Monday, February 21, 2022

Communication Happens!

My college speech professor used to say, “Words don’t mean, people mean.” He would go on to explain that communication happens when the message intended by the speaker is received by the listener. I often recall that aphorism, especially when miscommunication happens. 

A memorable failure to communicate occurred in the early 1990s when I invited a guest preacher to speak at our church. The preacher’s topic was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Near the end of the sermon he proclaimed that the father in the story is like God, who is a prodigal God. The speaker emphasized that the parable should be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father, for, like the father in the story, God is wastefully extravagant, lavishing his riches upon us.

But a member of the congregation heard something quite different that morning. When the speaker referred to God as prodigal, the congregant apparently thought he was saying that God is like someone who runs away from home and squanders his resources on illicit pleasures. 

After the service, the disgruntled man came to me and stated unequivocally that I should never invite that preacher to speak at our church again. He was incensed that our guest would use the word prodigal to describe God. The listener missed the message intended by the speaker.

I was reminded of that incident when I read a passage from the novel Les Misérables recently. Eight-year-old Cosette, sent out into the darkness by Mdm. Thénadier, is enchanted by a large doll nearly two feet high dressed in a robe of pink crepe with gold garlands on its head. The doll had real hair and enamel eyes. This marvel had been on display throughout the day to the amazement of young children. Yet, we’re told that there was not a mother in Montfermeil “rich enough or prodigal enough to give it to her child.” An apt use of the word prodigal

The preacher was right: Our God is prodigal! If we think of this story as the Parable of the Prodigal Father, we won’t miss Jesus’ point; and we won't be misled about the meaning of prodigal

When I discovered recently that the well known pastor and writer, Tim Keller, published a book titled The Prodigal God, I wondered if that disgruntled parishioner would read the book and get the message. 

It’s also worth noting that my speech professor communicated well, for I remember his message fifty-plus years later: communication happens when the message intended by the speaker is received by the listener.

© Stan Bohall 

February 21, 2022

Monday, January 10, 2022

Everything Is Purposeful

“With God nothing is accidental.” That statement caught my attention when I heard it in a recent sermon. That’s because I had been reading classic short stories in which every sentence, every phrase, every word, every twist and turn of the plot seemed purposeful. Nothing was accidental. 

The short story “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen” by O. Henry is an example. It features an Old Gentleman who takes Stuffy Pete to a restaurant on Thanksgiving Day to watch him eat a big dinner. “The Old Gentleman was a proud American patriot, and he was pleased to have established this Thanksgiving Day tradition with Stuffy Pete. It was extremely important to the Old Gentleman that their tradition should continue” (lines 53-56).

The narrator’s descriptions of the two men make illustrations unnecessary. This year,

Stuffy Pete was not hungry. He had just come from a feast that left him barely able to breathe and move about. His breath came in short wheezes. The buttons that had been sewn on his coat by Salvation Army workers were popping from the pressure of his fat belly. His clothes were ragged and his shirt was split open (lines 29-33).

In contrast, the Old Gentleman was thin and tall and sixty. 

He was dressed all in black and wore the old-fashioned kind of glasses that won’t stay on your nose. His hair was whiter and thinner than it had been last year and he seemed to make more use of his big, knobby cane with the crooked handle (lines 60-64).

When they met at the appointed park bench, the Old Gentleman said, 

Good afternoon. I’m glad to see that this year you are enjoying good health in the beautiful world. For that blessing alone this day of thanksgiving is well proclaimed to each of us. If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that will satisfy you physically and mentally (lines 68-72).

As the narrator notes, “That is what the Old Gentleman had said every time on every Thanksgiving Day for nine years.” What’s more, “Nothing compared with these words except the Declaration of Independence” (lines 74-75).

Arriving at the designated restaurant, “the Old Gentleman led his guest . . . to the table where the feast had always been served.” The waiters recognized the two gentlemen and said, “Here comes that old guy who always treats that same bum to a meal every Thanksgiving” (lines 103-106).

Though Pete was stuffed, he feigned hunger and began attacking the Thanksgiving Dinner. 

Our valiant hero fought his way through turkey, chops, soups, vegetables, and pies. Every time he felt discouraged and ready to give up the battle, he looked at the Old Gentleman. He saw the look of happiness in the Old Gentleman’s face, and it gave  him the courage to go on. Stuffy did not have the heart to see the Old Gentleman’s happiness wane. In an hour Stuffy leaned back with the battle won (lines 110-114).

As soon as the Old Gentleman paid the bill of $1.30 and left three dimes for the waiter, the gentlemen went in opposite directions. I’ll stop there so my readers can discover, or rediscover, how it ends. The surprise O. Henry-esque twist follows naturally from his purposeful writing.

So, what is the connection between God's purposefulness and ours? The assertion, “with God nothing is accidental,” is applicable to us because we were created in God’s image. Our purposefulness flows from God's. 

J. R. R. Tolkien coined the word “sub-creators” to describe our artistic activity as coming from God. He and his friend, C. S. Lewis, referred to their fiction as mythopoeic literature—the making of myths. That’s because the word poem comes from the Greek word ποίημα (poiēma), which means something that is made or done, a workmanship, a creation. 

Accordingly, St. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that we are God’s ποίημα, his poem, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10) Since we know that Christ Jesus is the word made flesh (Jn. 1:1-5, 14), we believe that his writing, his history-making, is creative writing (Col. 1:15-20). 

Many passages in Sacred Scripture reveal that God creatively shapes our lives. As the author of Proverbs notes, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps (16:9); and “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (19:21). The prophet Jeremiah acknowledges this in one of his prayers: “Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.” (10:23).

No doubt my readers have thought about how our free will affects God’s purposes. The amazing and wondrous truth, the mystery and the paradox, is that God takes what we do, even our sin, and turns it into that which fits with his plan. 

A prime example is Joseph’s story chronicled in the final chapters of Genesis. Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him to a group of Ishmaelite merchants, who, in turn, sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. When Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of sexual assault, he landed in prison. Throughout Joseph’s long ordeal the LORD was with him. As a result, when Joseph accurately interpreted a series of dreams, he became Prime Minister of Egypt. In that position he collected food during years of abundance so that it could be distributed during years of famine. 

When his brothers came to Egypt looking for food, Joseph concealed his identity, testing them to see if they had become more compassionate. Satisfied that his brothers had matured, Joseph revealed his identity. But after their father died, the brothers feared retribution for all the wrongs they had done to Joseph. Yet Joseph replied, 

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Gen. 50:19-21).

So as we read, or write, beautifully crafted stories—short or long—in which nothing seems accidental, we can be reminded that the story is a reflection of God’s purposefulness in shaping the events of our world and of our lives. And we can keep in mind that with God nothing is accidental.

The quotations are from Judith Kay and Rosemary Gelshenen, Discovering Fiction: A Reader of North American Short Stories, 2nd Edition. © Cambridge University Press, 2013, 73-76. The Acknowledgments page (p. 214) indicates that this version of “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen” is an adaptation from “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen” in The Complete Works of O. Henry published by Garden City Books, a division of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

© Stan Bohall 

January 10, 2022

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Jane Austen's Sentence

 Jane Austen's novels present both joys and challenges. Her beautifully crafted sentences bring pleasure to readers. She writes so masterfully that it is tempting to focus on her sentences alone, but that would be like gazing only at the brush strokes of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It would be better to commend the whole picture by pointing out that Austen’s novels are works of art that combine lovely sentences, compelling plots and captivating characters. 

We are challenged by her eighteenth century British writing style, a virtual foreign language for many of us. Austen’s narratives invite us to linger over the wording for greater understanding and enjoyment.

At the risk of violating my advice in the first paragraph, I’ll linger over this beautiful sentence from Austen's novel, Emma: Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of (Volume II, Chapter IV [22], Paragraph 1).

That assertion, prompted by Rev. Philip Elton’s engagement to Miss Augusta Hawkins, brings to mind the chapter titled “Of Exercise” in Scott Newstock's book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. There the author suggests exercising one’s intellect by writing variations on a sentence. Erasmus’s book, De copia, is the source for Newstock’s suggestion. He points out that we derive the word “copy” from copia, and, thanks to Xerox, we think of a copy as an exact reproduction. But copia in Shakespeare’s time “was more akin to the copiousness that we associate with a horn of plenty, or ‘cornucopia.’”

So Erasmus, with an array of diverse nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and word order wrote over 150 variations on the sentence, Your letter has pleased me greatly. 

Here are just a few of Erasmus’s variations: 

Your letter mightily pleased me.

To a wonderful degree did your letter please me.

Your epistle exhilarated me intensely.

I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle.

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.

From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable


Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.

That creative exercise prompted me to write the following variations on Austen’s sentence, Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of:

Human beings have such a positive outlook on those in intriguing circumstances such that a young adult who marries or dies is sure to receive compliments. 

It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them. 

Men and women are so intrigued by the marriage or death of a young person that they naturally speak with kindness about such friends.

We are fascinated to such a degree by young people getting married or dying that our default setting is to eulogize them.

We are enamored of marriage and bewildered by death such that our normal reaction is to praise a young person who either gets married or dies.

We are fascinated by young people who get married or die, so when either event happens, we naturally praise them.

We are so mystified by marriage and death that when one of them happens to our young friends we automatically praise them. 

Austen’s sentence also reminds me of Newstock’s chapter, “Of Imitation.” He illustrates the pervasiveness of imitation with James Baldwin’s observation that children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. The photograph at the head of the chapter, of a young child walking behind two adults mimicking their mannerisms, makes the point humorously. 

Imitation is a time-honored method of developing one’s voice as a writer, for, as Newstock points out, great writers have always imitated their predecessors. For example,

Gwendolyn Brooks imitated Eliot, who imitated Pope, who imitated Milton, who imitated Spencer, who imitated Chaucer, who imitated Dante, who imitated Virgil, who imitated Homer, who consolidated centuries of oral transmission. Your whole vocation should move beyond endless imitation—but you still begin with imitation.

Later in the book Newstock reiterates the observation, handed down from generation to generation, that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. 

So Newstock commends a method of imitation used by Renaissance educators called double translation. “Take a Latin model; translate it into the vernacular; now translate your version back again into Latin; now compare the original Latin source (L1) with your ‘double-translation’ Latin (L2).”

I have not studied Latin, so I’ll use Austen’s eighteenth century British English as my virtual foreign language and label Austen’s original sentence A1. One of my variations, (It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them) will serve as my translation into the vernacular—modern American English. My challenge is to translate that sentence back into Austenesque English, A2. 

Here is my first attempt: A sense of approbation fills the hearts of all human beings when they witness the nuptials or behold the demise of any of their august youthful companions.

So I’ll urge us all, experienced writers and beginning alike, to “copy” and to imitate beautiful sentences. Here are four more beautiful observations from Emma to get us started:  

Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton (Vol. II, Chapter  XV [33], Paragraph 1).

They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party (Vol. III, Chapter  VII [43], Paragraph 1).

My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other? (Vol. III, Chapter  XV [51], Paragraph 16).

Time passed on. A few more to-morrows, and the party from London would be arriving (Vol. III, Chapter  XVIII [54], Paragraph 1).

© Stan Bohall 

October 11, 2021