Thursday, July 9, 2015

Guest post by Terry's client Donn Taylor

Writers and the Power of Definition (I)

            Years ago an astute editor compared the rhetorical struggle for definition to a movie scene in which hero and villain struggle to possess a gun. The one who controls the gun lives, while the other one dies. Thus in any rhetorical dispute, the one who first defines the issue seizes the rhetorical high ground, forcing his opponent to fight an uphill battle.

            We see this principle operating in the news every day, often with emotions not too different from that struggle over the gun. In discussions of abortion, is the fetus defined as a human being or as a mass of tissue not greatly different from a wart? Is the Confederate battle flag defined as a symbol of slavery or of courage against an oppressive federal government? And how is religion defined under the First Amendment? Is "religion" restricted to what is done on Sundays in churches, or is it the guiding force of every action of the devotee's life? If the latter, what defines the difference between a Christian's refusal to support an event that violates basic tenets of his faith and a Muslim's practice of honor killing? If being "judgmental" is defined as evil, what is more judgmental than defining someone as judgmental?

            Christian writers who wish to write about real-life situations must take prayerful care to correctly define the issues they write about. This applies not only to today's hot-button issues named above, but to universal questions that define the writer's worldview. How do they define the universe we all live in? Is it the random interplay of material things and forces? Or is it the working out of a vast design by an all-powerful Designer? The nature of the small fictional universes writers construct will depend on their definitions of the greater universe outside.

            "Naturalistic" writers (Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, etc.) defined the universe as merely an impersonal or even hostile operation of natural forces. Other writers have defined the universe as absurd, a succession of chance happenings that have no logic or purpose. Examples in point include Albert Camus' story "The Guest" and (I believe) Larry MacMurtry's Lonesome Dove novels.

            On the other hand, Jonathan Cahn's The Harbinger portrays 9/11 and the 2008 stock market crash as a minutely detailed working out of God's purposes according to the pattern of Isaiah 9:8-21.

            As all writers must arrive at their definitions of the universe and work within those definitions, so they must define for themselves the truth and the moral implications of each conflict they write about. And they must take care not to be fooled into accepting someone else's definitions.

            In particular in these days of hostility toward Christianity, Christian writers must guard against accepting definitions from the popular culture, lest they lose the cultural battle before they begin.


Jim Hart said...

Much to think about! Sometimes I'm more comfortable when things are just clear and 'black and white', but lately I'm feeling like we're being corralled into a era of 'gray'. Clear definitions are powerful and also empowering.

Donn Taylor said...

We all (I hope) search for "whatsoever things are true." But we need to be on guard against propagandists who use skewed definitions to trick people into thinking their way. When we hear a prominent person make a very definite statement, our first reaction should be to find the definition he is working from. When we do that, we are in charge. When we don't do that, the speaker is in charge.

Terry Burns said...

Good column and good comment. One of our big problems is a large base of young voters that do not have the paradigm base to make such an evaluation and just react on emotion to people trying to sway them. They are often supporting people and causes that are going to be detrimental to their own future if they only thought it through. As writers it is indeed important for us to be able to make these distinctions and use them as we reach out to others with our writing.

Donn Taylor said...

Very true, Terry. Thanks for weighing in.

Diana Flegal said...

This past Sunday my Pastor said- on the issues the bible is black and white about- don't make it gray. Good post Donn.

Linda Glaz said...

Great post, Donn, and yes, Terry. I think most of the younger generation that has had so much handed to it, just votes with the hand out. I know there are plenty of great, hard-working kids, but we're seeing more of this in colleges and schools and in the workforce. As long as there are gimmes, they vote for who gives the most.

Donn Taylor said...

Thank you both, Diana and Linda.