God speaks through wombs.
An Interview with Drew Jackson
I read my first poem by Drew Jackson when his friend, Ian, sent one into Fathom. It was a bit unusual to receive a poem from the friend-of-the-poet, but Ian saw something in Drew’s work. He knew that it was significant—that it was needed. And after reading that first poem, I knew it too. Drew and I began a correspondence over some of the work he was doing in the book of Luke. I told him that, after reading his poems, I wanted to start my own publishing company just so I could publish his work. And I meant it. Sadly, that wasn’t possible, so InterVarsity Press got the privilege, and now each of you has the chance to see what we have all seen in God Speaks Through Wombs.
Reading this collection feels like going to church with Langston Hughes. As a pastor, Drew’s understanding of the book of Luke is theologically rich. And as a poet, he is able to address the gospel with a bold, prophetic voice, shedding new light on familiar passages. His voice is consistent, while his style shifts to match the particular mood and theme of the passage. I’m not sure where this collection belongs in my library. Poetry? Theology? Commentary? In the end, I don’t think I will have to choose, because it will end up sitting right on my desk, within close reach.
Welcher: How did this project first begin—what inspired you?
Jackson: I could name so many things that inspired me in writing this project—my mother, other poets, musicians like Nas and John Coltrane—but the single biggest inspiration for this project was the psalms. Some rabbis and scholars throughout history believed that the five books of the psalms were written to be in conversation with the five books of the Torah. They aren’t commentaries on the Torah, but they are in conversation with the themes. This would mean, for example, that the second book of the psalms (Psalm 42–72) is in conversation, to some extent, with the book of Exodus. So when we hear the psalmist in Psalm 42 thirsting and panting in the desert for God to show up, we can hear the collective voice of the Hebrew people in the background crying out for God to come and act for their liberation from enslavement. When we interact with the psalms in this way, it brings out new meanings for the text that we may have previously passed over.
As I pondered that, I began to ask myself the question, “what would it sound like if the Gospels gave rise to poetry in our day?” Out of curiosity, I simply began to explore this. It was really for my own benefit. I wasn’t writing for anyone else. It was simply an exercise in imagination. The fact that it turned into a book still boggles my mind!
Welcher: As a pastor who reads commentaries and writes weekly sermons, what does poetry have to offer that other genres do not? What draws you to it?
Jackson: One of the things I love most about writing poetry is that I can write without offering an explanation. There’s a freedom in that for me. It’s almost as if every poem should end with the words, “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” When writing sermons I always have the congregation in mind, wanting to make things as clear as they can be. With poetry, if I’m honest, I’m not thinking much about the reader. I first and foremost write for myself—out of my own curiosity and imagination. If my own poetic musings end up connecting with someone, I love that; if not, that’s ok, too. That particular poem may not have been for them, or it may connect with them in a different way at a different time.
I also love how poetry requires me to pay attention to every word—more than that, every syllable and every sound. It’s like a puzzle. With so many words and sounds available to me, which ones will fit together to create the picture that this poem wants to be? Finding the right word and sound is satisfying, just like finding that puzzle piece that fits just right.
Similarly, reading poetry does something different for me as well. It demands that I slow down, pay attention, and invite my childlike imagination and curiosity to the table. It has become a spiritual practice for me, in a way that reading a commentary could never be, because of the ways I have to invite my whole self to participate. There’s also something deeply sacred that happens on the page when a poet invites the reader into the intimate space of their soul and does so with raw honesty. Reading poetry makes me a better friend, neighbor, and pastor, because it’s all about listening to the soul of another person, which becomes an invitation to also listen to my own soul.
Welcher: How do you hope this collection will be used by readers—as a devotional? A commentary? Public readings in church?
Jackson: Honestly, I don’t really have any expectations for how this collection will be used—that’s partly because I didn’t write these poems with utility in mind. My hope is that however this collection is used, it would lead people deeper into their sacred imaginations and, once there, to discover something of the love, beauty, and justice that sits at the center of God’s heart. I’ve been blown away so far with the different ways people have made use of these poems—devotionally, as illustrative aid for sermons, public readings in church. It’s humbling to see the collection being engaged in these different ways.
Welcher: I love the title—would you tell us more about its significance?
Jackson: The title, God Speaks Through Wombs, came out of the poem I wrote of the same name. In the poem I say:
In the days of empires
And puppet regimes
Wrested and discarded
Because they were unviable.
And later in the poem,
But God speaks through wombs,
Birthing prophetic utterances
This poem was written in reflection on the story of Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist after she was said to have a barren womb. At the time, barrenness was seen as a marker of God’s curse on someone, because in a patriarchal society women were only seen as valuable to the extent they could produce offspring. Elizabeth’s barrenness, as well as her older age, would have caused others to socially marginalize her in certain ways, but God chooses to break in, to speak, and to act through this woman who would have been relegated to the bottom and edges of society. This is the story that Luke tells throughout his gospel of how God shows up and acts in the world—not through the halls of power, but through the hidden places and hidden people that have been shamed, disgraced, and marginalized by society. This is why the subtitle of the book is Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming—the Gospels are an invitation to discover and participate in the movement and activity of God in the unexpected places of our word. When I say, “God speaks through wombs,” I’m not primarily talking about the physical birthing process, I’m talking about everyone who has been told by the empires of this world that they are only good for what they can produce, and otherwise can be cast aside and forgotten. God’s activity in the world critiques and subverts this entire way of thinking. Divine favor is placed on what we have disgraced.
At another level, this title is speaking to the essence of who God is. I love what the thirteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart once said: “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” In a sense, this title is meant to make us think deeply about our ideas of God.
I must also say that I titled this collection God Speaks Through Wombs with much trepidation. As a man, I really struggled with saying anything about birthing and wombs. I spoke with a number of different women to gain their perspectives, not only on the title but also on the poem itself, and ended up changing some wording from the original draft of the poem due to their input. I want to continue to be open to things I may have missed.
Welcher: In the introduction of your book, you talk about your mother. How has her influence shaped your life and your work?
Jackson: My mother has shaped my life and work in so many profound ways that I cannot begin to fully name. I wrote this book in her memory, as she passed away in 2013 after a battle with cancer. I always say that she was the person who discipled me more than anyone in my life. She herself was a poet and carried a prophetic voice. When I think about someone who God spoke and acted powerfully through, she comes to mind, despite her marginalization as a Black woman who grew up in poverty in the projects of North Philadelphia. As I say in my introduction, “she taught me more about the liberating love of God than any pastor, priest, or professor,” even though she never stepped behind a pulpit because she was told she was not allowed. Everywhere she went she embodied a deep compassion and was not afraid to challenge the status quo when it was causing people to be harmed. She’s also someone I would consider a mystic—she walked with a deep, moment-by-moment intimacy with God that I can’t really put into words. She was a gift, and it is an honor for me to carry on what she taught me.
Welcher: I love how you state: “I write these poems from my interest in the contours of biblical and theological discourse, and I also write unapologetically as a Black man . . .” In what ways is this collection “unapologetic”?
Jackson: What I mean is that I don’t and won’t make any apology for bringing my Blackness to my reading of the text. We all have lenses when we read scripture. To have a lens is not a bad thing, and the goal is not to get rid of our lenses. That’s impossible. The goal is to be aware of the lenses that we are viewing and interpreting things through. I believe that when we can do that, and we bring those things together to the table of interpretation, it can provide us with a fuller, richer, deeper sense of the text.
I wanted my experience of moving through this world as a Black man in the American Empire to help me get inside this story that Luke is telling—a story about how God shows up to people who have known life on the underside of the empire. A people who know what it is like to be enslaved, and who wonder why, after so many years, they are still dealing with oppressive forces. When I read about Jesus receiving the news of his cousin being arrested, I can’t help but process the reality of mass incarceration in this country, as well the history of our modern-day prophets being surveilled and jailed because they were perceived as threats. When I hear about John’s surprise that soldiers and officers have shown up to be baptized, I can’t help but think of the history of police brutality that has been the cause of so much tension and suspicion within the Black community regarding law enforcement. When I read about the elders in the community, like Simeon and Anna, speaking words of affirmation and life over Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, I can’t help but think of the old church mothers and fathers who have played similar roles within the Black church. When I read the parables of Jesus, I can’t help but think about the prominence of oral tradition within the Black community throughout history, that still exists today, and how so much wisdom was passed down through story. I bring all of this to the text, and I don’t believe I need to put it on the shelf in order to be caught up in this story.
Welcher: How do you approach the themes of power and empire in the book of Luke in this collection?
Jackson: Luke set his gospel within historical context—“in the time of King Herod of Judaea, in the days of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius.” He wants his readers to know that when Jesus showed up on the scene, the Roman Empire held sway over the known world. Caesar Augustus was called lord, believed to be a divine son of god. Rome used its power to brutalize Israel, and many other peoples, into submission. They declared peace, the Pax Romana, but it came through the edge of the sword. Jesus shows up on the scene displaying a different sort of power—not the power of domination but that of self-giving love, and declaring a different kind of peace—the shalom of God that is not devoid of justice. The announcement of the kingdom of God is a critique of Rome and all the empires throughout history that have ruled through violence and oppression. The power of the empire is power over, but what we see in Jesus is power with, power alongside. In the kingdom of God, people are not oppressed by power but instead are empowered to be the fullness of the image-bearers of God that we are. Jesus does not hoard power but shares it—giving it away willingly. In Luke, we see, in particular, the ways that Jesus empowers those that the empire has stripped of their power.
Welcher: Your poem, All In, is short but profound. Would you talk a bit about what solidarity meant for Jesus and what it means for us, today?
Jackson: This poem is a short reflection on the baptism of Jesus, and in the poem, I refer to this as “baptism into human skin.” In other words, I’m also reflecting on the Incarnation here. In Jewish understanding, there’s no such thing as “baptism,” but it’s similar to what was called tvilah, immersion into naturally sourced water for the purpose of ritual purification in specific circumstances. And as John says about the baptism that he was performing, it was for the forgiveness of sins. This practice was also used for converts to Judaism. Jesus, being sinless, was neither ritually unclean nor in need of conversion to the faith, so it’s interesting to explore what was going on for him. Even John understood that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized.
My understanding is that Jesus’s baptism was a symbolic act of solidarity with humanity. Part of the reason we have a hard time with this is because we see sin in purely individualistic terms, but to be human is to be a participant in this larger reality that consumes all of us. Or to say it another way, to be human is to be impacted by the force in this world that is tearing us apart from God, from one another, from creation, and from our very selves. We are all impacted by it and perpetuate it in different ways. Jesus immerses himself in the fullness of this reality and, in joining the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, Jesus takes on the responsibility and the pain of this reality, even though he did not cause it. To stand in the waters of baptism is to stand where the pain is, where the hurt is. This is where we find Jesus, and this is what it means to be in solidarity with the pain of the world. Jesus understands that if one person suffers, we all suffer; if one person is culpable, we all somehow share in that culpability. Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “no one is free until everyone is free. I’m not free until we’re all free.” To me, this is what solidarity means—it is to be so bound up with my brothers and sisters that their pain is my pain, their joy is my joy, their freedom is my freedom.
Welcher: You continually dignify the female characters in Luke and the women in your own life throughout this collection. It’s beautiful. How are women vital to the gospel story in Luke and in our churches today?
Jackson: Luke makes it a point to center the stories of women in his narrative. His gospel is often referred to as the Gospel of Women. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke puts the voices of Elizabeth and Mary on prominent display right at the beginning of his gospel. These two women are not portrayed as bystanders in this narrative, but they have power and offer weighty theological reflections. Mary’s Magnificat is a theological tour-de-force, and Luke wants to showcase that. Also, I love that Luke tells the story of Elizabeth being the one to name John, which was not what typically happened in the culture. Elizabeth’s husband is a priest named Zechariah, but Elizabeth is the one who hears from, believes in, and speaks the word of God with authority. This was surely a subversive message!
Luke mentions thirteen women in his gospel who don’t appear in any of the other gospels, which is significant, and they run the gamut from women who were trapped in poverty to women who had wealth and used it to support the ministry of Jesus. In my poem And Many Others I say, “they did own the bag/making it possible for a ragtag group of guys to get all the credit.” Luke’s point is to show how essential women were to the ministry of Jesus, even though the men get the shine most often. One important story is the account of Mary and Martha, when Mary sits at the feet of Jesus while Martha is in the back of the house doing things to make the guests feel welcome. Luke is the only one to tell this story. In that culture, and still today in the minds of some, a woman had a certain “place” that she belonged. The commentary on this story is often that we need to slow down like Mary to be with Jesus, but I believe Luke is also saying something more subversive about Mary’s choice to sit at the feet of Jesus, and Jesus’s invitation for her to sit. Only rabbis in training sat at the feet of their teachers. Mary was in the company of disciples, students, and I believe she was making a statement about where she belonged among the group of predominantly men. Jesus doesn’t dismiss her, or tell her she can’t teach, but welcomes her, and in doing so welcomes all women.
I believe this is the message that runs throughout Luke, and it is still a crucial word for our time. We still live in a world where women are silenced, not believed, paid less, and pushed to the margins. And this, unfortunately, is the culture in many churches as well. Luke’s gospel challenges this reality and points us toward a better, most just way of being human together. We need Luke’s gospel more than ever.
Welcher: What was the hardest part about writing this collection?
Jackson: The hardest part for me was the editing process because that’s the point when other eyes are critically looking at your work. I’m still learning how to navigate criticism of something so deeply personal as the poems I write. It was the first time I had to go through that with my poetry, and it wasn’t easy, but it was so helpful. Poetry is already a genre that, for the most part, attempts to say a lot with a few words, so trimming down and getting more concise is a difficult task.
Welcher: After the book of Luke, what other books of the Bible would you consider tackling with this form of poetic commentary?
Jackson: That’s a good question. I haven’t thought that far ahead. I’m just trying to finish this manuscript for the rest of Luke!
Cover image by Álvaro Serrano.