Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writers and the Power of Definition (I)

                                 by 

                        Donn Taylor

            Years ago an astute editor compared the rhetorical struggle for definition to a movie scene in which hero and villain struggle to possess a gun. The one who controls the gun lives, while the other one dies. Thus in any rhetorical dispute, the one who first defines the issue seizes the rhetorical high ground, forcing his opponent to fight an uphill battle.

           We see this principle operating in the news every day, often with emotions not too different from that struggle over the gun. In discussions of abortion, is the fetus defined as a human being or as a mass of tissue not greatly different from a wart? Is the Confederate battle flag defined as a symbol of slavery or of courage against an oppressive federal government? And how is religion defined under the First Amendment? Is "religion" restricted to what is done on Sundays in churches, or is it the guiding force of every action of the devotee's life? If the latter, what defines the difference between a Christian's refusal to support an event that violates basic tenets of his faith and a Muslim's practice of honor killing? If being "judgmental" is defined as evil, what is more judgmental than defining someone as judgmental?

           Christian writers who wish to write about real-life situations must take prayerful care to correctly define the issues they write about. This applies not only to today's hot-button issues named above, but to universal questions that define the writer's worldview. How do they define the universe we all live in? Is it the random interplay of material things and forces? Or is it the working out of a vast design by an all-powerful Designer? The nature of the small fictional universes writers construct will depend on their definitions of the greater universe outside.

            "Naturalistic" writers (Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, etc.) defined the universe as merely an impersonal or even hostile operation of natural forces. Other writers have defined the universe as absurd, a succession of chance happenings that have no logic or purpose. Examples in point include Albert Camus' story "The Guest" and (I believe) Larry MacMurtry's Lonesome Dove novels.

            On the other hand, Jonathan Cahn's The Harbinger portrays 9/11 and the 2008 stock market crash as a minutely detailed working out of God's purposes according to the pattern of Isaiah 9:8-21.

            As all writers must arrive at their definitions of the universe and work within those definitions, so they must define for themselves the truth and the moral implications of each conflict they write about. And they must take care not to be fooled into accepting someone else's definitions.

           In particular in these days of hostility toward Christianity, Christian writers must guard against accepting definitions from the popular culture, lest they lose the cultural battle before they begin.



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