Style Matters

Many books on writing nonfiction advocate a clean style stripped of unnecessary words and ornate language—mine included! In Write Better I note, “Hemingway pioneered unadorned fiction a century ago. Orwell, Strunk & White, and Zinsser then took up the cause for nonfiction. And happily this approach still holds sway” (160). They rightly complain about the clutter of obscure or officious writing that hides what is being said rather than illuminates it.

But then I add this thought: “Art goes through phases, and I suppose there will come a time when spare prose will fall out of favor and something different will replace it” (161). What might that style look like?

I don’t know. But sometimes the past can give us hints about the future. The Medieval world might, for example, suggest how and why different styles rise and fall. For people in that era, the cosmos was a thing of intricate beauty, ornately crafted by the Master Artisan who wove spiritual realities into his creation. No wonder their very prose and poetic styles reflected this worldview.

And no wonder Hemingway shunned such a style. His world (and ours) is stripped bare of all but what can be seen and touched, measured and analyzed. We live in a complex, intricate universe—yes. But one of lifeless particles guided by the impersonal forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and subatomic energy. Even in our imagination so-called spiritual powers are generated by the material (think the Force of Star Wars) not the other way around.

This flattened perspective nonetheless seeks to fill the gap left by a world without wonder. So often we are beholden to the spell it weaves. As Lewis said eighty years ago, “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”*

We need new stories and new ideas to break this enchantment, to be sure. But perhaps we also need a new style of writing, a style that itself reflects a universe populated not merely with quarks and quasars, bosons and black holes but also one infused with mystery and meaning, beauty and blessing.

Lewis especially admired how Dante achieved this. He showed “how an artist could cast a ‘counterspell’ in which the good feels weighty and attractive, a spell to overcome the ‘evil enchantment’ cast by modernity.” In Paradiso, instead of picturing an insubstantial existence of clouds and harps, “Dante’s poetry gets more concrete, more sensible, more tangible, with every step closer toward God.” The poet adds another dimension as well. “Dante simultaneously combines ‘weight’ and ‘soaring,’ and thus paradoxically renders sensible that which is beyond language.”**

We can more readily imagine how this might be played out in fiction (as Lewis himself did in The Great Divorce). But what kind of writing style might reflect this re-enchanted world? I don’t think it will or should simply go back to mimic Medieval patterns. We have to move forward in ways that are mindful of the world we have now. If you know of examples to suggest that might achieve this, I’d welcome them.

Style in writing matters. Not only do the ideas we employ communicate meaning and substance, but so does the way in which we write.

*C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 31.
** Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 88, 91, 95.

Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes

Revelation is perhaps the most fascinating and least understood book in the whole Bible. There are more flawed interpretations than warts on a frog, bumps on a log, fleas on a dog, clichés in a blog, or rants from a demagogue.

When Hitler and Mussolini threatened the world, people thought Revelation predicted it. They were wrong. When the Middle East oil crisis hit in the 1970s and then Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in the 1990s, people thought those were in Revelation. They were wrong. This list goes on, and they were wrong.

Part of the problem is we jump right to detailed interpretation. Where will the battle of Armageddon be fought? What nations will be involved? And most to the point, when will it happen? We are consumed by curiosity about the future and end up depressed about all the terrible things we think will happen.

But we can overcome these wrong-headed approaches—by starting where the author of Revelation started. This New Testament writer was saturated with the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation is thicker with Old Testament images, motifs, metaphors, symbols, and literary patterns than any other New Testament book. If we don’t know and understand the Old Testament, the book of Revelation will forever be a mystery.

That’s why, as series editor, I was so pleased when Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III agreed to write a volume on this enigmatic New Testament book for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries. Focusing our attention on this background roots us solidly so we don’t fly off into wild speculations.

Longman offers important verse-by-verse coverage, yet one of his emphases I especially appreciate is how key Old Testament books shape Revelation—Daniel, Psalms, and Ezekiel.

And consider Exodus. Why all those plagues in Revelation? They bring to mind those of Exodus whose story of rescue dominates the Old Testament. That redemption comes to completion in Revelation.

The last half of Exodus focuses on the tabernacle, the precursor to Solomon’s Temple and to the heavenly Temple which comes down at the end of Revelation. This signifies God’s presence and rule over the whole earth.

All this allows us to clear away pointless conjectures and see what the book is really about. Which is, as Tremper puts it so clearly:

Despite present trouble, God is in control, and he will have the final victory. God wins in the end even though his people at the present live in a toxic culture and are marginalized and even persecuted. This leads to a secondary theme. Hope that leads to perseverance. Starting in the letters to the seven churches but continuing through the visions, the author’s purpose is to engender hope in the hearts of his Christian readers so that they will have the resolve to withstand the turbulent present. (p. 14)

Unlike the way we often read Revelation, I find this truly encouraging.

The Persistent Myth

I feel like a rabbit trying to put out a raging forest fire by stamping out a few burning leaves. But the myth will not die.

While people before Copernicus did indeed think the sun and all the planets orbited the earth, the myth persists (even among the well-educated) that the ancients also thought all of creation was centered on humanity.

The myth lives in one author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) who recently wrote, for example, that when Galileo saw through his telescope that moons were orbiting Jupiter, he “revealed that the Earth (and humanity) wasn’t the center of the universe.”

We can thank C. S. Lewis (and Jason Baxter in The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis) for setting us straight. In the old cosmology,

humankind is at the periphery of everything that really matters. This “geocentric universe [was] not in the least anthropocentric,” because it “made man a marginal—almost . . . a suburban—creature.” It was not only that “everyone” knew “the Earth is infinitesimally small by cosmic standards” but also that the Earth was made out of the dregs, after the purer bodies of stars had been made (a curious agreement with modern speculation!). Everything interesting, festive, fiery, light, clean, and harmonious was way out there, while we, poor fools, dwell at “the lowest point” of the universe, “plunged . . .in unending cold”; the earth was “in fact the ‘offscourings of creation,’ the cosmic dust-bin,” “‘the worst and deadest part of the universe,’ ‘the lowest story of the house,’ the point at which all light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”*

The heavenlies were thought to be perfect. Planets and stars were perfect spheres in perfect orbits. As we come closer to earth, we see that the moon clearly has imperfections, but less than the earth which is highly irregular with its many mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans. The most imperfect of all, hell, resided in the center of the earth.

As I’ve written before, the ancients knew our place in the universe—lowly, fallen creatures in need of grace. Ironically, the modern, scientific viewpoint does not. Humanity is the apex of evolution and the conqueror of physical world. We arrogantly elevate ourselves, thinking we stand on our own.

Only in recent decades has the myth of human progress been tarnished by the twentieth century, the most violent century in human history, with over 160 million killed for political reasons. Racism and ethnic strife persist. The environment continues to be polluted.

We think the ancients have so much to learn from us. The reverse is true.

*Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 150-51. The quotations are from Lewis’s The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

The Stephen Colbert of Punctuation

I’m reprinting here a review of one of my favorite books from a few years back. Enjoy!

Benjamin Dreyer is the Stephen Colbert of grammar, style, and punctuation—informative while always being cheerfully acerbic.

When he tells us in Dreyer’s English to never use actually, it is “because, seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” When offering examples, Dreyer also gives us cause to smile. Honorary titles should be capitalized, as in, “Please don’t toss me in the hoosegow, Your Honor.”

You’ll have fun with this book whether or not you care or know that “the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent of the relative pronoun”—not least because Dreyer hates that stuff too! Even as a decades-long copyeditor he still has to look things up in dictionaries and style guides. We should too!

His stance toward the nature of rules in English is one I have long advocated to authors. They are helpful, but don’t take them too far because spoken English profoundly affects written English (eventually, usually). And he chirpily breaks, bends, and bruises them all the time—once, for example, suggesting we “give it a good think,” right there in front of God and everybody.

Memorable tips abound. How do you tell if a sentence is passive (with the likely result of changing it to active)? If you can add “by zombies” to the end. “The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out.” Yep. Passive.

And here I can now confess that I could never keep straight the rule about restrictive and nonrestrictive commas because neither can Dreyer. But he has a dandy new name for it that makes all the difference.

Use the “only” comma, as he calls it, when the noun in question is unique. So “Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born in 1843” because Lincoln only had one eldest son. But if more than one son could be under discussion and must be named for clarity—no comma. Thus “Lincoln in the Bardo concerns Lincoln’s son Willie.”

He also festoons his text with, well, I wouldn’t call them explanatory footnotes. They are more like asides. After offering three acceptable options for use of a possessive he concludes with, “You choose.†” At the bottom of the page we find, “†Psst. Take the middle option.”

What every one of you is wondering, of course, is how Dreyer’s English differs from my Write Better (available October 2019, since you asked). Dreyer’s book is a wonderful journey into the details of punctuation, grammar, and use of numbers, augmented by many lists of misspelled, misused, and miscellaneous words—all whimsically annotated. I say almost nothing about these things.

My focus is on larger strategies for writing which Dreyer does not —such as, how to find openings, focus on readers, develop a structure, battle writer’s block, be persuasive, make a compelling title, increase our creativity, use metaphors, and say more by saying less. The last part of Write Better considers how the act of writing affects our relationship with God.

The two books should be enjoyable and valuable companions.

Entitled to the Truth?

I was with a group of friends recently who have known each other for years . . . ok, decades. Well, let’s just admit it all up front. We are a bunch of old codgers.

We have lived a lot of life together, seen our children grow and marry and have their own children. We’ve seen heartache and laughter. And we’ve stayed well connected.

Our age and stage of life came into sharp focus when Cooper, the twenty-something grandson of someone in our group, joined us for a get together. He had a sharp and active mind with an engaging personality. He listened a lot and then eventually began asking some incisive questions.

We were talking about the problem of fake news. Several voiced outrage at the challenges of discerning what was accurate and what wasn’t as well as at the ethics of those who intentionally put out twisted information.

Then Cooper said, “Can I ask a question? Do you feel you are entitled to the truth?”

Without hesitation everyone chimed in, “Yes.” “Of course.” “Certainly.”

“That’s interesting,” he responded. “Because I don’t think my generation believes that we are. This world of uncertainty is just the hand we have been dealt. Not being sure of what is true and of what isn’t is simply the way things are.”

The irony of Cooper using entitled did not escape me. We were now being gently labeled with a word that we had probably all used to malign people of his age.

I was also struck by the chasm between our generation and Cooper’s. Yes, it made me feel very old. But I appreciated the clarity that Cooper gave to our differences and the added challenges our children and their children have in the world.

My first reaction, nonetheless, when Cooper finished, was to blurt out, “Thank you, Cooper, for pointing out that we are all conservative here.”

Though we were a group of people with mixed political and religious ideas, at this one central point we were all united. We thought that Truth existed, that it was possible to find it, and that we deserved to know what it was. This is a very traditional, very conservative idea. It goes back millennia and permeates a wide variety of ancient cultures. And we all believed it, whether liberal or not.

I was encouraged that we held this important belief in common. Searching together for the truth was not a hopeless endeavor. It was worth us all pursuing.

Image by Hajnalka Mahler from Pixabay

We Aren’t As Reasonable As We Think

Most of us think of ourselves as reasonable, rational human beings who make decisions and come to conclusions using facts and logic. I know I do.

That’s also what Langdon Gilkey thought of himself and his two thousand fellow prisoners in a Japanese detention camp during World War II. He was amazed to find out how wrong he was.*

Since the Japanese allowed the prisoners to run some of their own affairs, he was, for a time during the internment, on the housing committee for the camp. That team’s role was to help create as much fairness as possible in crowded conditions.

When, for example, a group of eleven men complained that their living quarters had the exact same square footage as a group of nine, he took up their cause. Surely the nine would see the justice of the concern. They would be willing to accommodate one more. They were not.

The nine came up with every possible defense of the status quo. “We are already crowded ourselves.” “Why pick on us? Aren’t there worse problems to deal with?” “We won’t consider it. Get out of here.”

Not only in this one situation, but nearly every time they sought to solve a housing issue to create more comfort, care, or fairness, they were intractably opposed. No appeal to logic or ethics swayed anyone. Gilkey found this was true regardless of class, occupation, culture, nationality, or gender.

We may think that the stress of imprisonment in harsh conditions makes people more likely to defend what little they have through emotional reactions and transparent rationalizations. But years of research have proven otherwise.

In study after study, Jonathan Haidt discovered what he calls the rider and the elephant at work in each of us (also see here). We think in two ways. One is slower and more deliberate, including reasoning (the rider). The other is more automatic and includes emotion and intuition (the elephant). We tend to assume that the rider guides and controls the elephant. But as his studies have shown, because the elephant tends to react faster, the rider tends to follow the lead of the Elephant.

Riders are not mere lackies. They can learn new types of thinking (math, logic, technology, etc.) and explore alternatives which can help the elephant avoid disaster. “And most important,” as Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.” [54]

Obviously, we do change our minds from time to time. The elephant is not totally unmoveable. But Haidt suggests that the elephant is more likely to change if it is addressed directly. That can then create enough openness for the rider to also be willing to entertain new ideas and different reasoning.

I enjoy thinking things through, deliberately working out questions and issues. But, like those civilized, educated folk in the internment camp as well as most everyone else, I also have intuition and gut reactions. I’m sure they guide me more than I think.

*See Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound, especially chapters 5-6.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The Secret to Not Being Manipulated

In December 2000 a story appeared in several British newspapers, including The Guardian, about a man in New York, George Turklebaum, who had been dead at his office desk for five days . . . and no one noticed! Coworkers at “the publishing-services company” often passed by his cubicle and said hi without it registering that he hadn’t responded. “We just assumed that George was taking time to go over the text very carefully, as he always did,” said his boss.

Anything sound odd to you about that story? Anything odd besides a man being dead in an office for five days without anyone noticing?

Anything odd like, “Why did British papers report about a man being dead in New York instead of New York papers?”

Or odd like, “Why was the publishing-services company not named?”

Or odd like, “Wouldn’t a body start stinking to high heaven long before five days?” (Spoiler alert: it would.)

You’ve probably heard this story or variations of it which have circulated for at least the last twenty years. The truth is, it was first published by an American tabloid, the Weekly World News, which also publishes such important stories as “Newest U.S. Judge is 5-Years Old,” and “The Yeti Is Behind Cryptocurrency,” and former Vice President “Mike Pence Is a Cyborg.”* You get the idea.

The only source of this report for all the British newspapers, even for one as highly reputable as The Guardian, was the tabloid. There was no other corroborating evidence.

When David Mikkelson did some research at Snopes, he found that no one named George Turklebaum was listed in the Social Security Death Index, and the New York Medical Examiner’s office had no information on the death of anyone named Turklebaum for 1999 or 2000.**

Yet so many of us hear stories like this one about the dead office worker, and we think, “Weird. But I can actually see that. Don’t we all feel like nameless cogs in a machine sometime?”

We take it in, often uncritically. Yet right on the surface are aspects that should make us question what’s going on. Not just a rotten corpse, but the lack of specifics (like the company’s name) and of sources (like a police report).

The key word is uncritically. We don’t stop to question. Thinking critically about what we read or hear doesn’t mean being critical in the sense of finding fault. It means asking questions.

To some extent it doesn’t matter what questions we ask. Almost any question will do. The point is to ask a question and not stay on autopilot.

The question can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end. It can be profound or prosaic. Regardless, doing so engages us. We become actors in the drama, dialogue partners in the conversation, friends in the relationship. We are not merely passive receptacles into which entertainment, advertisements, opinions, information, or disinformation are poured.

Many people (including those we agree with) want to sway us for their own purposes. Nurturing the habit of asking questions about what we hear or read can, among other benefits, provide us with a vaccine against the virus of being manipulated by others.

*These are actual headlines from, accessed January 28, 2021.

**David Mikkelson, “Man Dies at Desk,” Snopes, See also

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Reading Among Friends

Fifteen years ago Sandy and Jim invited us and three other couples to form a neighborhood book club. We’ve been meeting ever since.

We rotate hosting our get-togethers, with the hosts selecting the book and leading the discussion. Without trying, our books (and occasional movies) have been split almost evenly between fiction and non-fiction. We’ve enjoyed history, science fiction, mystery, memoir, classics, and current best-sellers.

Some themes have emerged. Several titles have had a Chicago connection, since that’s where we live. One person in our group is a chef so food has been a focus for his choices. Some authors we’ve liked have been repeated (Mary Doria Russell, Erik Larson, Fredrik Backman, Ta-Nehisi Coates).

I prefer our system of making selections over voting as a group which can result in choosing everyone’s second or third choice. That could also keep the range much more narrow and perhaps less challenging to our own tastes or viewpoints. I enjoy being stretched by the personal selections of my friends.

We see the personalities and interests of each person reflected in their picks. But we are all aware of finding something we think the others could like. As a result we (consciously or unconsciously) don’t get too idiosyncratic.

Reading is a wonderfully rich solo activity. It can be even richer in the company of friends.

Chart: Some of the books we’ve selected over the years.
Image credit: James Black

Being a True Patriot

We the Fallen People 6

Original sin is not a popular notion. You sure won’t find Oprah supporting it. The idea that we are born with a tendency to do wrong, to be selfish, to ignore the common good is just downright unAmerican.

As McKenzie notes in We the Fallen People, “A New York Times poll found that 73 percent of Americans believed that humans are born good. A 2014 Lifeway survey found that two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents believe that ‘most people are by nature good’” [250-51].

Today we live in what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Generation” and what David Brooks labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me.” Yet, contrary to popular opinion, our sinful nature is, as Chesterton once observed, the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.*

Admitting our flaws and weaknesses is the first step to improvement. That goes for us as individuals and as a country. As I’ve noted over several blog posts (beginning here), McKenzie makes the case that the Founders of America had a very different view of human makeup than we do today. They believed so strongly in our flawed natures that they structured the Constitution on this foundational idea to protect us from ourselves. McKenzie writes:

There’s nothing unpatriotic about acknowledging moral failures in our country’s past. G. K. Chesterton emphasized this truth over a century ago in his classic work Orthodoxy. In its essence, patriotism is less an expression of pride than a commitment to love a particular human community, and authentic love “is not blind,” Chesterton observed. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Never for a minute accept the false dichotomy that pits patriotism against an honest acknowledgment of America’s failures and flaws. Because love binds rather than blinds, we are free to criticize our country without somehow betraying it. [259]

Living out a conviction of original sin will require that we confess the allure of power, acknowledge the danger of power, and work proactively to mitigate the abuse of power. If we accept the reality of original sin, we’ll know that the seductiveness of power is fueled by our self-interested nature. . . .

Heeding their [the Founders’] warning is complicated by two obstacles. First, in our heart of hearts we doubt that it really applies to us. Too much power may be dangerous in the hands of Nazis or Democrats or our teenage children, but we’re confident that we can be trusted. Second, we are blinded by our preoccupation with the present, unaware of how much the fall has left us short-sighted as well as selfish. [272]

It will require agreeing with the Framers that power is dangerous whoever wields it, not just when it is controlled by our political rivals. [279]

Criticizing the nation or the government is not disloyalty. Those from the right and the left do it all the time. True patriotism is love of country, celebrating what is good, and wanting what is best for all, but not blind loyalty. It is also admitting flaws in our past and in our present. Only then can we move from the good toward the better.

*G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., New York: Image Books, 2001), 8-9, noted in We the Fallen People, p. 70.

Image by Clarence Alford from Pixabay

Writing to Influence People

OK. You want to convince teens who don’t use sunscreen that they really should. How do you go about it?

Do you marshal facts about skin cancer? Explain how ultraviolet rays work? Add arguments about increases to health care costs? Then offer examples that support your case?

When we want to persuade someone, our tendency is to begin with a direct approach. Such a technique, however, is often ineffective. As I noted in Write Better, “When we put forward an argument, we can trigger the rational, judging, and evaluative faculties in our audience. As a result, they may respond (at least in their own minds) with arguments of their own” (p. 60).

Our brains aren’t just rational machines that pump out logic. We have another and probably larger dimension to our thinking that we often don’t consider. Some call this intuition or gut reactions. Jonathan Haidt calls them automatic processes.

Based on years of research into how people make moral judgments, Haidt believes we should instead start by being friendly, taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.

Why? Because our emotions have a profound effect on how we think about things. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason, he says. They are instead a way–a very important, very useful way–to reason. (Think about sociopaths who are very rational but lack many emotions and therefore make terrible decisions.) Emotions are not infallible in decision-making, but neither is a rational approach.

Contrary to what we might think, studies have shown that usually we initially have a hunch about what is right or wrong when faced with an issue. Then our rational faculties may or may not come into play, using our hunch as a starting point. If, then, you want to persuade someone (in person or in writing), start with that intuitive, emotional side because our hunches tend to guide our reasoning.

Haidt offers a model for how we might put together a persuasive case. Indeed he structured his book, The Righteous Mind, using this very approach. He tells us,

I have tried to use intuitionism [the theory that decisions begin with emotions] while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers—liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other. I knew that I had to take things slowly and address myself more to elephants [our intuition] rather than to riders [our reasoning]. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgment until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going (pp. 59-60).

That’s a pattern we can use too. If, then, we want to encourage people, especially teens, to form a habit of using sunscreen, is there a better way?

Could we connect with them at the emotional/intuitive level before going to a rational approach? We could begin by identifying with our audience about how much we love the tanned look. But instead of then moving to the topic of cancer, what if we stick with the beauty angle? Chip and Dan Heath suggest noting that too much tanning gives you wrinkles.* That distasteful image can get an immediate negative reaction from teens that can guide their thinking.

Will everyone be persuaded? No. But by approaching people as whole people, we are likely to persuade more.

*See Made to Stick, pp. 38-41.

Image by Pierre-Laurent Durantin from Pixabay