The Bird About Our Necks

Once upon a time, we read poetry. For most of history, the art of song and rhyme was celebrated in almost every culture. There was something about the rhythm of spoken words so carefully crafted that captured the ears of our forefathers—it was something in which the ineffable was made expressible, understandable, and translatable across experience. From warrior-bards eternalizing their deeds in song to the lover searching for the perfect words to capture the beauty of his beloved, poems excel at capturing that which eludes mere description. Poetry is human in the most basic sense—the recitation and composition of poetry has always been a crucial component of a well-rounded education. Even today, many young students busy themselves with the memorization and analysis of lyrics and verse.

       But poetry is to be sequestered neither to the past nor the schoolhouse. Perhaps it belongs in the seminary too. After all, the Holy Scriptures themselves abound with poetry. Moreover, it is often said that pastors should supplement their diet of Scripture with poetry, so that when they ascend to the pulpit, a certain beauty of expression might accompany the proclamation of the Word. Poets such as John Milton, Dante Alighieri, and many others have contributed to an impressive corpus of Christian poetry, and at times, even theologians, overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the Object of their study, cannot withstand the urge to speak in poetic terms in lieu of ordinary language. Indeed, many writers use poetic references as illustrations—it is into this last category that the subject of this article falls.

       In his essay Nature and Scripture, Cornelius Van Til puts forth the doctrine of general revelation into four categories: the necessity of natural revelation, the authority of it, the sufficiency of it, and the perspicuity of it. In short, Van Til is writing that general revelation—that of Himself which God has revealed to all men through His acts of creation and providence—is 1) necessary as the backdrop upon which special revelation is unfolded, 2) authoritative to man in that it comes from God Himself, 3) sufficient to accomplish that for which it is purposed (namely, to reveal God’s goodness and power and wisdom as well as His wrath against a rebellious humanity), and 4) intelligible enough to convict all men.

       While engaging in a discussion of humanity’s inexcusability before the throne of God, Van Til employs a seemingly idiomatic phrase:

“The natural man accuses or excuses himself only because his own utterly depraved consciousness continues to point back to the original state of affairs. The prodigal son can never forget the father’s voice. It is the albatross forever about his neck.”  

       That last line might sound familiar to students of 19th-century English Romantic literature—it is a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  The purpose of this article is to expand upon the analogy here introduced by Van Til. But first, some interaction with the poem is necessary before talk of sailors and seabirds makes any sense at all.

The year is 1834—there is a man walking the London streets on his way to the wedding of some kin late one evening. There are no streetlights to guide his way, but the way is familiar to him, so he walks quickly. The sounds of merry-making echo from the fog-haloed windows of the reception hall across the dim, damp street. As he starts to cross the street, an old, gray man in sailor’s garb grabs his shoulder. With no introduction he begins to speak: “There was a ship . . .” Startled, the man moves as though to pass the sailor, but the frosty glitter in his eyes stop him in his tracks, and the old sailor begins his tale.

The Mariner hath his will, and he cannot choose but hear.

       The Mariner’s tale is a dismal one: he was a sailor on a ship charting its course through the Southern Seas when a cataclysmic storm blew the ship into the icy wastes of the Antarctic circle. When night came to light, the sailors found themselves surrounded by ice with nary a breeze to push their unlucky vessel forward. But the story of the sailors does not end here. An albatross, arriving out of nowhere, flies round and about the ship; and, as though reacting to the presence of the bird, the ice bed splits into pieces with a thunderous crack. As the albatross flies north, the southern wind grows strong, as if Nature so loved the bird that it wished to send its winds along the seabird’s soaring path and the ship with it. Before long, the sailors are back in friendly waters on account of their feathered friend.

       But at this point, a pained look clouds the Mariner’s bright eyes. He looks at the man and rasps in whisper, “With my cross-bow I shot the Albatross” (81-82).

He continues:

    “And I had done a hellish thing,

    And it would work ‘em woe:

    For all averred, I had killed the bird

    That made the breeze to blow.

    Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,

    That made the breeze to blow!” (91-96)

As the albatross dies, the winds also die, stranding the sailors in a deadly doldrum. The fickle sailors turn on the Mariner, blaming him for their present predicament. In anger, they retrieve the dead bird and tie it upon a cord about the Mariner’s neck. The Mariner mourns, saying:

    “Ah! well a-day! what evil looks

    Had I from old and young!

    Instead of the cross, the Albatross

    About my neck was hung” (139-142).

Then, Death herself visits the ship, and all but the Mariner perish—that is, they perish because of the Mariner’s original act of senseless violence against the innocent.

Since the time of the its publishing, The Rime has dominated English literature (and with good reason). The symbol of the albatross is replete with rich opportunities for analogy and metaphor, and the religious unity of humanity and nature in the poem provide ample material for any number of literary riffs, homages, and references. The well-to-do reader might also recognize connections to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—indeed, The Rime exerted great influence upon Melville in both plot and theme.

       But why did Van Til use the Mariner’s public penalty as an analogy to every person’s cognizance of inexcusable sinfulness? What is our relationship to the bird hanging about our own necks? The albatross of The Rime was a visible reminder to the Mariner of his guilt—a reminder that the sailors were doomed to die because of his single act of senseless evil. In a sense, the albatross became a memento mori, only without the promise of resurrection.

       The sin of Adam warped the fabric of creation. One needs only to observe the daily news to be convinced that something in this world has gone horribly awry—something must be wrong, because if such a dismal world is all there is and all there can be, then reality and existence are hardly worth the trouble. We prodigals hear the echo of our father’s voice every day—all of us can hear His voice and know that things are not as they ought to be. The consequences of our rebellion against God make up the albatross about our necks.

“We prodigals hear the echo of our Father’s voice every day—all of us can hear His voice and know that things are not as they ought to be.”

       But it does not seem that the world believes this narrative—rather, unbridled optimism about the potential of humans in the world is proclaimed ex animo by the world. Or instead, nihilistic pessimism reigns in its place with death being the ultimate end. Both outlooks try to account for our experience, but both are products of lies and delusion. Even if one believes that humanity is the problem, that belief often contains within itself a belief in the ability of humanity to overcome its own issues—it’s an in-house game. Or the problems come from a few bad eggs, or they come from unfortunate circumstances. The excuses are endless. Despite all attempts at a remonstrance of sorts, humanity’s absolute culpability lies forgotten.

       This point is no surprise to Christians. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  The unbeliever, lest he be overcome by the force of the wrath of God, clamps down upon his conscience in a fit of self-delusion. The bird hangs about his neck, but he shuts his eyes, believing with a fallen heart that if he pretends the albatross is alive and that all is well, then all might really be well again—the unrepentant can only feel secure within the walls of his inward-bent heart.

       So, the alternative is to wish away the albatross and fantasize that a dead bird does not really hang around our necks. How foolish, idiotic even, would it seem if the Mariner went joyfully about his duties as if the albatross hanging from his neck was only a figment of the imagination. An albatross is no mere dove—the wingspan of the albatross can exceed eleven feet. The hanging mass of such a gigantic bird demanded attention. Its weight would pull down the head of the Mariner such that his eyes could scarcely rise to see the horizon. The stilled, once-graceful wings of the albatross might drag across the desk and fall underfoot. Most of all, the unmistakable stench of decay would fill the nostrils of not just the Mariner, but all those near him as well.

The dead bird demands attention—truly, it commands attention: but we look elsewhere.

       Our own world has also forgotten the smell of death. Our sin has pinned our eyes to the ground—we cannot look up, “but that’s alright,” we say, “there’s nothing up there anyway.” Our hearts are like taxidermy—possessing the mere appearance of a life-of-sorts but only really experiencing a shadowy dearth of life. With glazed eyes we have imagined life in the midst of death—our death. Our suppression of the truth of God and the reality of our sin is the epitome of self-delusion—it is true irrationality. It is logical, in the fallen sense, to exchange the truth of God for the faux freedom of a void and null reality—after all, an impersonal universe cannot exercise righteous judgment. The calling of the rebel is to claim transcendent wisdom when all he possesses is earthly foolishness.

       But for those to whom God has given life, before the eyes of those whom God has shone his great light, such folly appears as it really is—folly. By the Spirit of Christ we are aroused from the slumber of sin and see the unflattering, uncompromising light of truth revealed in the albatross about our necks. And when we see that bird—right when we feel as though the weight about our necks will drag us deep down into the belly of the sea—God acts, releasing us from the tyranny of sin through repentance and trust in Jesus Christ.

       Indeed, the symbol of the Albatross is rich enough to accommodate both the wrath of God revealed against man and the wrath of God poured out upon Christ on man’s behalf. The blood of the innocent is upon the hands of man—his guilt is clearly marked by the bird about his neck. But is it not also the blood of the Innocent One which washed that guilt away? Did not Christ receive the bolt of the cross(bow) on our behalf? Through the evil work of Adam, the albatross is hung about our necks; in the righteous work of Christ, the albatross becomes a cross.

       For believers in Christ, the original reality of the albatross is unfounded and replaced. No longer does the sign and seal of condemnation hang around our necks. Rather, instead of a mark of shame about our necks, Christ writes his name upon our hearts. When one who trusts in Christ stands before the throne, God the Father no longer sees the sin of Adam on our chest—He sees the righteousness of Christ forever hanging about our necks.

    “He loved the bird that loved the man

    Who shot him with his bow” (404-405).

Shelby Myers is a currently undertaking theological studies at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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