non-famous athletes. I wrote in to tell them about Mario Diaz, who was the backup to the weakest starting player on the ’91 Rangers. Still, he was our favorite because his name was Mario, he had a moustache, wasn’t all that good, it was 1991, and he looked like this:

Does this look like another guy named Mario who was much much more famous in 1991? How about:

Of course we made a sign that said Super Mario Land for our bleacher seats. And of course Mario wasn’t super, but we did learn to love Mario Diaz. In fact, while Goose Gossage held on to a 0.00 ERA for a shockingly long time that year despite giving up other pitchers’ runs making him less valuable than he seemed, Diaz seemed to be really clutch. His only hits seemed to come at important times. Perhaps the advanced metrics (which didn’t exist at the time) wouldn’t bear out our biases, but he was valuable to us. His only home run that year remains tied for the most thrilling (to me) sports moment I’ve witnessed live. The other being Carli Lloyd’s 50 yard goal in the World Cup final to secure her hat trick.

Anyway, Josh Levin read my entry in Hang Up and Listen today. It starts around the 51:50 minute mark here:



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(Potentially) the Greatest 3rd Place Team in Baseball

I don’t pay much attention to baseball anymore but at one time it was a major obsession of mine. I wrote history papers in junior high on the origins of baseball, spent hours poring over the Baseball Encyclopedia, often on Saturdays while a game was being played. I collected cards with my friends and spent alone time in the back yard practicing my swing with a Johnny Bench Batter Up.  My favorite board game was Strat-o-matic. My favorite player was Ozzie Smith who played for my favorite team at the time, the St. Louis Cardinals.

The reason I loved the Cardinals was simple. My father went to high school in Missouri and his brother and family lived in St. Louis. So I felt a connection to the area. Also, because I had an interest in baseball history the Cardinals kept popping up in my reading; my Strat-o-matic team was the 1934 Cardinals—the gashouse gang. Most importantly, as a small kid in the 1980s, the Cardinals were good (3 NL pennants and a World Series win) and fun to watch and the Texas Rangers, the local team, were definitely not.

But things change and, fortunately for me, they started looking up around the time I started driving. After suffering through teams whose best players were knuckleballer Charlie Hough and occasional All-Star reserve Buddy Bell, the Rangers started acquiring good players in the early 1990s.

This was a perfect storm for me. In 1991, I was 16 years old with a car (I inherited my fathers ’82 Mazda so that my mom wouldn’t have to drive me to 6:00am swim practice), the Rangers had potential that they never had before, and most importantly, owner George W. Bush hadn’t yet finalized the deal on the new Ballpark in Arlington. Arlington Stadium, three years from demolition, had well over 10,000 bleacher seats, all for the price of $4.00. Even at the time, that was 2/3 the price of a movie ticket. My friends and I went to as many games as we could. I likely went to more major league baseball games in 1991 than I have been to in all other years combined.

But though the price made it possible, the real reason we schlepped from Carrollton to Arlington night after night, catching series after series was because they were finally, mercifully, good. Or, at least, talented. I was recently drawn back to that 1991 roster and was shocked at how stacked the team was, but also at how bad they were. They only won 83 games and finished 3rd in the AL West, 10 games behind the Minnesota Twins. I looked at the Twins roster and was underwhelmed by its talent (Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris, aside).

The roster of the 1991 Texas Rangers, on the other hand, included:

SP: Nolan Ryan (Hall of Fame)

C: Ivan Rodriguez (Hall of Fame)

RP: Goose Gossage (Hall of Fame)

LF: Juan Gonzalez (2x MVP)

SP: Kevin Brown (2nd place in Cy Young)

RF: Ruben Sierra (2nd place in MVP)

heater aside, this guy is old

RP: Kenny Rogers

1B: Rafael Palmeiro

2B: Julio Franco

CF: Garry Pettis

SP: Oil Can Boyd

DH: Brian Downing

3B: Steve Beuchelle

That is a good team. Potentially a great team. The weakest position was Jeff Huson/Mario Diaz (ironically our favorite player on the team) at short stop. But this was the pre-Jeter/Nomar era where short stop was generally an 8th or 9th batter in the lineup so pretty typical of the time.

moustache aside, this guy is a teenager

It is a potentially great team, which is the problem—potential. The thing about this team is exemplified by the ages of its two best players—Nolan Ryan and Pudge Rodriguez. The team, as a whole was either too old or too young. When Ryan pitched to Rodriguez, the ball travelled 60 feet 6 inches and 25 years. Ryan, at 44, was two years older than I am now and Pudge, at 19, was only three years older than I was then! Remember, Rangers’ owner George W. Bush was the president’s son and not the guy who broke everything. This was a different world and I’m still not as old as the best player on the team.

Goose Gossage, whose stats suggest he was better than he was since he tended to give up other pitchers’ runs, was 39. Juan Gonzalez, who, at only 21, was 5 years away from winning his first MVP, while Brian Downing batted leadoff* at the age of 40! About the only player who was at the peak of his career was Ruben Sierra, whose stat-line was (amazingly) comparable to his 1989 campaign, which got him 2nd place in MVP voting. And he was only 25! Rafael Palmeiro had yet to discover steroids.

My knowledge of baseball has diminished over the years. I know who some of the great players are and followed the Rangers closely in 2011 when they lost one of the greatest World Series ever to my old favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals.‡ But I don’t really pay attention to potentially great teams anymore. I do wonder, though, despite my obvious bias, what other team had this much talent while finishing 3rd in their division because of bad timing.

*In a kind of proto-moneyball move, manager Bobby Valentine must have figured that Downing’s .370 OBP was more valuable at the front of the lineup than Garry Pettis’s speed.
‡I still have fond memories of those 1980s Cardinals teams but that 2011 series stung. David Freese is a villain in my eyes, despite seeming like a decent fellow, otherwise.
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The Most Magnificent Walnut Tree in Scotland

My family and I are preparing to travel back to Scotland for the first time since we moved back to Vancouver in 2011 (though my wife has taken one trip there in 2013). I often talk about the house where we lived in St. Andrews. Boast, really. I often boast about that house, knowing that we’ll almost certainly never live in a place as magnificent as that home.

From what we could tell, the house was built around 1780. There are a few mentions of it online and I’ve found some references to its use as an illegal Anglican Church in the 19th century in a book. Its main claim to fame, however, is that it lies next door to what is known as Mary Queen of Scots St. Andrews apartment. It’s not clear how often she stayed there, but the apartment was definitely owned by the Queen in some shape or form, before she was imprisoned and executed by the English Elizabeth I. Her apartment is now a mini museum and houses the library for an elite boarding school. If we were to take a sledge hammer to the wall in the front room, we could have made a doorway right into Mary’s old bedroom. In fact, our house was built on a cellar that was part of Mary’s property in the 16th century and the garden was part of the same lot.

Occasionally, we would have locals over and they would point out some details that we would never have noticed about our house. For example, one neighbour, who was working on a Masters in Renaissance art history remarked that the fire place in the great room was likely designed and built by one of the Adams brothers, a family of famous architects and designers in the 18th century.

On another occasion, our downstairs neighbour noted that Samuel Johnson remarked that the walnut tree in the garden was perhaps the most magnificent walnut tree in all of Scotland (though I cannot remember the exact quote). Given the lifespan of a walnut tree (250 years?), it had certainly seen better days. But it was obviously a stately tree at one time.

I don’t know why it took me so long, but while preparing for our trip to Scotland, I thought about that tree and Johnson’s quote and wondered if I could find mention of our old house in Johnson’s diaries myself. I checked out his book recounting his trip to Scotland from the Vancouver Public Library recently and found the following quote about trees in St. Andrews:

From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree, which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present century… There is no tree for either shelter or timber… At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him that it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so.

Now, given that the walnut tree lives only about 250 years and that Johnson made his trip to St. Andrews in 1775 (about 242 years ago), perhaps he did see our walnut tree. And perhaps this 10 year old, slow growing tree, was the most magnificent walnut tree he had seen in Scotland. Unfortunately, that is a pretty backhanded compliment.

Two more things to say regarding Johnson’s tree hunting experience in Scotland:

  1. If his experience was true, he would likely barely recognize Scotland now. It does not, by any means, resemble, say, the Redwood Forest, but there are some very impressive

    Holm Oak at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews

    trees nonetheless, one of which is an evergreen Holm Oak just down the road from our old house in the quad of my alma mater, St. Mary’s College at the University of St. Andrews. It would have been planted around the time of his trip, so it might not have counted as a tree in his eyes.

  2. For an otherwise brilliant man, Johnson displays the height of English colonial arrogance and snobbery. At one time, Scotland was well forested, but “colonized by wankers” who wanted to have the most powerful navy in the world. To do that, the “wankers” needed timber, so they took it from Scotland’s forests, which still haven’t grown back (due partly to the eradication of wolves in Britain). When they discovered British Columbia, they took that timber, too, and now we, in Vancouver, have to travel hours on end to find giant trees in a province once covered in them. So for Samuel Johnson to complain about the lack of trees in Scotland is to ignore what his own people did to the rest of the world. Suddenly, the Scottish independence movement seems even more reasonable.

Now there is a movement (however unserious) to have Scotland join Canada. And it makes sense to me. They are both smaller, liberal countries dominated by larger nations to the south, now run by nationalist wackos. Not only that, they have in common English deforestation originating in the desire for a now antique navy.


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I Do Not Respect the Office of the President

Eight years ago conservative media and their followers claimed that Barack Obama needed to show more respect for the office of the presidency. They highlighted pictures of him without a coat on in the Oval Office and him sitting back at his chair with his feet on the desk. These actions were apparently disrespectful (despite similar pictures of Republican presidents doing similar things).

The point seems to be that even though they disapproved of the person in the office, they respected the office and demanded everyone else do the same. Well I’m not so sure it deserves my respect and here’s why.

After reading Obama’s book Dreams from my Father and listening to his speeches and watching his various interviews answering questions thoughtfully and intelligently and noting that he has left the White House without any scandals or affairs and hearing his former employees like John Favreau and Joe Biden gush over how great a boss he was I am convinced Barack Obama is a genuinely decent person. I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise (though I’m sure there are anecdotes from unverified sources floating around on Drudge or Breitbart to challenge me).

That being said, despite the decency Obama seems to embody, he has done some terrible things as officeholder of the presidency. I don’t need to list them all, for they are well known. His use of drones to terrorize the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, his waging of wars, his ramping up of the surveillance state, and his deportation of immigrants top the list. Some terrible things, like the failure to close Guantanamo Bay detention center and the weakness of the ACA, I take as a limitation of the power of the presidency with a minority congress. But these other offences to decency are his responsibility as Commander in Chief and head of the Executive Branch.

Because Obama seems like such a decent human and because such actions are not unique to his presidency I suggest that such injustices are due to the nature of the office of the president and not the president himself.

Time will tell. I imagine and predict that the Obamas will likely be the most consequential first family post presidency in history, even Jimmy Carter. They are young and healthy and full of ideas and have a lot of people on their side. His time as cultural force is certainly not over. And this time outside of the presidency may free him to do more good with less bad because the office of the presidency is, by nature, flawed.

And so here we are with a new President who is, by almost every standard, not a decent person. I again need not list all the evidence of his terribleness pre-presidency, but just consider that Obama had no affairs, scandals, and few dissenters from his employees and note the contrast that Trump displays. If such a disrespectful person enters an unrespectable office, what can we expect in the next four years? If the office of the presidency compels decent people to do indecent things to others, what will an indecent person do in such a position?

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Martin Luther King Jr., the Prophet Amos, and the Vietnam War

Several years ago I presented a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting in Atlanta on Martin Luther King’s rhetoric as fitting in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. I was intending the paper to be the first step in a longer project on the Hebrew Bible’s role in the civil rights movement.

Alas, I didn’t get very far beyond the initial paper in my project as other things got in the way (like my unrelated dissertation), but I revisited the initial presentation this morning and thought it might be of interest to some people on this Martin Luther King day.

One of the reasons I chose to write on the speech I did (“Beyond Vietnam” from 1967) was because I think that speech is somewhat shocking compared to the defanged version of King that we often see today. “Beyond Vietnam” makes sense of Vietnam veteran John McCain’s opposition to establishing Martin Luther King day as a holiday in 1983.

But as I hope is evident in the paper, the incendiary nature of “Beyond Vietnam” is apropos to the model King employs in delivering it — the prophet Amos. We need to be reminded every year of the often radical positions of Martin Luther King. Likewise, and even more so, we need to be reminded to the radical positions of the Hebrew prophets that came before him and whom he loved to quote.

(Two more notes: like many SBL papers, the one below is not a final draft and it has also been abbreviated to fit the time slot of the section at the meeting, which is why there are headings with no text in them. Also, the footnotes don’t transfer easily to WordPress’s cut and paste system so I’ll link to the footnoted pdf of the paper here: essay-on-mlk-and-prophets.)

For context, here’s the speech:

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Amos, and the Vietnam War

by Andrew Zack Lewis

2. Introduction

In Martin Luther King’s later years, as he becomes more frustrated by the lack of progress of his movement, as his influence wanes, and as the Vietnam War escalates, he shifts his persona as an antitype of Moses to an antitype of the prophets—not leading people toward his dream, but crying out in the wilderness for justice. In particular, he seems to identify most closely to the prophet Amos. This paper argues that in his first major public denunciation of the Vietnam War, King uses Amos as a model of a prophet crying out against this government when his conscience will not allow him to remain silent.

3. King as Theologian, Preacher, and Biblical Interpreter

Though the public perceives King as mainly a civil rights leader, whose Christian Theology is incidental, King saw himself as first and foremost a preacher. His sermons and speeches are the culmination of a childhood saturated with the language of the Black Church, a young adulthood spent studying theology formally in the academy, and, according to one his teachers, a “mind and heart deeply steeped in biblical teaching.” Though many have highlighted King’s formal training in seminary and in his doctoral work, pointing to his studies of Niebuhr and Tillich, among other major theological minds, more recently scholars have noted the major influence of the Black church on his thought. It was the Black church, in particular, that inspired his use of the Bible, which undergirds much of his writings. Luther Ivory notes that King “was… a product of a black religious tradition that regarded the Scripture as the most important lens through which to interpret reality.” Richard Lischer describes the role of the Bible in the Black church as a mirror that the preacher holds up to the congregation, to which “the people respond by recognizing themselves in it.”

Keith Miller, who is one of the foremost scholars on the rhetoric and sources of King’s speeches and sermons, describes the use of the Bible in black folk sermons as one where the Bible is the sole authority that undergirds the argument of the sermon.  That is, truth is already proclaimed in the Bible, and other truths must agree with those found in Scripture. The biblical story that black folk preachers, along with King raise up to their congregation more than any other is that of the Exodus.

4. Typology as Hermeneutical Method for Biblical Interpretation

(a) Exodus as Archetype

King’s first major public address exploited the typology inherent in his cultural upbringing. African American slaves viewed the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage as archetypical of their own hopes and experiences. In May 1956, on the two year anniversary of the landmark court case Brown v. Board of Education, King was asked to preach at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and gave a sermon called “The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore,” in which he highlighted liberation movements from around the world as indicative of God’s Providence displayed in that early episode of Israel. Exodus, therefore, is a paradigm for God’s activities in world history.

Obviously, Exodus remained an important type from which to draw for King up until his death. His final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” posits King as Moses looking into a promised land that lies in the future. Between these two landmark speeches lies multiple references to the Exodus in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. For instance, the march to Selma acts as an antitype to the Exodus out of Egypt.

Explicit antitypes of the Exodus abound in the work of King and the Black church in general, but the Exodus so saturates the culture that imagery often lies implicitly in the works of King that are not evident to casual listeners. Keith Miller argues that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

explodes closed memories of the Exodus by reconceptualizing a hermeneutic of (Second) Isaiah as he interprets African-Americans’ experience of oppression and exile in Babylon/America and their hope for a new Exodus. Drawing on African-American political rhetoric, King spotlights biblical writers’ dialogue with each other and extends the arc of biblical narrative into the present.

Miller highlights direct quotes from King of Isaiah 40:4-5, which, to biblically literate readers, refers to Isaiah’s new Exodus from Babylon. The typology that Second Isaiah employs gives license to King to employ it as well. Second Isaiah broadens the scope of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to a hope for all oppressed peoples, since “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low” in King’s dream. Miller’s claim, then, is that by invoking this passage in the litany of dreams at the end of the speech, King is extending the typology of the Exodus beyond the immediate context of Second Isaiah to all of history. He also claims that this is the key to understanding the speech. Miller argues that Second Isaiah has landed in Washington D.C. to present an oracle of a new Exodus vicariously through the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Miller also notes that King invokes the words of Amos in his speech and that Amos’s argument that God’s Providence extends beyond the the children of Israel and Judah emerges in Amos’s declaration that both the Syrians and Philistines experienced an Exodus. Amos emerges frequently in King’s speeches, particularly Amos 5:24, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” which is a common refrain for him throughout his career. However, years after “I Have a Dream,” when King’s influenced has waned considerably, and his optimism becomes strained by setbacks toward civil rights and especially the escalating war in Vietnam, King seems to embody the prophet Amos in a more profound way.

5. King’s last years

(a) Loss of influence

Shortly after giving his famous speech in Washington, he won the Nobel Peace Prize  and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. However, other events depressed him to the point that he would declare that his dream had become a nightmare, such as “when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham… [when he] moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw [his] black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty… [when he] watched [his] black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage… turn to misguided riots to try to solve” their problems.

The other major issue that he claims turned his dream into a nightmare is the Vietnam War, which, along with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, forced him more and more to address global issues that went beyond the civil rights for blacks in the United States. Though he does not seem to have changed his philosophy on the interconnectedness of all justice and injustice, he had resisted up until America’s conflict overseas forced him into it.

(b) Interconnectedness of Justice

In his short book, The Measure of a Man (1959), King writes:

We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable net-work of mutuality, and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you are not what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

Despite this early sentiment and other, similar reactions to his trip to India in 1957, most people still saw King as merely a leader of civil rights in the somewhat narrow construct of mid-Century America. His acknowledgment of other issues that seemed to go beyond the immediate issue of segregation like the problem of poverty in general and economic inequality beyond racial inequality as well as state-supported violence against nations half-way around the world confused some of his allies in the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson went from being one of his supporters in desegregation to one of his targets in his criticisms of the Vietnam War.

His waning popularity, coupled with a conscience that needled him to respond to the violent activity overseas finally led to a strikingly condemnatory speech at Riverside Church in New York City, one year to the day before his death.

6. Beyond Vietnam as Reflection of Amos

(a) Genre of Beyond Vietnam

The speech “Beyond Vietnam,” alternatively titled “A Time to Break Silence,” at first glance bears little in common with his other famous addresses. In particular, the speeches and sermons mentioned previously, “The Death of Evil on the Seashore,” “I Have a Dream,” and “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” not only use the Exodus typology to illumine the argument, but they follow deductive logic typical of black folk sermons. “Beyond Vietnam,” by contrast, embodies an inductive argument, amassing large amounts of evidence to prove his argument. Keith Miller is largely critical of “Beyond Vietnam” since it lacks the rhetorical thrust of King’s more typical sermons, also pointing to its lack of biblical references. Though Miller is partially correct that biblical references are sparser than in other sermons, I should point out that many iterations of the speech lack the final section, where he finishes the speech with Amos 5:24. Miller’s source is one of these versions.

Though explicit references to the Bible are rare in “Beyond Vietnam,” it is my contention that the entire speech parallels the book of Amos in many ways and the generic differences between it and his other sermons contributes to these parallels.

(b) King’s early identification with the prophet Amos

King had obviously appreciated the prophet Amos early in his career since he often quotes Amos 5:24. He also occasionally compares Amos to Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, whom he claims are all “maladjusted” to the social order of the world and which should compel people to be likewise maladjusted. Likewise, in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” he writes, “Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns… I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” Obviously, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah are the prophets to whom he refers.

(c) Decision to oppose Vietnam War

(d) Radical Identification with Amos in 1967

When circumstances compelled King to oppose the Vietnam War publicly it seems he begins to identify more heavily with Amos and his parallels with the prophet do seem striking enough to notice the identification, even if King did not recognise it himself.

The brief descriptions of the character of Amos in his eponymous book point to a person with whom a mid-century black civil rights leader might have identified, particularly one criticised for “overstepping his role.” Though no one seems quite sure of Amos’s social standing at the time of his prophecies, at the time of King’s activity, most considered Amos to be poor and subservient to the upper classes. One scholar describes him as having “belonged to one of the poorest and most exploited classes, that of the manual labourers, which came into being in Israel… following the dissolution of the traditional tribal structures…” We are certain that Amos was somewhat an outsider, coming from Tekoa in Judah, while prophesying against Israel. When Amos does speak out against the abuses of power and hypocrisy in the Northern Kingdom, Amaziah criticises him for being an outsider unqualified to speak out against the state.

Martin Luther King, though not a shepherd or orchard keeper, does come from the underclasses of his time. The establishment had come to accept him for promoting civil rights for African-Americans, but when he began to criticise the Johnson administration for its role in the war, the government and the national newspapers attacked him and attempted to belittle him for “getting out of his depth.”

In King’s autobiography, he explains his reason for denouncing violence in Asia with a quote from Amos himself:

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I nevertheless am greatly saddened that such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. They seem to forget that before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call, and when God speaks, who can but prophesy.

(e) Parallels between Beyond Vietnam and Amos

(i) negativity

When King does finally speak out, with the incendiary “Beyond Vietnam,” more parallels emerge with the largely negative oracles of Amos. Rather than the lofty dreams of some of his other speeches and his confidence in a providential arc of the universe bending towards justice, he spends most of his speech condemning the United States for prosecuting an unjust war while injustices still rage at home. While Amos in chapter 4 compares Israel to the Egypt God helped it escape when he writes, “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt” (4:10), King compares America’s crimes against the peasants of Vietnam with the Germans it defeated in World War II. King writes, “What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” King calls his own government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

(ii) International in scope

Though King and Amos both reserve their greatest criticisms for their own governments, they still share an international focus. Justice knows no boundaries in these particular works. Amos’s criticisms of other nations are more extensive than King’s, but they are really meant to call greater attention on the crimes and hypocrisies of his countrymen. He begins his prophecy with oracles against Israel’s neighbors, making the rhetoric of his eventual condemnation of Israel that much more cutting. King’s condemnations are embedded in his arguments and lack the teeth of Amos’s, but they do serve the same purpose—that of putting greater focus on the sins of his own country. He says:

This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation… Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue…

Elsewhere, King highlights France, America’s ally, as an unjust coloniser of Vietnam, sparing few of his invectives.

Both speakers, therefore, recognise injustices through many nation-states, not just the ones toward which the speeches themselves are directed. Likewise, they recognise the international nature of God’s liberative grace. Just as Amos notes that God delivered the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir (9:7), King recognises the liberation movement in North Vietnam as one that seeks justice from cruel colonisers, one of which, Diem, the U.S. supported. In other writings of the same era, King gives encouragement to other liberation movements throughout the world and that sentiment is present in this speech.

(iii) The Problem of Poverty

Though both King and Amos have international concerns, their main focus is domestic poverty and issues that distract from its alleviation. Amos rails against the cult in its collusion with the state and other powerful people. Those who are wealthy enough to own two houses (3:15) seem to care nothing for justice in the streets. (4:1; 5:12) In his book of woes in chapter 6, he describes in detail extreme wealth and how God will send the wealthy into exile first. Complicit in the affluent of Israel are the religious leaders who are so corrupt that they will not hear the words of God when they do come through Amos. (7:13) The cult is obviously meaningless to the people since they wait for the ceremonies to cease in order to do more business and exploit the poor to their own gain. Amos quotes God as saying that God hates the religious festivals and will not even accept their offerings. The cult ceases its usefulness and that is the impetus for one of the biblical phrases King quotes the most in his career and the line that King uses to conclude his speech: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:23-24)

Though the ostensible subject of King’s speech is the injustice of the War in Vietnam, note that the title is “Beyond Vietnam.” The war, he claims, is merely a symptom of a larger problem and when he lists his reasons for “bringing Vietnam into the field of [his] moral vision,” his first is that the funds going toward the war distract from the programs that went towards the “rehabilitation of [America’s] poor.” Meanwhile the government sent the children of the poor to fight and die in the war itself.

King’s solidarity with the poor parallels the common reception of Amos at the time—that Amos’s invective “against the abuses of the rich would simply have been an expression of his solidarity with the poor and dispossessed.” The mission of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is to save the soul of America and King feels that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He finds materialism, racism, and militarism intrinsically related, calling them “giant triplets” that keep American society “thing-oriented” rather than “people-oriented.”

(iv) Finales of Hope

The tone of both Amos and King in “Beyond Vietnam” is angry, but not without hope. Amos ends with a brief oracle of hope that alleviates the unrelenting condemnation and announcements of impending doom. After the exile, the Lord will bring his people back and new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. Amos’s finale resembles many of King’s final statements, and “Beyond Vietnam” has a similar tone of hope, the last line being a direct quote from Amos. However, King’s finale includes an ethical call that Amos lacks. It seems that for Amos, the chance to repent and hold back judgment has passed. Amos merely reminds his hearers that God will bring them back from exile once their time of punishment has passed. King, however, attempts to be constructive, suggesting concrete things that the government can do to leave Vietnam. At the same time, however, he shares with Amos the understanding that a time will arrive when it will be too late. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today,” he says, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”

(f) Differences

Obviously differences abound between the two works. Beyond Vietnam is not a direct allegory of Amos, after all. Amos does not seem much concerned with militarism and King does not seem concerned with idolatry or empty religiosity. Regardless, King’s identification with Amos allows him to use Amos as a model for his own speech.

The overall tone is more important here than whether King applies specific complaints of Amos to his own situation. King normally overlooks the specifics of oracles of woe in the ancient world for the universal hope that comes with their eschatological vision. It is no wonder why King consistently, throughout his career, relies on specific eschatological visions of the prophets: a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” (Isaiah 40:4) when “Men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not rise up against nations; neither shall they study war any more,” (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3) when “the lion and the lamb will lay down together,” and when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” These are the dreams of the prophets in the midst of troubled times and they are the dreams of King in his own troubled times. The future has not yet arrived, but King and the prophets hope for the same future. Their presents, however, differ, and King responds to the specific problems that he encounters, which, though related, are obviously not identical to those of Amos. Nevertheless, similarities do exist and it should not surprise anyone that a preacher who views the Bible as a mirror should see himself in a prophet with some similar concerns as he has.


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Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: The Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1956. The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.,_Sermon_at_the_Service_of_Prayer_and_Thanksgiving_at_Cathedral_of_St._John_the_Divine.htm (accessed 4 November 2010,

Washington, James M., (ed.) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, 1990.

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Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Word That Moved America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Miller, Keith D. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Its Sources. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Miller, Keith D. “Second Isaiah Lands in Washington, Dc: Martin Luther King, Jr.’S ‘I Have a Dream’ as Biblical Narrative and Biblical Hermeneutic.” Rhetoric Review 26, no. 4 (2007): 405-24.

Scoggin, J. Alberto. The Prophet Amos. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1987.


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