Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

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