Sunday, March 31, 2013

Word and Language: The Heart of a Theology of Christian Writing - Part 1

Word and language are at the heart of a theology of Christian writing for the obvious reason it is the heart of writing itself. In my first article, I stressed that our theology of writing must be biblically based, and it may seem to make such a proposition like this misses that point. But we will see that word and language are divine traits serving as the paradigm for human language and as such have a very profound impact on a theology of Christian writing.

But first, in this article, I want to consider what word and language are. I have consulted dictionaries on my shelf as well as some online ones, and the best definition of what I mean by ‘word’ is “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.”

Word as a principal carrier of meaning is the significant idea. A survey of the word meaning in online dictionaries and discussions (see, for example, Exploration Into the Meaning of the Word ‘Meaning’) explain meaning in terms of significance, value, and purpose, which are themselves interrelated. For something to have meaning, it must have significance, that is, it must point to something recognizable and discernable to our understanding. The value we discern of that which is pointed to is directly related to its significance; if it has a special or high value in our estimation, we may say it is very significant. Part of the value of anything is its purpose, especially as that purpose relates to me. Discovering the purpose of something is to discover something of its significance and value, and therefore of its meaning.

For the Christian, whose understanding of the nature of things is informed by the scriptures, these three - the significance, value, and purpose of something - do not come as an accident. As Cornelius Van Til proposed, there are no such things as brute facts, that is, there is no fact that comes of its own accord and exists in a vacuum. A fact is not simply just there without relation to other facts. If that were possible, it would not be a fact – it would have no meaning and incapable of interpretation. Every fact has a context in which it contributes to the meaning of everything it is related to in that context.

Now, here is the import of this: a theistic understanding of fact and its meaning is that God created both. Nothing has a meaning except that which God built into it according to his own good pleasure (cf Eph 1:5,9,11). Hence, the meaning of anything in terms of its significance, value, and purpose are by the design of the Creator.

This encourages the Christian writer because he knows that words and their interrelation to each other according to the rules of syntax and grammar have the capacity to say something meaningful. They can say something that has a significance, value, and purpose that has been built into it by a holy, sovereign, wise, and prudent God who has set his love on him or her.

We may draw from this a point for our theology of Christian writing: Words, in accordance with the syntax and grammar of the language that we write in, give us the capacity to glorify God by expositing truth and reality accurately – as it really is. Through words, the meaning of this world which points back to the Author of that meaning, may be unearthed.

What bearing this principle has for fiction and non-fiction requires separate treatment, but it implies that truth and meaning, or saying something about the ways things really are, or how things ought to be, can be mediated through both since the medium of both is human language.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Pertinence of a Theology of Christian Writing

When as Christians we attempt to lay out the rules and guidelines that ought to be followed regarding any aspect of our faith and conduct, we often ascribe to it a theology of such and such. To put this in terms of ‘ought’ immediately places this under the rubric of ethics. If we ought to do something, it is because God has prescribed it and we ascertain the prescription of that either by overt biblical statement, or, as the Westminster divines phrased it, “by good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1, VI) drawn from a biblical study of the matter.

For example, we have a theology of salvation (soteriology), sin (hamartiology), Christ (Christology), last things (eschatology), and so on. These doctrines are fundamentally about faith, or what we ought to believe. Interestingly, there never has been a solid consensus on the doctrine of last things throughout church history as evidenced by the three familiar views of the millennium (amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism). The oughtness of a theology of last things breaks down, and we believe that is acceptable because what we really mean by ‘ought’ when it comes to our faith is that it applies only to matters that are essential to Christianity. For example, there is no Christianity if there is no Christ or resurrection. Hence, to have a theology of salvation without a resurrected Christ is not a matter in which there is wiggle room. Either you hold to Christ’s resurrection or you are a heretic. Not so with one’s millennial view because whatever one holds to, he has not strayed from what is essential to Christianity.

A theology of a certain practice, that is, a biblical view of how we should behave as Christians likewise has areas which are quite clear and others which are not so obvious. I recall in the sixties how Beatlemania introduced the fad of long hair for men and changed the course of male hairstyle ever since. It was debated hotly at times as to whether or not it was a sin for a man to have long hair. Citing such verses as 1 Cor 11:14, Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?, at first seemed to settle the matter until the question was posed, how long is long? And whether the length of man’s hair was relative to the male hairstyles of the culture. Charges of relativism and situational ethics were made. Similar questions rose over the drinking of alcoholic beverages, smoking, dancing, going to the movies, and playing cards. In the church at Corinth, it was eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor 8; 10:25; cf Rom 14:21). How one behaves in such matters has to do with an opinion that is made in good conscience, and because they are not essential to Christianity itself (for example, whether one smoked or not had nothing to do with his authenticity as a Christian), there was room for difference and toleration.

As Christian writers, in some fashion or other, we have a theology of Christian writing. Some of us may have spent considerable time over that, others may have given it little thought; regardless, if the writer is truly Christian, his Christianity affects his writing, not only in the content, but also in the practice. The theology of Christian writing that I hold to is very likely different from yours, and may very well be at odds with it. I have expressed my views in several posts, and it has elicited responses both pro and con.

Whatever our theology of Christian writing is, it ought to be biblically based. We should give serious thought to what writing is in general, and what Christian writing is in particular. When we have done that, we can measure our obedience to the one who has called us to be writers. It really is a matter of obedience in the sense that God calls us to devote ourselves seriously to whatever he has called us to do. Part of that devotion is to be sure that we are doing it to the best of our ability, in a manner that reflects the nobility of our work, and as consciously as possible to the glory of God. How we do that goes into our theology, and if we are not faithful to it, we are failing in our calling – we are disobedient servants.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Author and Story

Christopher Miller, a Speculative Faith contributor, wrote an intriguing blog entitled, We Are Not Storyless!  He began with the unthinkable (for a writer at least) of what it would be like if there were no such thing as story. He did not phrase the question completely in terms of stories, that is he did not just ask, What if there were no stories, but, What if there were no such thing as Story. The difference is quite palpable if one dwells on it. Stories are the concrete, sweat and tears labor of an author that could not at all be a possibility if there were no such thing as the ideal or concept of Story. When an author cobbles together characters and narrative in a plot that unfolds with a beginning, middle, and an end, which has a progression that is logical, coherent, and meaningful, he can only do so because there is Story.

The difference might be illustrated with miracles. Redemptive history as it is recorded in the Bible was relatively devoid of miracles; they came few and far between. Only during specific redemptive events, such as the Exodus, did miracles teem. They appear sporadically elsewhere in Old Testament history. But when Jesus appears, the New Testament record bubbles over with miracles. John deliberated over the seven he included in his gospel because he writes: And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. John 20:30, 31. John chose the seven miracles he records for a specific reason - to persuade the reader to believe in the Son of God. We may say that Jesus performed a miracle to authenticate his claim as the God-man and to validate his message - the gospel. Or, we may say that Jesus proved himself and his message to be true by way of miracle. In the first instance, we have a specific event in mind; in the second, we have an idea of what characterizes the event. We may simply point to the act of Jesus turning water into wine on the one hand, or we may think more deeply, on the other, and ponder the supernatural character of that act and see that it typifies what is true about all such acts, that they are indicative of a person in which everything about him is supernatural.

In the same way are stories related to Story. We talk about Story in the abstract because that is where it belongs. But without the abstract, the concrete would be impossible. Without the idea of Story, there could be no such things as stories. There must be the metaphysical for there to be the physical. There must be the idea before there is a materialization of that idea in the physical world in which we live. Plato labored over the problem of form and matter, and in a way, that is what we are doing here.

Consider the question, Where did Story come from? How is it that there is Story in the first place that makes stories a possibility? The answer lies in the Triune God. Before creation ever was, there was God in three Persons. He was Story and he was the story. He was Story because everything necessary for a story resided in him - Characters, interrelation, communion. God was his own story because he was Story.

In the internal counsel of the Triune God, there was the purpose to create. With the creation, God brought story into being in a different realm. A part of that story is the creation of one who bears the image of God, and as image bearer, he has the capacity to reflect God as story-maker. It may be that story-making reflects God more fully than any other creative attribute man has. In story-making, the author is creating an imaginative world in which he purposes his characters to behave in a certain manner and for particular ends - ends that please him as the author. Christopher Miller struck at the heart of this as he, in effect, compares our authorship with the authorship of God:

As an author, I don’t ask my characters for permission to let them suffer or face evil. I know the troubles they face will ultimately be for their good. I don’t revel in the difficulty, but without trials their overcoming would not nearly be as good. We do not know what is good for us. Our perspective is two dimensional, the Author alone has the full picture.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Comedy and Tragedy in Christian Writing

In response to my last post, The Christian Writer and Conflict, a facebook friend asked:

Does every Christian work of literature have to be a "comedy" in the literary sense (a story that ends well for the protagonist)? Or can a Christian writer write a "tragedy" in the literary sense (a story that doesn't end well for the protagonist)?

A very good question and worthy of an article itself.

The Comedy as a story of humor did not come to us until relatively recently, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Originally, comedy was a drama played out in ancient Athens during the Dionysia festivals. They were loud, rowdy, inebriated events. Later in the middle ages and the Renaissance, the Comedy came to mean what my inquirer meant by it, where the main characters averted certain disaster and came to a happy end.[1]

Aristotle’s Poetics is a work in which the ancient Greek philosopher spelled out not only the formal elements of a Tragedy, [2] but also the purpose of Tragedy. Aristotle saw tragedy as an imitation of what goes on in life, and its distinctive mark is to excite fear and pity, though he seems to also consider the satisfaction of our moral sense as integral as well. However shocking a story might be, if it does not cause the audience to emote fear and pity, it is not truly tragedy. A villain might come to a horrible demise that is repulsive to our instincts, but after all, it is what he deserves. That is not tragedy. However, one who works his way out of poverty into a wealthy estate by honest hard work, intelligence, and selflessness, only to be betrayed and swindled out of everything he has and sent to prison through the machinations of his dearest friend, that evokes pity. Fear as well – it could happen to us to some degree or another.

Such tragedy is played out as an imitation of life because it is just that, a part of life. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to Aristotle’s narrow requisites for tragedy. Anything that can be understood as good, wholesome, virtuous, and praiseworthy and through some treacherous means is turned into cruel loss and suffering, is tragic. The extermination of six-million Jews is tragic. As are murder, torture, rape, ravaging disease, exploitation, etc.

For the Christian, we must understand these tragic things in the context of human history. Anything that qualifies as tragedy is a result of that single tragic event, the fall of man.

I would like to interject an excerpt from my (revised and as yet, unpublished) fantasy novel that hopefully gives a sense of what the tragic import of the fall really is. The excerpt is from chapter fifteen, The Most Tragic Thing. The scene takes place on a planet called Eskathoer in a dining room called the Blueberry Room at the end of a meal attended by three earth-siblings, Caleb, Josie, and their little brother Matt. They were summoned to the planet by Lord Bigsley and transported through the help of his close friend, Amos Buckwalter. Lord Bigsley is speaking.

“You see, our Creator made many worlds inhabited by creatures in the likeness of his image. All of these worlds are interconnected so to speak. We can freely travel from one world to another, with one exception. Only by special permission and for extremely rare and unusual circumstances are we allowed to venture into that world. The exception of which I am speaking is none other than your world, the planet Earth.”
Caleb raised his hand. Lord Bigsley was delighted to see this.
“Ahhh, yes, yes, I see that this has piqued your interest my friend.” The governor nodded for Caleb to ask his question.
Caleb paused and seemed unsure of what to say, but then Matt spoke up, “Why are we off-limits?”
“Yes,” Caleb said, giving Matt a look as though he stole something, “that’s what I was wondering, too.”
“That is an excellent question,” the governor said sitting back a bit, and smiling at Matt, “but if you thought about it I think you would see that you already know the answer. Let me ask you a question. What is the most tragic thing that ever happened in the history of your planet?”
Matt spoke up again. “The two world wars? We had that in history this year.”
“The Great Flood of Noah’s time,” Josie said. “The whole world was covered with water; everything was destroyed. No one survived except Noah and his family. That sounds pretty tragic to me.”
Lord Bigsley nodded agreeably. “Indeed that was tragic, but there is something that was far more tragic.”
“The fall of man,” Caleb said in little more than a whisper. More loudly, he explained, “When Adam and Eve sinned. If it hadn’t been for that there would have been no flood and no world wars.”
“Ahhh, there you go.” said Lord Bigsley. “The fall of Earth-man. But I don’t think you fully understand how tragic that single event was. You see, before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, a pomegranate I think it was....” a quick look at Amos said he wasn’t sure either, “....while they were enjoying the garden and daily fellowship with the Creator, there were millions of other worlds whose first parents were likewise blessed. But when Adam and Eve ate the fruit and disobeyed, it was not simply that sin entered your world.”
The governor’s expression sombered, and he eyed each one.
“No indeed, the matter is much darker than that. Their sin affected the whole universe. Everything was cursed, not only your planet, but our planet as well. There is not a single world that has not been touched by the curse of Adam’s sin.”
“Eskathoer is a fallen world? Has every world fallen?”
Lord Bigsley mused over Caleb’s question and took a deep breath as he considered how to respond.
“Yes and no,” he began. “Before the first man and woman of your world disobeyed the Creator, all men of all worlds enjoyed fellowship with Him. Life and labor itself were enjoyable. All was perfect peace and harmony. But with Adam’s sin, no longer did we have access to the Creator. And the universe itself changed. Because of that we suffer from many things just as you do. Hunger, cold, disease, and pain. Nature, as in your world, struggles for survival. Things wear out. Plans go awry. Ultimately there is death.”
Oddly, Lord Bigsley smiled.
“Indeed we suffer under the effects of the curse of your first parents’ sin, but things are not as desperate here as in your world. Though the curse of Adam’s sin affected even the remotest planet of the universe, it did not reach the hearts of the inhabitants as it did on Earth.”

The Pelagian would probably rejoice at this point, but I must remind him, this is speculative fiction, and it’s not the earthling’s heart Lord Bigsley is talking about. However, if God did create other worlds, and made other beings in his image, we would have to ask the question, How does the fall of man affect them seeing that the whole creation groans (Rom 8:22)? The novel is in some sense an answer to that question. But in doing that, it points back to home, our world, and its tragic predicament – not only the physical world, but the condition of the inner man in all of us.

This is why tragedy is so commonplace. Only because of God’s grace (both saving and common) is this world not a literal hell on earth, and there is much that is sweet about it.

Which leads us to the next point. This world may be a Tragedy, but it is also a Comedy, in the classic sense. And the most poignant observation is that both comes to pass according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11).

We Christian writers seek to create a story-world that is analogous to the real world, even in our speculations of fantasy. At bottom, it is a conflict of good and evil, and because of that there is Comedy and Tragedy.

Now to answer the question posed at the beginning, that is, should our stories be comedies or tragedies as those are defined classically.

If as writers, and especially as Christian writers, we want to be true to what really goes on in the world, I think we must include both, but always from a Christian world-view. That world-view ultimately is based on the blessing and cursing of God – blessing for the repentant sinner, cursing for all the rest. But we must be careful, because such blessing and cursing is experienced in this world by both saint and sinner temporally and pre-eschatologically. Job is an example of the cursing of the saint in his suffering from the curse upon Adam and the world in Genesis 1. Job is a tragedy. But it is also a Comedy – blessing came in the end.

Comedy and Tragedy are not merely acceptable motifs, but they are the only motifs for the Christian writer seeing that they are more or less synonymous with the themes of good and evil. As Christian writers we must keep in mind that there is purpose behind both tragedy and comedy, and it is our job to develop the story along those lines and to ensure that God, whose purpose it is, is glorified in it.

[2]Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.” (Poetics VI.4)