Saturday, April 13, 2013

Word and Language: The Heart of a Theology of Christian Writing - Part 3

In the last article we identified a few more elements to include in a theology of Christian writing: 

A theology of Christian writing must recognize (a) that God speaks meaningfully, (b) that human speech and writing (recorded speech) is patterned after God’s own speech and therefore is capable of communicating something meaningful, (c) this inherent quality of writing is intended to communicate not only to those living in the present but to those who come later (as God providentially did in the holy scriptures), and (d) what it communicates ought to be in line with the way things really are, that is, say something in keeping with the divine design and purpose of things. 

Our theology of Christian writing must consider the spiritual context in which the writing is done. If there had been no entrance of sin into the world, and man had not become sinful by nature, man would have always spoken and written in accordance to truth, to the way things really are, as far as his finite grasp of the truth could take it.

Therefore, our theology must consider this, that sinfulness and finitude may result in a less than accurate communication – the significance, value, and purpose of what we are writing about may be distorted.

The distortion may not always be the fault of the writer. The reader may not comprehend the meaning of the written word as fully as is possible. Assuming a normal mental aptitude and no attention disorder on the side of the reader, this failure to comprehend may be due to a poor vocabulary, a defective interpretive method, or a lack of discipline. Perhaps a lack of clear communication is a combination of deficiencies in both the author and the reader.

Given that we want to write meaningfully and clearly in line with the way God intended writing to be, and that finitude as well as the debilitating effects of sin oppose this effort, a theology of Christian writing should take care that the Christian writer consider his target readership and accommodate his writing to meet them where they are. As a corollary to this, the Christian writer should be aware of his own capabilities in terms of his literary craftsmanship and ask the question, To whom am I able to communicate most effectively given my gifts as a writer and the manner in which I write best? Having assessed this, the Christian writer should choose carefully a target audience to whom he can appeal within the constraints of his literary aptitude and skill. 

We may look to two New Testament writers as an example of accommodating their writing to a particular target audience. The New Testament was written largely in what is now called Koine Greek, that is, the common Greek as opposed to the literary Greek of the classic writers (e.g., Aesop, 620-560 BC and Thales, c. 600 BC). It was the kind of Greek found in the letters and business documents of everyday life. It was the Greek that the common man spoke and wrote in.[1] That does not mean that it was unsophisticated and uneducated Greek. It was well written Greek. Paul was well educated and wrote well; he reached the common man in familiar language using a vocabulary, syntax, and style that was familiar and amenable. On the other hand, Luke’s writing (the gospel and Acts) reflects his intended readership to be those acquainted with a Hellenistic literary style and a degree of sophistication in terms of scholarship. His opening statement in the gospel has been described as “the most finely composed sentence in the whole of post-Classical Greek literature,” (Graham Stanton). Paul and Luke apparently had different audiences in mind and thus wrote differently, not reflecting merely the differences that ordinarily surface between two authors, but reflecting a purposeful literary appeal that accommodates a particular readership. Their approaches were not counter-productive or in some way at odds with each other. Paul and Luke were the closest of friends and ministered the same gospel (Acts 16, 21; Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phil 1:24). Their target audience was different and so they wrote differently.

[1] Adolf Deismann (New Testament in Light of Modern Research, 1929, p 37, 38) writes:

The result of these investigations, in which, of course, numbers of scholars from other countries have taken part, is chiefly this: that in the New Testament we have to deal, not with “tired” Greek, nor “Jewish” Greek, but rather with the wild-growing speech of the people at the different stages of its development. It has been shown that it was a great mistake to take for granted that the Greek language reached its highest point in the classical Attic, and that afterward there was only deterioration. The case is really this: that when Greek came to be used in literature there were two chief forms of it, one which always existed among the masses of the people, the living speech of the people which always spread further, and above it, the literary language modeled according to artificial rules.

We have no documents, or at least only very few, in the people’s language of the old period, because it never found expression in literature. But it is obvious that the sailors of Athens, or the merchants of the Ionian colonies, or the peasants of the Peloponnesus never spoke the language as it was written by Demosthenes or Thucydides. In the papyri and the ostraca on the one hand, and in the New Testament on the other, the underground stream of the people’s language springs up powerfully into the daylight. And this colloquial Greek of the early days of Christianity cannot, with truth, be labeled as a “tired” language. Atticism makes a much more tired and senile impression. We can say that it has been a dispensation of Providence that the Apostles have not been Atticists in their sermons, in their letters, and later in their literary productions. For had that been so, Christianity would have been a privileged esoteric affair of a small and exclusive upperclass. Because the Apostles spoke the people’s language, the Gospel could go among the masses, could start a mission, and could wander from coast to coast. (italics mine)

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