An Open Notebook

Faith and Writing


‘Good writing starts with belief.’ 

In using this phrase, many self-help, writing-handbooks, called ‘styleguides’ might tell the reader this belief is ‘in yourself.’ Yet, it’s not. 

As Steven Pinker alludes to in The Sense of Style, good writing starts with the ‘belief’ (or, at very worst, the pretense) that our world can be intimately known. Pinker advocates for what is called the ‘classic style,’ because it tends to be the most clear, lucid and does not frontload the reader with epistemic commitments or philosophy.

Time-and-time again, in Pinker’s eye, (not to be confused with ‘pink-eye’) the best writers of the ‘classic style’ look at the world and imagine it to be ‘readable,’ able to be known and communicated–even if, like Michelangelo’s Adam, in the same moment we cannot touch the depths of its mystery. 

The classic style crosses over with the ‘plain and practical’ styles which circulate public forums; subjects are subjects, and objects are objects. Real objects–tangible, touchable, in the flesh–can be described, even if ‘in the mirror dimly.’ 

This method can be used to even to address fairly abstract topics, so long as it treats the concepts narratively, as does journalism. 

But unlike academic writing, which tends towards the ‘self-conscious,’ the classic style does not get caught up with frontloading epistemic baggage. It’s purpose is to describe objects.

If we perpetually reconsidered our epistemic foundations, we would never get around to describing the objects around us. At some point we all must play our faith commitments.

Should the classical style sound naïve, particularly  ‘philistine,’ critics might want to reconsider. Stylists of classic prose are given opportunity in this mode to live out their fundamental commitments about the world. The classic style starts with ‘belief,’ a faith, in a knowable reality. 

In a bit of irony, relativistic, self-conscious, post-modern writers often use this same style (Richard Dawkins is an expert writer in the classic style). But, we wonder if they possess any firm foundation for the way they pose their thoughts—that ‘truth’ is knowable, discernable, and can be ‘seen’ by the human eye (even if only by the visual memory, the imagination, our phonaesthetics)?

We suspect not. Such writers use the pretense (are confident like cobras), but the style itself fairly inconsistent with their worldview. Nihilistically, they might say the mode is just a utility, to sell books, to spread their ideas. 

Yet, the classic style, for Christians, is perfectly suited for their worldview. God knows all, and has made the world knowable, and himself knowable. By knowing God, we can know the world, and know each other. By describing objects, we can participate in the mystery of life and enjoy God’s good gifts.

We love truth because we were made to love truth, and the classic style of writing best compliments this.

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Ryan By Ryan
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