Turning a Phrase

Stanley Fish can turn a phrase, but more so, he is an acute explorer of finely crafted sentences. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One is a fascinating little work that packs a heavy punch – that is, if you like thinking about the writing process.

Examples he uses are remarkable, leaving this reader grieved that he did not come up with the sentences himself. For instance, Fish makes mention of  Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s retort to his colleagues’ decision regarding the case, Lee v. Weisman (1992): “Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.

Fish points out that “The sentence is itself a rock thrown at Scalia’s fellow justices in the majority; it is a projectile that picks up speed with every word; the acceleration is an effect of the two past participles “compared” and “practiced”; their economy does nto allow a pause or a taking of a breath, and the sentence hurtles toward what is both its semantic and real-life destinations: the “amateurs” who are sitting next to Scalia as he spits it out.” I am glad I was not on the receiving end of that bombshell!!

The point of writing and choosing words, as Fish asserts, is not about coming up with just the right words, but choosing them in relation with other words and placing them in just the right position; it’s both choice and placement! “Flaubert’s famous search for the “mot juste” was not a search for words that glow alone, but for words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew this well. I am making a second attempt at The Great Gatsby and I must confess that Fitzgerald’s craftiness with words is distracting, almost forbidding me to enjoy the story and forcing me to think about his word choices and syntactical structure (yea, it’s an overstatement, but not by much). Here are some examples:

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.

I followed him over a low whitewashed railroad fence, and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare.

. . . then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Writing takes time and mental energy that drain the soul, but when a phrase is turned, it satisfies the thirst for expression, leaving a sense of accomplishment!


The Study of Dogmatics with Prayer – Helmut Thielicke

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), professor of theology at the University of Hamburg, Germany, wrote a short treatise for young, aspiring theologians: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. In it Thielike gives sage advice for those in the process of learning theology, but in reality, the book ought to be revisited by those who have long left the halls of theological education.

Chapter XI entitled, The Study of Dogmatics with Prayer is especially convicting:

The man who studies theology, and especially he who studies dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I no longer can read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors. This is the first step towards the worse and most widespread ministers’ disease. For the minister frequently can hardly expound a text as a letter which has been written to him, but he reads the text under the impulse of the question, how would it be used in a sermon. . . .

Essentially, theological method is characterized by the fact that it takes into account that God has spoken, and that now what God has spoken is to be understood and answered. But it can only be understood when I recognize that what has been said is directed to me.

Indeed, God has spoken – and it has been directed to me!

Great Speech Tuesday: Martin Luther King’s Public Discourse

In classical antiquity, the art of rhetoric was king, and philosophical thinking became a hand maiden to the training in the  skills of oratory. This is perhaps an over simplification, but the battle between Plato and Isocrates was won by the latter and all of education and its pedagogical purposes were directed toward the training in the art of rhetoric. It might be worthwhile for us to learn that the ability to move and lead people is not solely achieved with ideas or might but with creative pens and convincing orations.

When I tutored high school students in the past, I would assign Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, because it not only forced students to deal with King’s arguments, but also with his penmanship – that is, his use of imagery, his intentional ordering ofMLK words, and his juggernaut ability to pull the readers in emotionally. The monumental effectiveness of this letter cannot be overstated; it is truly a masterpiece and a model of how to occasion change. Here is a sampling:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Read the entire letter here.

C. S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery

I personally like reading old books; it comes easy to me. Frankly, I enjoy reading old books. I know that I am a little strange, but that is the way I am wired. Now, that’s not much of an argument to encourage others to read old books. I am aware of that. C.S. Lewis, however, makes a literary/philosophical case for reading old book, and he says it with unmatched penmanship!

In the mid-twentieth century, Lewis wrote the preface to a new translation of  Athanasius’ classic work, On the Incarnation. In it he compels readers to pick up this timeless classic, for it is a treasure for the church. But before he makes the case for this particular book, he demonstrates why it is dangerous for folks to read only new or modern books.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. . . .

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half already knew. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing: and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.