Editor's note:

Words that are ani­mat­ed with love and ter­ror and pity and pain and won­der make your life dan­ger­ous and great and bear­able. – Richard Foster

In a world that is choked with words, we can some­times for­get how pow­er­ful they are. When we are hit from all sides by a con­stant flow of infor­ma­tion, we can get caught up in the triv­ial and for­get too eas­i­ly to seek the pro­found. But, “… words mat­ter. Ideas mat­ter.” In this arti­cle, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Per­spec­tive under the head­ing, Con­tem­po­rary Reli­gious Lit­er­a­ture,” Richard Fos­ter writes of his con­cern for the state of the soul in the midst of all the cheap sen­so­ry over­load going on today,” claim­ing that with­out what Alfred North White­head called an habit­u­al vision of great­ness,’ our soul will shriv­el up and lose the capac­i­ty for beau­ty and mys­tery and tran­scen­dence.” Keep in mind, Richard was writ­ing this in the days before blogs, social media, and easy dig­i­tal self-pub­lish­ing! How much more so today!

I invite you to enjoy this reflec­tive piece, this cul­tur­al com­men­tary, this love let­ter to the crisp, the clear, the imag­i­na­tive” use of lan­guage, both in sub­stance and form. 

—Justine Olawsky

I have been strug­gling to find a clever way to begin this essay that at least would delay the knee-jerk dis­missal of my con­cern as hope­less­ly dat­ed, com­plete­ly out of step with the real­i­ties of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, and, worst of all, dan­ger­ous­ly elit­ist. Lack­ing a clever open­ing, how­ev­er, I shall sim­ply blurt it out: I am con­cerned that our read­ing and our writ­ing is grav­i­tat­ing to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor so com­plete­ly that the great themes of majesty and nobil­i­ty and felic­i­ty are made to seem trite, puny, pedestrian.

See, I warned you that this would sound elit­ist, or at best sim­ply a mat­ter of per­son­al pref­er­ence. But I assure you that my con­cern is miles away from such things. In real­i­ty, I am con­cerned about the state of the soul in the midst of all the cheap sen­so­ry over­load going on today. You see, with­out what Alfred North White­head called an habit­u­al vision of great­ness,” our soul will shriv­el up and lose the capac­i­ty for beau­ty and mys­tery and transcendence.

Can you stay with me long enough so I can fill in my con­cern a lit­tle? Then you can decide for your­self whether it has mer­it or is just the prat­tling of an old sen­ti­men­tal­ist who likes musty libraries.

SUB­STANCE COUNTS

I am con­stant­ly amazed how the peo­ple of the Book” so cav­a­lier­ly toss words about. Words mat­ter. Ideas mat­ter. To write and read on themes of sub­stance mat­ters. Frankly, many books today have all the tell-tale signs of regur­gi­tat­ed pablum. In this day and age hav­ing noth­ing at all to say does not dis­qual­i­fy a per­son from writ­ing a book. The sad truth is that many authors sim­ply have nev­er learned to reflect sub­stan­tive­ly on any­thing. (How well I know that every­thing said here I must take to heart myself, dou­ble and triple.)

It is no secret how to write a best sell­er in the con­tem­po­rary reli­gious mar­ket­place. Sim­ply play to the human need mar­ket, mask the hard call of the Gospel, and give peo­ple the sun, the moon, and the stars in four sim­ple laws or five easy steps. It also helps to tap into the fears of peo­ple by con­nect­ing all these things to a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry or two.

Friends, sub­stance is impor­tant. Amy Carmichael writes, It mat­ters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat. We are what we think about. Think about triv­ial things or weak things and some­how one los­es fiber and becomes flab­by in spir­it.” You see, if we give our atten­tion to tabloid think­ing and the ped­dlers of gos­sip, we become small, pet­ty souls. But if we give sus­tained atten­tion to the great themes of the human spir­it — life and death, tran­scen­dence, the prob­lem of evil, the human predica­ment, the great­ness of right­ness, and much more — the win­dows of the soul will open to the invig­o­rat­ing breezes of splen­dor and val­or and cour­tesy and magnanimity.

Some Chris­tians today are begin­ning to redis­cov­er the nov­el. We can be glad for the inter­est, but pit­falls abound. Much that pass­es today under the rubric of Chris­t­ian fic­tion” is either Har­le­quin romances with a few moral lessons sprin­kled on top or reli­gious pro­pa­gan­da tracts put into sto­ry form.

One pub­lish­er unabashed­ly explained to me that their line of fic­tion did indeed have a for­mu­la — gut­ter to the cross”. For­tu­nate­ly, this indi­vid­ual seemed total­ly obliv­i­ous to the shock, hor­ror, and gut-wrench­ing revul­sion that shook me from head to toe as I replied lame­ly, That’s nice”. Frankly, we would do bet­ter to go back to the first nov­el­ists — they were near­ly all Chris­t­ian — and allow them to drag us out of our cramped, lit­tle world of TV soaps with their Xerox plots and ush­er us into a vast uni­verse of majesty and ter­ror and sub­lim­i­ty. Once hav­ing read the mas­ters, our eyes will be sharp­er and our ears more attuned to the good, the true, the beau­ti­ful. Then we can more fruit­ful­ly return to mod­ern novelists.

THE CRISP, THE CLEAR, THE IMAGINATIVE

But it isn’t just the sub­stance of what we say (or write or read or hear or see) that con­cerns me. It is the way we say it. To write pedan­ti­cal­ly about radi­ance or infin­i­ty or ubiq­ui­ty stunts the mind and cramps the soul. To find the right word, to cap­ture the per­fect image awak­ens the spir­it and enlarges the soul.

Mark Twain not­ed that the dif­fer­ence between the right word and the almost right word is like the dif­fer­ence between light­ning and a light­ning bug. I ask you, How can we be so at ease with lin­guis­tic light­ning bugs when our uni­verse sparkles with such won­der and splen­dor and unman­age­able ambi­gu­i­ty? How can we who have expe­ri­enced the Word become flesh be so flip­pant with words? How can we .… How dare we!
Oscar Wilde once com­ment­ed that his day had been par­tic­u­lar­ly stren­u­ous: he had spent all morn­ing tak­ing out a com­ma, and all after­noon putting it back in. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most con­tem­po­rary writ­ers hard­ly care which noun they use, and punc­tu­a­tion is com­plete­ly off their radar screen.

Do you think I am speak­ing only to writ­ers in all this? By no means! Read­ers have a prime-time oblig­a­tion to demand bet­ter. It is your soul that is being stunt­ed. I urge you, gen­tle read­er, rise up and stand against the tide of mono­syl­lab­ic medi­oc­rity. Com­plain, resist, reject the dumb­ing down, ele­men­tary-school sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the works that hit our best-sell­er lists with monot­o­nous reg­u­lar­i­ty. Speak out and tell us how insult­ing it is that we pitch our mes­sage so low. Give voice to your love of words — how you love their sound and rhythm, how you love their mean­ing and his­to­ry. Declare your abhor­rence of the cheap sen­tence that pros­ti­tutes words for the pur­pose of pro­pa­gan­da. Tell us how words that are ani­mat­ed with love and ter­ror and pity and pain and won­der make your life dan­ger­ous and great and bearable.

CUL­TUR­AL LIFT

One more aspect of my con­cern. I care about cul­tur­al lift, and my guess is that you do, too. The bas­tardiz­ing of lan­guage car­ries with it the degen­er­a­tion of cul­ture. If all writ­ing focus­es on reach­ing peo­ple where they are”, we have done pre­cious lit­tle for them. We must also seek to lift peo­ple from where they are to where they can become. Writ­ing is more than com­mu­ni­ca­tion; it also edu­cates and enrich­es and beck­ons us to new vis­tas. For sev­er­al cen­turies the King James Bible (burst­ing as it was with the lin­guis­tic bril­liance of the Eliz­a­bethan Age) exert­ed a cen­tripetal, uni­fy­ing, and lift­ing force on reli­gious and social dis­course. William Shake­speare did the same thing as a drama­tist, as did John Mil­ton as a poet, and Samuel John­son as an essayist.

The ancient Hebrew prophets cared enough about their mes­sage that they fre­quent­ly deliv­ered it in poet­ic form. May new prophets arise in our day that will call us to faith­ful liv­ing in words that are crisp and clear and imaginative.

And they are ris­ing. Change is in the air. The dumb­ing down of the mind is not the wave of the future. The human spir­it will endure today’s gos­sip-laden triv­ial pur­suit for only so long. We are cre­at­ed for more, and with cen­tripetal force we will push toward the more dense, the more real, the more sub­stan­tive. (God, the Divine Cen­ter, is the heart of this pur­suit, of course, and, as he said through the prophet Jere­mi­ah, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart”.)

But change is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion. The forces arrayed against cul­tur­al lift are sub­stan­tial. With regard to words, per­haps the most hos­tile influ­ence is talk radio where words are cheap, vol­ume is val­ued over log­ic, and truth is not even a consideration.

PRAX­IS

Read. The brain is a mus­cle and with­out exer­cise it will atro­phy. We can exer­cise our brains in many ways, of course, but read­ing is cer­tain­ly a good place to start.

Read two old books for every mod­ern one. The old writ­ers have a track record — they have proven them­selves to be valu­able. It will take a cen­tu­ry or two until we will know if recent writ­ers, like myself, will endure. (By the by, con­tem­po­rary clas­sic” — a term used more and more by pub­lish­ers nowa­days — is an oxy­moron, and we should dis­al­low its use.)

Read after and val­ue our good poets. In an ocean of phono­log­ic bab­ble, they are lit­tle islands of light, pre­serv­ing for our cul­ture a love of lan­guage. Good poet­ry gives us an econ­o­my and den­si­ty of words which, image for image, sound for sound, word for word, rep­re­sents the purest pos­si­ble prod­uct of the fiercest refin­ing heat.

Final­ly, in the midst of these high-mind­ed ideals, I want to encour­age you to be easy on your­self. Take the long view. Start with some­thing that will lift your heart and hone your mind, and stay with it for a while. It is far bet­ter to soak in five pages of sub­stance than to read five hun­dred pages of fluff. Your life will be rich­er for the effort.

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