Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writers and the Power of Definition (I)


                        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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  1. Terrific article, Donn. I read The Harbinger. It stinks as a novel, but it's amazing in its contrast of Israel as described in Isaiah and 2011 America.

  2. Thank you, Linda. Yes, I totally agree about The Harbinger as a novel. Its strength is the detailed tracing of actual events in terms of Isaiah and the Hebrew calendar. Thanks also for the Facebook tags from my post.

  3. An outstanding article, Donn! You are correct that a fiction writer's worldview outside his writing will, of necessity, inform his fictional worldview. The two are inseparable. It behooves those of us writers who call ourselves Christians, therefore, to make sure that our worldview is, indeed, Biblical. For those who are interested, The Nehemiah Institute ( provides a test for determining if one's worldview is Biblical). Blessings to you, Donn!

    1. I checked out this site, MaryAnn. It might be worth the money. Thanks for the information.

  4. Excellent article, Donn. I always love reading your work--you always give me something to think about, inform me, and entertain me as well.

    Blessings, my friend,

  5. Thank you, Donn, such a helpful post. I've been praying about where my calling stands, or how I move forward with it in this rapidly hostile environment. A solid, Biblical worldview is a must. This challenges me. Thanks so much.