Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Plots that Underlie All Stories

Recently members of a writers' group to which I belong were discussing a 37-point typology of story plots that was apparently developed in the early 1800s by Georges Polti. Without going into detail regarding Polti's scheme, it seemed to me to be repetitive. For example, I didn't see any great difference between "a story about hating someone you should like" and "stories about hurting someone who turned out to be important to you." It seemed to me that, in discussing the typology of plots, something less complicated and more basic might be more helpful. Interestingly, I am currently reading Leland Ryken's The Literature of the Bible (Zondervan, 1974), in which the author begins by discussing plots that have typified literature from ancient times.

Ryken refers to the composite narrative, or monomyth, that in one phase or another incorporates all plots. The monomyth corresponds to familiar cycles of human experience, such as dawn – zenith – sunset – darkness or birth – triumph – death – dissolution. The monomyth comprises a continuum or cycle of romance – tragedy – anti-romance – comedy. (In these examples Ryken is following an article by Northrop Frye.)

To quote Ryken (page 23): "Romance is literature that describes an idealized picture of human experience. It satisfies our desire for wish fulfillment. Its opposite, anti-romance, presents a world of complete bondage and the absence of anything ideal. A story in which the action descends from romance to catastrophe is a tragedy, and an upward movement from bondage to freedom is comedy. These are the four possible kinds of literary plots, and together they form the circular monomyth that unifies all of literature."

Ryken further lists, on the same page, a number of archetypal motifs that tie into this typology: the journey, the quest, death-rebirth, initiation, and the scapegoat. Obviously a story can easily combine aspects of these motifs, e.g. the hero has to make an arduous journey (literally or, perhaps, figuratively) during which he experiences "initiation," i.e. he passes to a new level of understanding or maturity. Or the hero is a "scapegoat" but experiences "rebirth," i.e. he is vindicated or (as with Jesus) also literally raised from the dead (tragedy to comedy, or anti-romance to romance). But the monomyth and the archetypal motifs it uses seem to be constants in human experience and in literature that reflects it.

As a further thought, in working on my doctoral dissertation (completed 1972) I was asking, "What makes the Bible the Bible?" That is, what about the literature of the Bible made it recognizable as canonical Scripture, even from its first appearance? (I dealt only with the Old Testament.) I found several "theories of the canon." One theory was that Israelite literature was held to be canon because it evidenced a motif of "struggle and victory," i.e. the victory of the Lord and his people over obstacles such as enemies or sin. But on reflection I realized that this theory offered no great insight, since the actual course of historical events often displays this same motif or pattern. If we just write about life we are bound to develop some aspect or theme of the monomyth.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Love and Spirit – Two Words to Avoid

This will sound like heresy to Christian writers, but two words I believe we should drop from our normal vocabulary are love and spirit.

I suggest this drastic step because love and spirit have specific meanings in the Bible, but these are not the meanings contemporary culture assigns to these words. Simply to use them without putting them into the context of the biblical perspective is to distort them. Even if we quote a Bible passage that uses these words, we need to contextualize them so they won’t convey the wrong impression. Usually, it’s just better to avoid them entirely.

Take spirit, first of all, along with its derivative spiritual. Usually the word is a cover for something we can’t understand or explain. We can get out of dealing with the “nuts and bolts” of an issue if we can just flip it off into the realm of the “spirit,” where logic can’t touch it. Granted, our logic isn’t always reliable because it’s tied in with our cultural presuppositions. But that doesn’t excuse a lapse into the illogical, even the unobservable, and I fear that’s the effect of consigning a matter to the “spiritual” realm.

We tend to think of the spiritual as the invisible, but in Scripture the spiritual always has a visible manifestation. There has to be some perceptible evidence that spiritual factors are operative – in changed human behavior, for example, or (in the primal actions of Spirit, Genesis 1–2) the creation of a universe and of human life. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit mean “breath, wind,” and it’s only the translator’s judgment which English meaning to use. Spirit isn’t a “religious” word in the Bible; it refers to the “breath” that motivates that which lives and moves in observable ways. So, to avoid misunderstanding, in our writing let’s deal with those concrete actions and their motivation instead of shoving them under the “spiritual” rug.

More could be said, but let’s tackle love. I don’t need to point out the contemporary misuses of that term, which should be reason enough for Christian writers to delete it from their working lexicon. Once again, the Bible gives love a concreteness that contemporary usage lacks. I’ll give a Scriptural reference here from Psalm 103:17-18, “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” The Hebrew word is hesed, which refers to God’s covenant loyalty — His commitment to those who are committed to Him, and who demonstrate their faithfulness by their obedience.

I suggest that the agape love of the New Testament is a direct development from this Hebraic concept. It has an inherent relationship to the covenant between the Lord and His people, and to be outside that covenant is to be outside the realm of God’s directed love, or faithfulness. Otherwise why would Paul speak, in Romans 1, of those whom God “gave up” because they “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” — i.e., acknowledge Him as their “senior Partner” in the covenant?

So, in sum, love in the Bible is a commitment, a decision we make to be faithful to another. It isn’t the “warm fuzzy feeling” we have for somebody. But, sadly, Christian writers often use it that way or fail to explain what they really mean. Better to keep our usage of the word love to a bare minimum.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Conventional Unconventionality

There was a time, not so long ago — perhaps two or three generations — when most Americans did their best to conform to social norms of appearance, outward (at least) morality, and such values as patriotism and respect for religious faith. If you watch movies or TV reruns from the 1940s or 1950s, for example, you’ll note the men wearing suits, ties and the fedora hat; the women wearing highly stylized hairdos; and the characters exuding a pro-American stance with which even Senator Joseph McCarthy might have been pleased. Nobody, or almost nobody, wanted to stand out from the crowd with sloppy dress, bizarre grooming (or lack thereof), or the flaunting of behavior that went against conventional morality. The general tenor of the era was reflected in the novels of such writers as Lloyd C. Douglas, Frank G. Slaughter and Frances Parkinson Keyes.

Then came the 1960s and the onset of the “beatnik” era with its stress on nonconformity. In literature, novelists like Grace Metalious (Peyton Place) and D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) had already broken the taboos about what was suitable to put before the public, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had outlined the shape of the beatnik lifestyle of social nonconformity. Blue jeans, beards, long hair, the peace sign, anti-war protests and unrestrained sex signaled a new culture of the unconventional. To be conventional or conformist in the 1950s manner became the great sin. The “me generation” was born, given voice by Frank Sinatra’s memorable rendition of Paul Anka’s song: “I did it my way.”

And the me generation is still with us, with slogans like “Whatever turns you on,” “Be all you and be,” and “Have it your way.” In such a culture the logical reaction to the Wal-Mart clerk’s parting words, “Have a nice day,” would be, “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!” Politicians try to make capital out of a supposed trait of being a “maverick,” and we’re told to “think outside the box” if we want to solve a problem. Someone who doesn’t want to “walk on the wild side” is a hopeless dork. So pervasive has become the culture of nonconformity that Richard John Neuhaus, in his commentary on opinions expressed in the media, frequently refers to “the herd of independent minds” — who, oddly enough, somehow seem to arrive independently at the same opinion.

And that’s the open secret about the cultural legacy of the “beat generation”: unconventionality is the new convention that no one dares defy.

Consider the area of clothing. Would you dare attend your “seeker” church wearing a suit and tie, or a nice dress from Bergner’s? No, let’s not be so conformist — let’s wear casual clothes, and tell the world how unconventional we are! Why, even the preacher wears jeans and a sweat shirt. Let’s be different, let’s be like him.

And if you’re a writer you wouldn’t want to write conventionally, in the manner of novelists of past generations. No, be unconventional! Get rid of old-style rhetorical phrases such as, “‘Let’s go,’” said Charlie.” It should be “‘Let’s go,” Charlie said.” Or, better yet, use a “beat”: “Charlie tugged at the door knob. ‘Let’s go.’” Avoid the passive voice: “Becky’s words were overlaid by the voice of the professor” should be “The professor’s voice overlaid Becky’s words.”

And avoid recondite, arcane terms that might not be understood by someone with only a fifth grade reading ability. Trying to raise the reader’s level of comprehension, as older writers sometimes did, is insulting. In a culture where everyone has a right to “be himself” (or herself), the reader has the right to remain ignorant. Trying to elevate the reader’s understanding would be too unconventionally conventional.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Musical Idiom in Christian Worship

The question of musical style or idiom in Christian worship can be a complicated issue. Within the same culture a variety of musical expressions may coexist, some of which are less suited for use in worship than others. In any culture, including that of the West, music that fails to convey the distinctive difference between biblical faith and prevailing values can be counterproductive when used in worship.

For example, Christian faith sees God as Creator acting through history to bring about the redemption of His people whom He loves. Music that is only cyclical — repetitive, such as New Age — runs counter to the biblical principal that history and events have a purpose and goal in God's redemptive plan. Some music from other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, seems to be of the repetitive sort — not progressing from "beginning" to "ending" as we know them from "classical" music. I wonder what message this kind of music would convey about biblical faith. On the other hand, we don't know much about Israelite or early Christian music. It was probably closer to traditional African or Asiatic music than to the modern Western idiom. But the Psalms, in the Bible's book of hymn texts, do progress from start to finish. As I said, it's a complicated issue.

Music that is consistently harsh, dissonant and disjointed, as with some contemporary types both popular and symphonic, can be taken as a statement that the universe and human life are meaningless. Such music denies the biblical perspective, which sees a coherent and purposeful universe created by divine intelligence. In the opening pages of J. R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion the author imagines Ill├║vatar's beautiful creation permeated by music, with its harmony marred by the discordant strains of the self-assertive Melkor. Tolkien's fantasy is a parallel to the traditional picture of Satan's rebellion (which owes more to Milton than to the Scriptures), but significantly relates discordant music to a compromise of the created order. One thinks immediately of Psalm 19: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork" — not through spoken words but through "their voice," which the hymn writer calls "the music of the spheres" (Maltbie D. Babcock, "This Is My Father’s World").

There is something to be said for making Christian music, anywhere, different from what is heard in the streets or popular media. The holy God — Scripture is clear — is "set apart" from the profane; the true sense of His presence partakes of the numinous, or a mysterious otherness. The New Testament, in its portrayal of Jesus, brings the awareness of God's presence into the realm of human personhood and the intimate indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But it's still true that the New Testament retains a sense of the overwhelming, supramundane majesty of God as One not to be trifled with. We see this, for example, in the Revelation to John.

Music that is just like what people hear on the radio or download to their iPods can't convey this transcendent mystery. Worship music needs to bear a certain "exalted" quality, especially where it is directly addressed to the Lord — as far more of it should be. Some types of music just can't bring across this sense of exaltation. For that reason, in my opinion, popular Hispanic or American country music, to mention just a few examples, are inadequate media for Christian worship. I wonder if the overpowering electronic blast of contemporary popular-style music in some "seeker" churches also works against a sense of God’s transcendence. For that matter the trite musical idiom of the evangelical "gospel song," contemporary a century ago, now sounds dated, shallow and focused on me rather than on God.

There are those who seem to believe that when a Christian worship environment isn't "contemporary" people get the idea that the faith isn't relevant, and aren't drawn to the gospel. But was Jesus' preaching "contemporary" or did it challenge the presuppositions and expectations of His contemporaries? Sometimes the gospel needs to be presented in ways that pull people out of their cultural milieu — not immerse them in it. A "different" kind of music might be part of that proclamation.