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Christianity Was Once an Eagle Message
Nils Bolander (1902-1959)
Translated from the Swedish by Martin S. Allwood
Christianity was once an eagle message
Sprung from the nest on the highest mountain peak
On diving wings that glittered.
But we chastened its bold feathers,
Competently straightened its cutting beak
And lo!—it was a black bird,
A tame loquacious raven.
Christianity was once a lion gospel
Always seeking a warm and living prey,
A young lion of Judah.
But we clipped its sharp, crooked claws,
Stilled its thirst for the blood of the heart
And turned it into a purring cottage cat.
Christianity was once a desert sermon,
Mean and sharp as the terrible africus,
Burning as the desert sand.
But we turned it into a garden idyll,
Mignonettes, asters and pious roses,
A romantic mood in Gethsemane.
Lord, take care of our pious cowardice!
Give it swift eagle wings and sharp lion’s claws!
Give it scent of wild honey and simoom
And then say with the Baptist’s voice:
This is the victory that conquers the world.
This is Christianity.
This week, we’re reading a poem by Swedish poet Nils Bolander.
Nils Bolander was born in Vasteras, Sweden, in 1902. His family was always involved in church – his father was a cathedral organist! – and Bolander became a minister of the Church of Sweden. He served as a pastor, and in 1958 became the Bishop of Lund. He was a bishop for just one year before he died in 1959. Bolander was known not only for his pastoral work, but for his writing, including poems and hymns.
In this poem, Bolander uses images from the Scriptures, and a definite touch of humor, to reflect on modern Christianity. In the first stanza, he writes: “Christianity was once an eagle message / Sprung from the nest on the highest mountain peak.” The eagle is one of the “four living creatures” of the Scriptures, which Christian tradition has associated with the four Gospels. The eagle is the image of St. John: as Venerable Bede wrote, “he is likened to the flying eagle… for indeed the eagle flies higher than all birds and is accustomed to thrust his gaze, more keen than that of all living things, into the rays of the sun.” Bolander evokes the power and the strangeness of the Gospel, sprung from the heights. But what have we done to this eagle? “We chastened its bold feathers, / Competently straightened its cutting beak.” We made it unable to soar—we turned the soaring eagle into “a black bird, / A tame loquacious raven.” The wild power of the Gospel has been domesticated. I love how Bolander says we’ve done this “competently.” We have been very effective at domesticating the Gospel!
“Christianity was once a lion gospel,” Bolander writes in the second stanza, “Always seeking a warm and living prey, / A young lion of Judah.” The “lion of Judah” is an image from the book of Genesis, with deep roots in the Jewish tradition; in the Book of Revelation, it is one of many images for Jesus. The lion is also associated with the Gospel of Mark. It is an image of power, strength, dignity—and wildness. This lion is on the hunt, seeking “a warm and living prey.” But, just as we clipped the eagle’s wings, we trimmed the “sharp, crooked claws” of the lion, and “Stilled its thirst for the blood of the heart.” We turned the lion Gospel “into a purring cottage cat.” We made it comfortable – cozy, even.
In the third stanza, Bolander evokes the preaching of St. John the Baptist. “Christianity was once a desert sermon, / Mean and sharp” as the desert plants, and “burning as the desert sand.” But this, too, we have tamed. We have managed to turn the desert into “a garden idyll,” with commonplace flowers and “pious roses”—“A romantic mood in Gethsemane.” That line captures the contradiction Bolander sees between Christianity as it really is and Christianity as it is practiced. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was in such agony that he sweated blood; for us, Gethsemane is just a garden, a “romantic mood.”
What Bolander laments, all through this poem, is the domestication of Christianity. This is not something that just happens: it’s something we actively do. The Gospel is strong, wild, and uncontainable—an eagle, a lion. But we are afraid to let Christ take us to the heights, to give him our heart’s blood, or to hear the “mean and sharp” words of the desert sermon. That would be asking too much of us. We want something we can hold on to, contain, control.
Bolander’s poem ends with a prayer, asking God to “take care of our pious cowardice,” and to give our faith “swift eagle wings and sharp lion’s claws,” the “scent of wild honey,” and the voice of the Baptist. “This,” Bolander exclaims, “This is Christianity”!
As a pastor in Europe during World War II, Nils Bolander saw first-hand how Christianity could be domesticated—how it could be neutralized. He saw how many church leaders failed to respond to the crisis of their day, or put up any resistance to the powers-that-be. Are we still doing that today? Is our Christianity a soaring eagle—or a tame raven? A lion—or a cat? This poem calls Christians to take another look at the Gospel, and to let it shock our certainties, and challenge even our pieties.




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