Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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A renewed commitment to writing well

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I have always thought of myself as a writer, one who would get serious about writing at some moment in the future. If reading is part of the training for becoming an effective writer , then I have been in training all my life. One cannot learn to write effectively without noting how and why some people’s writing catches your attention and draws you in; and how you mind wanders to other things when trying to read the words of others.

I feel that the moment to get serious about writing has come, and the place to start is to pull up the memoir of my faith journey and put it through the refining fire. If I were to publish it as it is now it would probably sell a couple hundred copies to people who know me or know a little bit about me. That’s nice, but the real test of writing is whether it is interesting to people who know nothing about me.

Here are some thoughts on writing well that I am putting down as an aide-memoire to myself. I hope others might find something here to consider.

1. Forget the Sergeant Joe Friday approach: “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” That may have been an effective police interview technique 70 years ago, but it doesn’t work in story writing. Not even when writing my own story. I know the story, I’ve lived it, I remember it because it had an impact on my life. How can I make it grab the attention of a reader who knows nothing about me and make him care about the outcome?

2. Don’t preach, don’t moralize, don’t explain. Let the story tell the story. Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster are two short books by British authors that make us think about our relationships with others. They are not Christian books, they don’t spell out any moral instruction, yet the messages are powerful.

3. Use simple words. A word with a single syllable is more powerful than one with six. Two adjectives to a noun cancel each other. Most adjectives and adverbs do more harm than good.

4. Eliminate jargon: Christian jargon or anything that is only understood by a certain group of people. It’s OK to use a little in dialogue to paint a picture of the character, but go easy.

5. Master the language you are writing in. Don’t use a word unless you are 100% sure of its meaning.

6. Respect the people you write about, whether real or fictional. Some of the people who appear in my memoir have made deplorable choices. That’s real life. People make choices that lead to unfortunate consequences and most don’t find their way home. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, or evil.

The power of small

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Thus begins the gospel of John in the Authorized Version. This is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the English language. There are 54 words, 50 of them are words of one syllable.

The wording of this statement can not be improved. There are layers of meaning here that would be submerged if we used longer words, or added adjectives and adverbs.

H. W. Fowler put it this way:

“It is a general rule that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour. This is especially so in English, where the native words are short, and the long words are foreign. . . . Good English does consist in the main of short words. There are many good reasons, however, against any attempt to avoid a polysyllable if it is the word that will give our meaning best; moreover the occasional polysyllable will have added effect  from being set among short words. What is here deprecated is the tendency among the ignorant to choose, because it is a polysyllable, the word that gives their meaning no better or even worse. Mr. Pecksniff, we are told, was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. He still has his followers.”

From love of the long word, page 394, Fowler’s Modern English Usage,Second Edition, © 1965 Oxford University Press.

Note to myself

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I believe I know something that others should want to know, but telling is not a good way to get their attention.

What does he/she want to know? Why? What are the barriers to even considering the spiritual aspect of life? How do I help someone become interested in something he/she believes has no importance?

In writing, don’t insult the intelligence of the readers. They believe they have good and sufficient reasons for the way they believe. I have been where they are. What changed my way of seeing things? What made me want to see if I was missing something?

How can I take the reader along on that journey? What caught my interest, made me want to keep looking? When did doubts about the things I had always believed to be true begin to creep in? When did those doubts become stronger than my original beliefs?

What was the turning point, the climax of doubt, the need to find an answer?

It does not work to give someone the answer to a question that has never come to his mind. It didn’t work that way for me, why should I expect it to work with someone else? Sharing the gospel is not a matter of giving pat answers, but of asking questions–questions that will make others begin to ask their own questions.

The pen of the wise

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I begin every day by meeting God, first in His Word, then in prayer. My French Bible is on a shelf just above the computer monitor. Most often I read and hear gentle reminders of things I know, but which are always in need of reinforcement. The strength I receive from this quiet time helps me through the day, even if the words I read seldom come to mind.

Some mornings are different. It’s afternoon now and the message of Proverbs 15:2 is still turning around in my mind, like a cat looking for the most comfortable position to settle down. I have three French Bibles on that shelf, all translations I believe to be trustworthy. One word is different in two of them, but the sense is still the same: The tongue of the wise makes knowledge attractive.

Well, of course. That’s so obvious. I knew that already. But did I really? Have I really got it yet? Why do I so naturally slip into teachy-preachy mode, reproaching others for not understanding things that seem so obvious to me?

That’s why people love to read C. S. Lewis. It’s like sitting down to visit with an old friend about everyday things. After the visit, you realize you have learned something important, without ever feeling like you were being taught. There is nothing bombastic about his writing style; no hint of: “You need to listen to what I say because I am important.”

Blaise Pascal was like that, too. He set out to write a defence of Christian faith, knowing how difficult it would be: “People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of reverence and respect. Then show that it is attractive, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.”

Pascal died young, before he could complete the book he wanted to write. All he left behind was scraps of paper on which he had written his thoughts. His friends collected those thoughts into a book; Les Pensées has become a classic of French literature on the same level as Pilgrim’s Progress in English.

I have four copies of Les Pensées (the thoughts) of Blaise Pascal, in French and in English. Each editor had his own idea of the way Pascal wanted his thoughts ordered. None of them agree. It doesn’t matter. Each time I read a few of those scraps of paper Pascal left behind I am struck with how simple Christian truth appears from his hand, his mind—and how profound.

And Wow! This is how it’s done. This is how one makes truth attractive.

Is possible for me to learn this?

Winsomeness

More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal described what he hoped to achieve with his writing this way:

People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of  reverence and respect. Then show that it is winsome, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées

I have often read this passage, given mental assent to it, desired that the things I write could be winsome and attractive. Yet it dawns on me now how far I fall short of achieving that goal.

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I tried years ago. They were largely futile attempts to make me feel better about myself with minimal effort. I took comfort in having noble aspirations, then promptly forgot them. Real change is only possible by taking an honest look at the not so noble part of my character.

Pascal used the word aimable in French. The above English version translates aimable by winsome in one place and attractive in the other. Apologetics, giving an answer for the hope that lieth within me, is only effective if it makes that hope winsome and attractive.

Giving an answer that carries the slightest whiff of self-righteousness or arrogance renders that answer unattractive.  Truth is important, right doctrine is necessary, yet if truth and right doctrine seem repugnant to the reader, I am an abject failure.

Effective apologetics then must be the putting Christian faith into words that bring out the winsomeness of the faith. As a writer, I need to get myself out of the way and think of how to present different aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ to the reader, who probably looks at life in quite a different way than I do. It is not my job to prove him wrong; it is not my job to prove myself an authority to be trusted. It is my job to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of our trust.

© Bob Goodnough, January 03, 2020

Illiteracy in Elementary and Secondary Schools

Is it possible that this timidity, this excessive appeal to “interest”, this consequent concern with the modern, the familiar and the simple in theory, combined with a multiplication of methods and techniques, is responsible for the well-known fact that up to the end of the intermediate or junior high school stage many Canadian pupils cannot read?  This is not a wild accusation.  It is based on statements in the programmes of study, all of which deal with the problem of remedial reading at every stage, some of them at considerable length.  Moreover, teachers in social studies and mathematics are warned that difficulties may arise from their pupils being unable to read.  One high school mathematics teacher asserts that this is literally true, and that pupils need help in deriving any meaning from problems expressed in perfectly grammatical and unambiguous English.  Programmes of study warn teachers to beware of this, to adopt remedial measures, and to guard pupils (aged thirteen to sixteen) against perils like “absolute owner” and “toll bridge” – children, by the way, who have received years of instruction in “dictionary skills.”  It is not suggested that if they can derive no meaning, either from the context or from the dictionary, they should not be in even a junior high school.  It is never suggested that there should be a pons asinorum over which non-readers may not pass.  It is simply assumed that many secondary school boys and girls cannot read.

To this frank admission of the schools that many of their senior pupils cannot read must be added the very frank accusations of universities and other institutions that too many secondary school “graduates” cannot write.  The matter has been much discussed, particularly in those universities which are compelled to introduce remedial English courses – from which it must be admitted students emerge still with a very feeble paragraph sense.  It is not easy to begin to teach things that should have been learned ten years earlier, and the student who has spent the years in poised if not polished oral composition undoubtedly lacks motivation for wrestling with the written word.  A recent comment on this matter comes from the University of Toronto, where, it is reported, the president, deans and professors join with becoming modesty that when the students fail in engineering and other examinations because they cannot write English, the fault undoubtedly rests with the university.  There is, in fact, just the faintest hint that some professors at this university cannot speak English.  Can these professors be the products of Ontario’s progressive schools?

– from So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan,  copyright 1953.

Quotes on life and writing

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The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another, and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.
-J. M. Barrie

 

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My little notebooks were beginnings —  they were the ground into which I dropped the seed. I would work in this way when I was out in the crowds, then put the stuff together at home.
-Walt Whitman

Writing as a slave of Jesus Christ

When the apostle Paul wanted to write to Christians at Rome, he could have introduced himself by listing his credentials and experience, then said: “You see how important a man I am and I have something important to say. So listen up!”

But that’s not what he said; he introduced himself as a slave, putting himself at the very bottom of the social ladder. (Our Bible may say “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” but the word Paul used was doulos, meaning slave.)

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In order to honour Jesus who gave us the message, we need to interpret the message into words the recipients will find easy to understand. Most people won’t waste their time searching through a thicket of unnecessary words in the hope of finding a message. We need to skip the pompous words and bombastic writing style that some Christians think is the way to impress readers with the weightiness of their subject matter. The weight of those words will sink your message.

We need to consider ourselves as servants of the people for whom the message is intended. Paul wrote, in I Corinthians 9:19-52: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

In all his epistles, Paul challenges the new believers notions of ethnic, economic or social superiority, telling them that none of these things matter in the kingdom of Christ. In Philippians 3:8 he says: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ”

“All things,” that would include everything about who I am: education, social status, family, ethnic origin, even my church affiliation. Boasting of any of these things will not gain us a hearing with the people to whom we want to bring the message of Jesus.

This may sound alarming for those of us who are firmly committed to our church, its doctrines and history. But there is nothing there for us to boast of, we did not create the doctrines and history. We are children of the most high God, brothers and sister of Jesus Christ, we are living honest and pure lives. Where will it get us to boast of that? The people around us already suspect that we think we are better than they are.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” God says in Zephaniah 3:11-12: “then I will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain. I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD.”

The mountain of God is holy, but we did not put it there, nor did we receive our spiritual heritage as an inheritance from our fathers. It is a gift of God that we have received and others are just as eligible to receive it, regardless of their background.

If we assume that other people think just like we do, our message is compromised before we put a word on paper. In order to be “all things to all men” we need to get out of our bubble, our comfort zone, and learn how other people think. That means that we need to listen and to read before we begin to speak and to write.

The words of Paul are timeless because he did that in his day. He was thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish way of thinking and with the Greek way of thinking. His discourse in Athens consisted almost entirely of quotations from Greek philosophers. He gained a hearing because those words were familiar to the men he was speaking to. Then he disrupted their complacency by introducing the resurrection of Jesus.

In Matthew 10:16 Jesus says: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” That is our challenge today. To be servants, poor and afflicted, harmless and non-threatening. And yet be wise enough to see the chinks in the walls of complacency that people build around themselves and try to widen them a little to let the light of the gospel shine in,

If we are in earnest about the cause of Christ, let us come down to the bottom rung of the social ladder and become the slaves of Christ and of all mankind.

Learning to see

Let us not forget that the greatest composers were also the greatest thieves. They stole from everyone and everywhere.
–Pablo Casals

Writers do much the same thing, though I do not believe it is proper to call it theft. We learn something from everything we read and everything we see. Often it is just a little impression that adds a small detail to our understanding of the things happening around us. Occasionally it is a profound thought that jars us out of the rut are thoughts have settled into.

These are the inputs into our mental processes. They all get jumbled up, then sorted out, and the output is our attempt to send out, via our writing, a glimmer of light to help someone else see something they might otherwise have missed.

Romans 12:2 warns us not to let our thinking be shaped by the zeitgeist, the prevailing attitudes in the world around us in the era in which we live. The danger for us, for me, is that I would tend to interpret that as meaning I need to remain entrenched in the zeitgeist that prevailed several generations ago when I was growing up. But the verse goes on to say that I need to be transformed by the renewing of my mind to prove the will of God for me, here and now in the era in which I am living.

The world is a place of dancing shadows. As I read, listen and observe, I become aware that everyone has a longing for truth and light. Many grasp a shadow and call it light, then are devastated when that shadow dissolves or changes shape.  Those who do not give up too soon are still finding true light. Reading, listening, observing helps me understand why other people are looking for light in places where there is no light.

As a Christian, I believe the Bible and the Holy Spirit are sources of light that reveal things as they truly are. Yet, if I see, then withdraw into the wilderness  I am shirking my responsibility to point others to the place where light is to be found.

If you want to be a writer, you first need to be a reader

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading. In order to write a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

-Samuel Johnson, 1705-1784. Johnson was a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and the sole author of A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755 and which remained the preeminent English dictionary until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

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