Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Writers and the Power of Definition (I)

by
Donn Taylor
            I'm repeating this subject because writers must necessarily deal with definition for any writing, and they (we) can do that better if we make it a conscious process.

            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?
            Many of us have run afoul of the term "lifestyle." On the surface it sounds like a useful and harmless term. But in practice it defines profound moral differences as mere differences in style. When we speak of "the Christian lifestyle," we imply that the choice between following Jesus and, say, practicing hedonism, is no more morally significant than choosing between a bow tie and a four-in-hand.
            Our definitions affect our everyday life. In Lightning on a Quiet Night, I imagined a town that had wrongly defined the Christian religion. The citizens of that town had unconsciously defined Christianity as primarily being virtuous and performing nice deeds. As Shakespeare described that kind of thing, "'Tis mad idolatry/ To make the service greater than the god." And, of course, when the townspeople saw that they were getting good at being virtuous, they were backing into the sin of pride. (To make the novel go I had to, so to speak, throw a large skunk onto their complacent conference table.)
            Similarly, 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 earlier, but to universal questions that define the writer's worldview. How does the writer 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.
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