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Errors and Defects in Authors of Fiction

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, discussing “Common Errors” authors make:

“Diction problems are usually symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer” (101).

“Let us now turn to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness–not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism. . . . Faults of soul, like faults of technique, can be corrected. In fact the main work a writing teacher does, and the main work the writer must do for himself, is bring about change in the writer’s basic character, helping to make him that ‘true Poet,’ as Milton said, without whom there can be no true Poem.

Sentimentality, in all its forms, is the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause. . . emotion or feeling that rings false, usually because achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration. . . . no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it” (115–16).

“The fault Longinus identified as ‘frigidity’ occurs in fiction whenever the author reveals by some slip or self-regarding intrusion that he is less concerned about his characters than he ought to be–less concerned, that is, than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. . . . the writer has forgotten that his characters’ situation is serious; he’s responded to his own imagined scene with insufficient warmth, has allowed himself to get carried away . . ., and, momentarily forgetting the scene’s real interest . . . the writer snatches at (or settles for) a detail of, at best, trivial interest. . . The writer lacks the kind of passion all true artists possess. He lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters (as he enters deeply into the feelings of real people). In a word, the writer is frigid” (117–18).

“Mannered writing is writing that continually distracts us from the fictional dream by stylistic tics that we cannot help associating, as we read, with the author’s wish to intrude himself, prove himself different from all other authors” (119).
“Whereas the frigid writer lacks strong feeling, and the sentimental writer applies feeling indiscriminately, the mannered writer feels more strongly about his own personality and ideas–his ego, which he therefore keeps before us by means of style–than he feels about any of his characters–in effect, all the rest of humanity” (120–21).

“Mannered writing, then–like sentimentality and frigidity–arises out of flawed character. In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore. . . . To help the writer, since that is his job, the teacher must enable the writer to see–partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will)–that his personal character is wanting” (121).

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Is Fiction Christian? The English Language, Too?

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers:

“English, like most languages, is covertly male chauvinist. It is also, as the novelist Harold Brodkey points out, covertly Christian. Nearly all our most resonant words and images carry a trace of Neoplatonic Christianity. Even so innocent a word as ‘friend’ has overtones. in feudal times it meant one’s lord and protector; in Anglo-Saxon times it meant the opposite of ‘fiend.’ We can of course read a book about friends without ever consciously invoking the undercurrents of the word; but where the friendship grows intense, in this story we’re reading, we are almost sure to encounter images of light or warmth, flower or garden imagery, hunger, sacrifice, blood, and so on. The very form of the story, its orderly beginning, middle, and end, is likely to hint at a Christian metaphysic” (88).

And again:

“A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. . . . Toward the close of a novel, the writer brings back–directly or in the form of his characters’ recollections–images, characters, events, and intellectual motifs encountered earlier. Unexpected connections begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized; the universe reveals itself, if only for the moment, as inexorably moral; the outcome of the various characters’ actions is at last manifest; and we see the responsibility of free will. It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretical reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated. This is of course tantamount to saying that the novel, as a genre, has a built-in metaphysic. And so it does. The writer who does not accept the metaphysic can never write a novel; he can only play off it, as Beckett and Barthelme do, achieving his own effects by visibly subverting those traditional to the novel, working like the sculptor who makes sculptures that self-destruct or the composer who dynamites pianos. I am not saying, of course, that the artist ought to lie, only that in the long run the anti-novelist is probably doomed to at least relative failure because we do not believe him. We are not profoundly moved by Homer, Shakespeare, or Melville because we would like to believe the metaphysical assumptions their fictions embody–an orderly universe that imposes moral responsibility–but because we do believe those assumptions. . .” (184–85).

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What Is the Value of Fiction?

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 31:

“. . . the value of great fiction . . . is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.
. . . the ultimate value of fiction is its morality . . .”

Caveat: Great fiction will be most enjoyed by those with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and a strong theological backbone. The Bible is the best place to go to find out what to believe . . . this quote remains helpful.

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What Is Fiction About?

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 14:

“The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”

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The Trick Is to Find Them

“However bad university professors may be in general, every great professor is a man or woman devoted to truth, and every university has at least one or two of them around.”

–John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 11.

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John Gardner on The Art of Fiction

At my friend Brian’s recommendation, I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. The book is about writing fiction, but what Gardner says can be applied to the writing of anything from a blog post to a scholarly article to a non-fiction book or even to a sermon. William McPherson’s blurb on the back cover is spot on:

“He lays out virtually everything a person might want to know [about] how to say it , with good and bad examples and judgments falling like autumn leaves in a November storm.”

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that Gardner isn’t messing around:

“What is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists” (x).

I don’t want to pile up all my favorite quotes from this book in one post, so you can expect more autumn leaves from John Gardner this spring.

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Anthony O’Hear (in The Great Books, 2) notes:

“. . . the Plato studied by philosophers of today is a Plato who is almost a colleague or contemporary of ours, with our mentality. The fact that all his thought is framed in a mystical myth of the transmigration of souls between this world and another more perfect world, more real than ours, to which we aspire whether we recognize it or not, is typically overlooked as too embarrassing even to notice, let alone to take seriously.”

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David Hume (1757):

“Authority or prejudice may be able to give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator; but his reputation will never be durable or general.”

as quoted in The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear (p. xix).

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Book Blurbs You’ll Never See on a Cover

Dan Phillips was musing on the blurbs that might show up on the back cover of his forthcoming book, and he came up with some gems that no author would ever want to see:

  • “Nice try! Really… nice!” (Dr. Heinrich Borfmann, Bogotron Seminary)
  • “Moments of true semi-adequacy!” (Edie Contralto, Cupboard-Keepers Ministries)
  • “We had such hopes for little Danny. And now, this. Oh dear. Well, at least he’s not in prison.  …He’s not, is he?” (Verna Fleebner, Glenoaks Elementary School [retired])
  • “Ambitious, but… well, ambitious!” (Pastor Eulie Lapidary, Church of Holy Perpetuity)
  • “Brings to mind the greats. Longingly. By way of contrast.” (Varf Konkelman, talk show host)
  • “This one part was terrific!” (Bob Fernbern, mechanic)

Note for those, like myself, who struggle with gullibility and overly literal interpretive habits: These are fictional blurbs that Phillips made up.

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No Heart, No Courage

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 26.

That line: “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” deserves much thought as we look around today.



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The Fearless Student Whose Aim Is Truth

From Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson (10):

“The present essay itself is, I suppose, unblushingly ‘classical,’ ‘traditional’ and ‘orthodox’; at least these are the epithets with which those whose sophisms are here subjected to analysis will no doubt attempt to dismiss it. But the student whose aim is to attain as much truth as possible will not be frightened by such adjectives. . . . As Morris R. Cohen has remarked: ‘The notion that we can dismiss the views of all previous thinkers surely leaves no basis for the hope that our own work will prove of any value to others.'”

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From the bottom of Challies A La Carte on Tuesday, January 18, 2011:

I know of nothing which I would choose to have as the subject of my ambition for life than to be kept faithful to my God till death. —C.H. Spurgeon

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Now That’s Persistence

The New York Times:

Rejected by 121 publishing houses before its publication in 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence thrust Robert M. Pirsig into stardom, selling more than three million copies in paperback alone.

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A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter

David Brakke has published a signifcant essay with a fresh translation of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter:

“A New Fragment of Athanasius’s 39th Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon.”  Harvard Theological Review 103 (2010): 47-66.

He points to some of the implications of a “new fragment of the Coptic text” of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter:

“When I read the letter in the mid 1990s, I argued that Athanasius’s promotion of a biblical canon supported a parish-based, episcopally-centered spirituality in opposition to other forms of Christian authority, namely, the teacher and the martyr. I still think that is the case, but the new fragment does suggest that I underestimated the specifically anti-heretical intent of the letter and of Athanasius’s canon. That is, Athanasius promoted a biblical canon not only—as I argued earlier—to support one form of Christian piety, social formation, and authority in opposition to others, but also to refute the specific teachings of persons and groups that he deemed ‘impious’ and ‘heretics.’”[1]

As for what’s new in the new fragment:

“ . . . . These other passages do not, however, include brief descriptions of each heresy’s distinct false teaching as the new fragment does.”[2]

“While the beginning and end of the fragment merely extend or supplement what we already knew of Athanasius’s argument, the brief catalogue of heresies with the biblical passages that refute them in its central section is genuinely new . . .”[3]

Brakke makes an observation that supports the notion that the early church rejected pseudepigraphy/pseudonymity, writing of Athanasius:

“. . . he devotes considerable attention to two particular themes. . . . The second theme is that no ‘apocryphal’ books really come from Isaiah, Moses, Enoch, or any other authoritative figure. They all published their teaching openly, and any ‘apocryphal’ books attributed to them must be recent inventions of heretics.”[4]

This comment adds to a lot of other evidence that when early figures in the church wrongly cited extra-canonical books as Scripture, they did so thinking that the attribution to some ancient inspired prophet was genuine. In other words, had they known the document was pseudepigraphical or pseudonymous, they would have rejected it. To my thinking this adds to the evidence that there were clear notions of authorship in the ancient world, that Jesus accepted the traditional claims about who wrote the books of the OT (e.g., Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, Daniel wrote Daniel, etc.), and that the early church followed Jesus on this point.

Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter is not saying something new about the canon. Rather, Athanasius sees himself re-stating ancient tradition. Brakke writes:

“As Athanasius and others like him present the matter, when legitimate officeholders of the church (bishops) teach, they are faithfully passing on what Christ told the disciples, who subsequently informed their Episcopal successors, and so they are not really teaching at all. Athanasius claims this about himself in our letter: ‘I have not written these things as if I were teaching, for I have not attained such a rank. . . . I thus have informed you of everything that I heard from my father,’ that is, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.”[5]

Athanasius was a shepherd seeking to protect the flock from wolves:

“Although most scholars remain focused on the lists of books, the greater importance of the letter is that it reveals the role of canon formation in supporting one form of Christian piety and authority and undermining others. . . . The new fragment . . . makes clear that in establishing a defined canon Athanasius sought to undermine not only a general spirituality of free intellectual inquiry and its academic mode of authority, but also the specific false doctrines to which he believed such a spirituality gave rise.”[6]

A fresh translation of the entire letter, with a revised version of the new Coptic Fragment, follows on pages 57–66.

[1] David Brakke, “A New Fragment of Athanasius‘s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” Harvard Theological Review 103 (2010): 48.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 56.

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1 Peter 5:1-11, Shepherd, Submit, Stand

It was my privilege to preach at the installation of Ryan Bishop as the Pastor of Graham Bible Church in Graham, TX this past Sunday.

The apostle Peter, the rock, follows Christ by humbling himself to serve others, identifying himself as a fellow-elder as he exhorts elders to model Christ-like self-sacrificing shepherding (1 Pet 5:1-4).

Then he calls the congregations to Christ-like humble submission to authority (“I came not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me”) as he calls them to be subject to the elders in humility (1 Pet 5:5-7).

Peter then explains that Christ-like shepherding and Christ-like submission are enacted in Christ-like standing against Satan (1 Pet 5:8-9).

He concludes with a promise and a doxology (1 Pet 5:10-11).

Spurgeon, being dead, yet speaketh, and here are some of his eloquent statements that appeared in this sermon:

“It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (Lectures to My Students, 2).

On the pastor’s job description:

“To face the enemies of truth, to defend the bulwarks of the faith, to rule well in the house of God, to comfort all that mourn, to edify the saints, to guide the perplexed, to bear with the froward, to win and nurse souls—all these and a thousand other works beside are not for a Feeble-mind or a Ready-to-halt, but are reserved for Great-heart whom the Lord has made strong for himself. Seek then strength from the Strong One, wisdom from the Wise One, in fact, all from the God of all” (Lectures to My Students, 12).

On seeing the saints safely home:

“I am occupied in my small way, as Mr. Great-heart was employed in Bunyan’s day.  I do not compare myself with that champion, but I am in the same line of business.  I am engaged in personally-conducted tours to Heaven; and I have with me, at the present time, dear Old Father Honest:  I am glad he is still alive and active.  And there is Christiana, and there are her children.  It is my business, as best I can, to kill dragons, and cut off giants’ heads, and lead on the timid and trembling.  I am often afraid of losing some of the weaklings.  I have the heart-ache for them; but, by God’s grace, and your kind and generous help in looking after one another, I hope we shall all travel safely to the river’s edge.  Oh, how many have I had to part with there!  I have stood on the brink, and I have heard them singing in the midst of the stream, and I have almost seen the shining ones lead them up the hill, and through the gates, into the Celestial City” (source).

Have a listen here: 1 Peter 5:1-11, Shepherd, Submit, Stand

What is the greatest honor you can imagine? Perhaps the medal of honor given to an American soldier? The honor that Christ the King will bestow on those who served him faithfully so far surpasses that as to make the comparison of the two seem inappropriate. The church is God’s cause in the world. She is Christ’s own bride. The work done in the church has eternal ramifications and it pertains to all nations.

There is no other gospel that saves, no institution more significant, no agenda more important, no task more urgent, no cause more noble, no message more true, no office more dependant on the character of those who discharge it, and no reward greater than what Peter describes here.

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He Being Dead Yet Speaketh

I’m not talking about Abel (Heb 11:4, KJV) but about A. T. Robertson, who now tweets on Twitter.

Lots of good quotes from a great scholar who loved the Lord and his Word.

HT: Chris Cowan

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Chesterton on Courage

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2001 [1908]), 136–37 (ch. 6):

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. . . . The paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and he will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

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And If We Refuse We’re Rebels

Erich Auerbach (Mimesis, 14-15) writes that the intent of biblical stories:

“is not to bewitch the senses, and if nevertheless they produce lively sensory effects, it is only because the moral, religious, and psychological phenomena which are their sole concern are made concrete in the sensible matter of life. But their religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. . . . Without believing in Abraham’s sacrifice, it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. . . . The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy . . . The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

HT: A. Philip Brown II, Hope Amidst Ruin, 28 n. 23.

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Dr. Mohler Describes Them Well

Realistically, I won’t have time to read any of the books on Dr. Mohler’s list this summer, but his description of them is fascinating in itself. Maybe someday I’ll get to them. . . perhaps on audio. It’s a great list! Check it out.

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This world will be Troy

From Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead:

“In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

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