In “Nelson Mandela Talks to Tupac Shakur,” a word I was once familiar with, was used in an unfamiliar way. The word “gospel” always meant “good news” in Greek, a common term used in my religion class. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “gospel” means the body of religious doctrine taught by Jesus and the Apostles. The Oxford English Dictionary also states a gospel could represent something that guides human action.
In the poem “Nelson Mandela Talks to Tupac Shakur,” Nelson says to Tupac, “We read the bad / news of the ghettos / and tried to write a gospel they could / believe” (lines 12-16). From the context, readers understand Nelson and Tupac did not literally write gospels. Instead, Nelson Mandela wrote speeches. He was an important leader in the apartheid of South America. Leading a movement for human rights, freedom, and equality, he united South Americans through his words and protests. Tupac Shakur did not write gospels either. Tupac Shakur was a popular hip-hop, rap artist in the 1990s writing songs about racial relations and social issues in America. His lyrics sparked conversations across a wide spread audience because he addressed issues others ignored. His leadership was prominent by spreading awareness and being a voice for many.
Joseph Ross, the author of the collection of poems, did not use the word, “gospel,” to talk about Christian teachings. He used the second connotation to reference their words as a guide to human practices. Using this word emphasized the importance of Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur’s words that shaped them into leaders. Because of their leadership, their followers viewed these men as role models, or guides to human action. People need to be persuaded to join a revolution or fight for a cause. Leaders speak the message, and that message serves as a gospel for those followers.
I questioned Joseph Ross’s use of “altar” in the poem, “Santo Toribio: Altar.” The poem began with, “you sister saw you shot, / the floor became an altar” (lines 5-6). It concluded with altar in the ending scene, “our paper saint, the martyr, / we hope will save us / when we lie torn / between the cactus / on an altar of sand” (lines 15-20). Mentioned three times throughout this poem, the word was essential to his central message.
To find altar’s true meaning, I used the Oxford English Dictionary to generate definitions. The first definition stated it was a stand or table used for sacred rituals like sacrifices or offerings. The second defined altar as a Roman Catholic and Orthodox piece of furniture where the Eucharist is celebrated at Mass. Given the context, the immigrants were religious people who prayed to God and saints along their journey to a new life. The author fiddled with the second definition to prove his message.
The altar was where the most holy sacrament was performed. Without a church in the desert, the immigrants had to improvise. Every step they took became an altar because wherever they went, God was celebrated. The fleeing immigrants looked to God and their patron saint, Santo Toribio, to guide them throughout the dangerous journey. The fleeing immigrants’ trust in the greater beings filled them with strength, courage, and passion to purse a dangerous trek. Their strong faith was at the core of their survival. The word, altar, symbolized the importance of religion throughout their own journey.
Poet, Joseph Ross used words commonly associated with faith to convey messages throughout his collection of poems. The holy words gave a new take on religion. Religious language brought a connection to the overall message and a new understanding of religion itself for a variety of poems. Context is vital to understanding the author’s purpose of incorporating that word. Taking a word literally or figuratively could change the meaning of the poem and its impact on the reader.
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