Tuesday, 5 June 2018

George Orwell on "modern English of the worst sort"

 George Orwell (Why I Write, pp110-113):

“I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The first sentence contains 49 words but only 60 syllables and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it only gives a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first.

Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of the meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by somebody else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say in my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.

If one attraction is that it’s easier, another must be that it sounds clever, or learned.

And Orwell’s prescription:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions: what am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is the image fresh enough to have an effect? and he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Romans reading

I've had a couple of recent requests for info on what's recent and worth reading on Romans.
Here's an email reply...

Hi Philip,

Lovely to hear from you and apologies for a slow response!

depends what you're after of course. Tom Schreiner and Doug Moo are both about to publish the second editions of their commentaries which will substantially update those very strong works. Both due end of this year I think which may come too late for you.

Will Timmins has published his PhD on Romans 7 - it'll be a key part of the debate for decades I suspect -  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Romans-Christian-Identity-Testament-Monograph/dp/1107197090

John Barclay's Paul and the Gift has some very stimulating material on Romans and is well worth engaging with.

On the Greek text, John Harvey's volume in the EGGNT series is very helpful for keeping Greek fresh ;)

David Peterson's commentary (Holman - Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series) looks good though I've not dug deep yet.

Sigurd Grindheim is also a writer I've always enjoyed and I notice he's written a couple of journal articles on Romans lately:

 “A Theology of Glory: Paul’s Use of Δόξα Terminology in Romans,” Journal of Biblical Literature 136.2 (2017): 451–65;
 “The Kingdom of God in Romans,” Biblica 98.1 (2017): 72–90.  If they are of interest it's always worth seeking an author out on Academia.edu /social media and asking for a PDF...

Trust things are well at your end,

Yours in Christ,

Monday, 26 February 2018

What to do with a downcast soul?

Seems to me something disturbing happens in discussions of psalms 42-43. 

Often these two psalms are thought to have been just one originally, given the repeated refrain ’Why are you downcast O my soul?’  (42:5, 42:11, 43:5) and other parallel language (e.g. Ps 42:9 and 43:2). That’s not the disturbing thing, mind you, just some context.

What’s disturbing is the way the psalms are regularly used to commend giving yourself a good talking to.  That the answer to a downcast soul is to take yourself in hand and engage in “self-talk.”

Tim Keller, for example, in My Rock and My Refuge reflects on Ps 42-43, saying “Change and hope come as we, in effect, argue with ourselves.”

Or James Montgomery Boice summarises the psalmist’s model to us under three headings. He:

1. takes himself in hand
2. he challenges himself to do what should be done
 3. he reminds himself of a great certainty.

Both of them, I suspect, are influenced by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ famous Spiritual Depression, which presents Ps 42-43 as the crowning witness to spiritual depression and its cure: 

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ – what business have you to be disquieted You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself ‘Hope thou in God’ – instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man, ‘I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.

So what’s disturbing about that? Well, the trouble with this approach to Ps42-43 is that it fails to notice what is the most significant speech. It is not, ultimately, what the psalmist says to himself, but what he says to God – that’s where hope lies. That’s where the psalmist’s longings get satisfied.

The desperate need is there at the beginning of psalm 42: the psalmist longs for God, longs to be near him, and is taunted by enemies who tell him God’s nowhere to be seen in all this: ‘Where is your God?’ 42:3, 10. The psalmist is in danger of agreeing, feeling forgotten (42:9) and rejected (43:2). The solution, though, clearly comes in 43:1 and 43:3 when God acts. It is not about the psalmist giving himself a good talking to, it is God sending his “light and faithful care” – “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my joy and my delight.”

So where does hope and change come from in Ps 42-43, it comes through the psalmist talking to God – calling on him to act. 

In the meantime, there is a place for talking to ourselves, of course. Even when we feel forgotten, we are to remember who God is. We are not to judge by appearances. The enemies see him stricken and think God is absent. The psalmist reminds himself that is not true– God is in the trials we face; note 42:7 “your waves and breakers have swept over me.” And he reminds himself of who God is, not least in 42:8 where he speaks of God as YHWH, the God of covenant love and faithfulness.

As Spurgeon says:
As though he were two men, the psalmist talks to himself. His faith reasons with his fears, his hope argues with his sorrows. These present troubles, are they to last forever? The rejoicings of my foes, are they more than empty talk? My absence from the solemn feasts, is that a perpetual exile? Why this deep depression, this faithless fainting, this chicken-hearted melancholy? As someone says, "David chides David out of the dumps; "and herein he is an example for all desponding ones.

But that cannot be the whole story. The danger is that we could end up functionally agreeing with the ones taunting the psalmist. We end up acting as if we are on our own and it’s down to us to talk ourselves out of these situations. 

Relatedly, there is a danger that we end up treating psalm 42-43 as a static model of self-talk, rather than a dynamic story that, in the case of the psalmist, awaits resolution, but in our case has found some resolution. God has sent his light and his faithful care. His Son. We have been brought into his presence. We have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God. 

To be sure, we still await the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem descending and being with the Lord face to face. And this interim phase includes many hardships that might cause us to be downcast. But these psalms do not teach us to look inward in those moments or seasons but to look upwards and call on God to act. 

On balance, I think I’d rather say that that is “the main art in the matter of spiritual living.”

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Crack in Everything

Notes from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, ch 2: 'The Crack in Everything'

p24 On the problem of trying to use biblical words when “our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling”:

p25 Sin for example, now “always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something”

“The other universal is that ‘sin’ always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation: but a distant memory, just enough of a memory to add a zing of conscious naughtiness to whatever the pleasure in question is.”

Hence, p26, if I use the word sin “you will diagnose me as a Christian body-hater. You’ll corral me among the enemies of ordinary joy. You’ll class me with the life-haters... [p27] so I won’t do that. Because that isn’t at all what I mean. What I and most believers understand by the word I’m saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*@% up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*@% things up [HPtFtU] because what we’re really talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other peoples, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. Now, I hope, we’re on common ground. In the end, almost everyone recognises this as one of the truths about themselves.”

p29 “the HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature... we would, on the whole, very much like this not to be true, and our culture conspires to help us avoid and defer and ignore the sting as much as possible. The purveyors of flattering images do their damnedest to keep us feeling that we can be as we wish ourselves to be. It would not be very cool or aspirational if we had to imagine our biographies being sculpted out of some awkward substance over which we had limited control... the [culture’s] advice amounts to a suggestion, really, that you should distract yourself. Keep yourself busy with stuff. Don’t look inside. Shop. Rent a DVD. Kill some zombies on your Xbox. Let the net’s unending flutter of opinions tickle you and keep you tickled.”

p32 “We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once.”

p33 cf. Bill Hamilton’s “wonderful description of the human animal as ‘an ambassador sent forth by an unstable coalition.’”

“And this is a state of affairs in the face of which we are, for the most part, currently clueless, toolless, committed to alarmed denial rather than to any more useful or hopeful response.”

Witness for example to proliferation of serial killer novels and films; p34: “The rather severe limitation on the way the serial killer story does evil, though, is that it always offers it to us as, exactly, something out there, something far distant from us, which by bad luck descends growling and licking its lips in ordinary mole, innocent old us, who live in the nice normal middle of the normal curve. It is the predator, we are the prey. It is the doer or harm. We are the done unto. Which is superficially scary, and then very, very cosy.

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night - you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there - then the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off flu by waving a toy lightsaber... if you don’t give the weight in your chest it’s true name you can’t even begin.”

p36 “‘Guilt’ though, gets a terrible press now: much worse than frothy, frivolous ‘sin.’ Our culture does take seriously but as a cause of unhappiness in itself, a wanton anxiety-generator. It’s as if the word ‘groundless’ always slid invisibly into place in our sentences next to it. As if it were always a false signal, a fuss being made about nothing... our usage assumes a world where we never do anything it would be appropriate to feel bad about.”

p42 But “no-one is incapable of wrongdoing, and we have to be allowed our capacity for HPtFtU if we are to have our full stature. Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than [p43] just being a flurry of events.”

p50 the essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting”

p51 “I want to give chaos it’s due here, unmodified, unconsoled, not yet smoothed into a new status quo... because it is in that chaos, that true realisation of a true formlessness in yourself, that the need can begin which is one of the strong motives for belief...”

Monday, 18 September 2017

A little Greek goes a long way

I heard a sermon a while back on Matthew 15. In that passage, Jesus exclaims “O woman!” (ὦ γύναι, 15:28) and in that sermon the preacher suggested that the ‘O’’s are significant in Matthew. That made me curious...

Sad to say, glancing down at the pew Bible, the NIV, was no help: it doesn’t translate the ‘O’ [tut tut NIV!] Moving to the ESV on my phone, I found it does translate it in Matt 15:28 and so I did a quick search in the English ESV text for other examples of ‘O’ in Matthew. There are ten such passages: 

2:6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

8:26 And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.

8:29 And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?"

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

15:22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon."

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.

16:8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, "O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?

17:17 And Jesus answered, "O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me."

23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!

Lots to work with there, but then I checked the Greek and here’s the thing: there’s only an ‘O’ in Greek in two of those passages: 15:28 and 17:17. The ESV has added the rest [tut tut ESV!]

That said, what we’re left with might suggest that the two ‘O’’s are important after all. When the woman is introduced in ch15, she is an outsider (a Canaanite) whose faith contrasts with the mounting opposition from the Jews (15:1-9 and 16:1-4). By chapter 17 she stands out as a striking exception to a whole unbelieving generation which includes even the disciples. Her faith is great; the rest, for the time being, are faithless: 

15:28 “O woman, great is your faith”                    
 ὦ γύναι, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις·

17:17 “O faithless and twisted generation”           
ὦ γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη

So, not race, not gender, not even the best possible apprenticeship (which the disciples received) is a guarantee of anything. Faith is what counts.