Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Utility and Creativity in a Theology of Christian Writing

Our development of a theology of Christian writing so far favors a theological basis for non-fiction as we have emphasized writing to be the communication of something that is meaningful (that is, in line with that meaning God designed) so that the significance, value, and purpose of what we are writing about is accurate and understandable. These traits are absolutely essential when we write, as we do in non-fiction, to inform, instruct, correct, or rebuke, which aligns with the four-fold profitability of scripture Paul identifies in 2 Tim 3:16. This implies that the Bible was not written for entertainment but for serious perusal (cf Psalm 1:1, 2); as such, it serves as an exemplary, holy precedent that the Christian writer of non-fiction may follow.

When we ponder the writing that goes into fiction, we find it differs in that we look for creativity, story, and artistic craftsmanship. But when it comes to non-fiction, these features are in the background. Instead, we look for profundity, clarity, and cogency (as Westminster Theological Seminary professor John Frame did in his students’ papers). Craftsmanship is not absent by any means, but it is not as aesthetically marked as it is in fiction. It is comparable to the difference between the artisanry of a mason and a sculptor. One emphasizes functionality, the other style, beauty, and taste.

There are, however, commonalities between fiction and non-fiction. Regardless of which is penned, by virtue of the nature of writing, it reflects in some way or another a style, vocabulary, and linguistic craftsmanship that is peculiar to the author’s writing and thereby places his ‘stamp’ on it. As with all writing, the weaving of words into a meaningful and accurate non-fictional discourse does not have to be stilted but can be colorful and artful. Paul’s zeal in defending his character and qualifications to underscore his apostleship in Second Corinthians comes through with passionate, even poetic, language: 

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.  We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed --- always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. 2 Cor 4:7-12 

When non-fiction is uppermost in the development of a theology of Christian writing, we tend to restrict our idea of writing to a utilitarian function – that is, unless the writing can exposit the meaning of something which in some way is useful for the reader, then we have not written as we ought. Consequently, if our theology restricts the significance, purpose, and value of writing itself to say something that must benefit the reader in some fashion or other (as in line with the four-fold profitability of scripture), we have not merely placed a premium on non-fiction, we have placed any other type of writing outside the bounds of our theology and therefore outside of any legitimate, God glorifying use of it.

To do so would be bad news for Christian writers who write fiction. But the divinely created and, therefore, inherent trait of writing to convey meaning does not by definition restrict its own meaning to serviceable uses alone. It is very questionable if one should assume that fiction does not possess the potential for such a use. Consider John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or even the Bible’s own Apocalypse. In both examples, the use of fictional (even fantastical) imagery and the narrative woven around that imagery serves to teach eternal truths about God, the human condition, and its redemptive resolution. That resolution is utilitarian in the sense that it benefits the reader who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

Assuming, for argument’s sake, that fiction has no utilitarian value, our theological framework would have to expand to include it if we, as Christians, are to pursue fiction as a legitimate, even divinely approved, work. It should be noted that work as a description of what one is doing when writing fiction places fiction in a category that is shared by other legitimate labors such as agriculture, medicine, astronomy, aquaculture, engineering sciences, et. al.; that is, it is a vehicle to execute the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. This point will be inspected and added to our theology in a forthcoming article. It will stress what made such labor possible, which is the creative purpose of God (a) to bring into existence the cosmos, (b) to place within that creation one made in his own image, (c) that the image-bearer reflect the creativity of God, (d) that the image-bearer pursue a cultural purpose – he is to be an artisan that develops the potential of the creation God placed him in. Thus it will also explore the implications of writing (fiction in particular) as a cultural endeavor.

But to shift our thinking somewhat, we should note that there are remarkable parallels between God and his creative activity and the divine image-bearer who, as a writer of fiction, analogously creates a story-world. This parallel is possible because of the nature of speech, which provides another tenet for a theology of Christian writing: Because human speech is patterned after and analogous to divine speech, and because there is an intrinsic power in divine speech that brings into being that which does not exist (Genesis 1), so there is an intrinsic power in human speech that is capable of imaginatively bringing into being a story-world. 

Human speech does not create ex nihilo for the same reason the inventor does not invent something from nothing. Just as the artisan builds something from what already is, the fiction writer builds an imaginative cosmos (story-world) that is rooted in the actual cosmos. As such, he becomes the sovereign behind the story-world and oversees the events that take place within it. Hence, we may include in our theology that the Christian fiction writer expresses his image-bearing by imitating the role of the Creator in his sovereignty and providence over the story he creates.

The following is from an article (Reflecting God’s Creation-Work in Our Writing), which explores the parallelism between God’s creativity and ours as an image-bearer who writes fiction. 

'The writer conceives of many possibilities as he contemplates the makings of his story - the world, the characters, the events and the interaction of all three with each other. He chooses some among the multitude of possibilities and abandons others. Our creating is merely analogical to God’s and as such, there is an incomparable difference between God’s creating and ours. God did not have to think about the possibilities in the sense of discovering them – they were always present in his mind. But we have to think of them, conjure them, so to speak, based on what we know and experience. These possible ideas are borrowed and temporal; God’s ideas are original and eternal. But regardless of the difference between our creating and God’s, there are still similarities, and the ideas behind the stories are just a part of it.

'The writer, in a manner, brings into existence a world wherein his story unfolds. Obviously, by existence I do not mean in actuality. But we do bring about a world with which the reader of the story resonates. One might say that, in a certain way, the writer brings into actual existence an imaginary world. That sounds contradictory, but it really is not. I, along with millions of other readers, have found myself in the midst of such an imaginary world because the story itself has drawn me into it; through my imagination, I enter that world, and the events and characters take on a sense of reality. I can see it in my minds eye so vividly, that it feels real, it feels like I’m right there, observing and sensing what the imaginary characters themselves see and feel.

'In God’s creation-work, the world was brought into existence by his powerful word. In our story-creation, the same thing happens, analogically. Our words create a fantasy existence which the reader experiences through his imagination.

'God’s word is powerful, bringing about a handiwork that declares his glory. It is breathtaking. It is profound. God’s creative word places us physically within that handiwork, making us an integral part of it. We interact with it. Our story telling should mimic the divine word; it should produce a tale of fine artisanship, so powerful in the telling (and reading) of it, that the reader is drawn into it and experiences it.

'As Christians, the world we create through our words should glorify God. This is done not only by transmitting unveiled biblical truth (there is no other kind of truth), but doing such in an imaginary world whose intricate parts are woven together through superb literary craftsmanship.

'God created all-powerfully producing a magnificent creation marked by precision, order, and design. For God, this was effortless, the mere speaking of it into existence. We want to create an imaginary world that similarly exhibits precision, order, and design, but unlike God’s effortless speech, the creation of such a world takes exacting labor on our part. The writer must throw every ounce of care he has into constructing phrases, sentences, paragraphs that knit seamlessly a believable world. This does not mean flowery or witty. It means realism. The world must be imaginatively real, as vivid as the one the reader walks into when he opens the front door and steps out. It takes careful development of character and voice, of events and their interrelation to other events and characters. It cannot be shoddy, superficial, wooden, hackneyed, or stereotypical.

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)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Word and Language: The Heart of a Theology of Christian Writing - Part 2

In the last article, we drew this 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.

This capacity to glorify God will be addressed in a subsequent article. For now, I want to consider the functionality of writing as an exposition of truth and reality. A few years back, I ran across the teachings of Jan (Justice) Boshoff who through a multitude of you-tube videos and facebook notes disparaged the Bible calling it a danger to the Christian who should not be fooled into thinking that the Bible is the word of God. He was not saying that there was absolutely no value in the Bible, but it should not be taken as the word of God to us today, here and now. He advocated a continuing revelation from God and that through the Holy Spirit we receive his word now. The Bible is not for our time, written by men who were fallible and were addressing issues of a day gone by. This brought into question of not only the veracity, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible, but also of the reliability of human language to communicate faithfully God’s divine word.

In a series of eleven articles, I challenged Mr. Boshoff’s claims, and in the sixth article (The Adequacy of Human Speech as a Medium for Divine Speech) I discussed how human speech is patterned after God’s speech:God’s speech is the pattern on which all human speech is designed. The first recorded words of God are “Let there be light,” or simply, “Light be!” Genesis 1:3. It is divine speech, translated into human language, having a meaning that we humans can understand. God’s speech is translatable into and understandable in terms of human language.   Since it was God who spoke first and human language came afterwards, we may understand that human language is analogous of divine language. Human speech is patterned after God’s speech. God’s speech is the paradigm that human language follows. Grammatical rules, syntactical relationships, and meaningful vocabulary are intrinsic to human language because they are intrinsic to God’s language. That is why human language is suited as a medium for expressing God’s speech. When human language is enlisted to express God thoughts as they are in the words, “Let there be light,” those human words are God’s words using the grammar, syntax, and verbal meanings of a human language that is analogous to God’s speech.

The implications are that just as God speaks, so the human may speak and say something meaningful – it speaks truly and accurately having significance, value, and purpose. That meaning is conveyed through language that can be spoken or recorded for posterity. For the Christian writer, that posterity includes his peers as well as those who follow in subsequent generations. Speech communicates, and written speech communicates through time. That is a property of writing that we infer to be by design as God has used it to communicate his will, purposes, plans and even his character over time and for Adam’s posterity through the holy scriptures and through theological works that faithfully exposit the scriptures.

I propose, therefore, that 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.

Therefore, Christian writing should not be frivolous and cryptic but a clear and accurate exposition of whatever the writing is about. This requires a mastery of the language in which we write and a craftsmanship that enhances written structure. Just as a plain box can hold many useful tools or toys, depending on its purpose, the box is not appropriate for other more sophisticated uses – the ultimate example being the cubicle Holy of Holies of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. The Christian writer, particularly when his work is intended as high Christian writing, should not be looking at the toolbox, but the Holy of Holies.