I spoke recently to a gathering of writers. The time allotted was short, so I made only one point. But this one point is, I believe, fundamental and universal for all authentic writing. By authentic, I mean writing that sincerely intends to carry the mind and heart of the writer, and that aims to communicate some reality that is more than mere self-expression — even if it is fiction or a playful note for your children.
There are huge assumptions behind that definition and exaltation of authenticity. One is that there is such a thing as objective reality beyond my self-expression. You may be so mentally and emotionally healthy that this seems obvious to you. But the modern world is not so healthy. It has proven to be fertile soil for the notion that we create our own reality.
What Ails Our World
For example, in the 1992 Supreme Court decision for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In other words, to be free, we must be liberated from the constraints of reality. The best way to attempt that liberation is to redefine reality as whatever I say it is. Today’s fruit of that view of reality would perhaps best be expressed by the notion that a child not only can define his own gender, but also, as recent letters to the London Times suggest, choose to be a panda, a dog, or a mermaid — things at which we might have once laughed, but now must weep.
“See truly and savor duly the reality you intend to show through writing.”
This means that thousands of people write with no sense of obligation that their writing should not only carry their true thoughts and feelings, but also communicate a reality that is more than their self-expression. I regard such writing as inauthentic. It may be a real expression of what is in the writer, but it is not real as a communication of a reality greater than mere preference.
Authenticity’s True Path
Another of my assumptions is that the reason there is such a thing as reality beyond my self-expression is that God exists. If God exists, then the most important reality in the universe is outside of me. If he created the world, and works in it, then his works and ways are of great objective importance. What he is, what he has done, and what he has said is more important than what I think or feel.
Another assumption is that God has spoken. The Bible is his true revelation about himself and his ways and his thoughts. Therefore, the most reliable way to write authentically is to be immersed in the reality that the Bible communicates. It is possible to see reality in God’s book of nature, but it is more reliable to read that book with the guidance of the Book that is designed to illuminate nature with inspired truth.
Those are some of the assumptions behind the one point that I made at the writers’ gathering.
How to Read, How to Write
So what was the point? Let me get to it by taking you with me on a train of thought emerging over the last three years. What I have been focused on mainly is how to draw out, from the writings of the Bible, the reality that the authors are trying to communicate. And you can see immediately that all we have to do is flip this process of thinking around to discover how to put reality into writing — not just get meaning out.
One of the main emphases of my thinking and writing over the last three years has been that the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is not to discover grammatical and syntactical structures. It’s not to discover definitions of words, or theological categories, or inter-canonical themes of biblical theology. All of those are means, not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is through the grammar, and through the syntax, and through the words, categories, and themes, to see and savor, and then show the reality the authors are trying to communicate.
Reading’s Ultimate Goal
“Don’t write anything on your screen until you have first written it on your heart.”
To see truly and to savor duly and to show to the world the reality the authors are trying to communicate — that is the ultimate goal of reading God’s word. If we see the reality and do not savor it according to its worth — feeling its horror if it’s horrible, feeling its beauty if it’s beautiful — then we have not attained the purpose for which the Bible was written.
The aim is to see and savor and show
- the reality of God,
- the reality of Christ,
- the reality of the Holy Spirit,
- and the incarnation,
- and what happened on the cross in the atonement,
- and the work of the Holy Spirit in the human soul,
- and the reality of sin, and hell, and heaven,
- and the reality of faith and hope and love,
- and the power it takes to raise a person from spiritual death and create these things.
The ultimate goal of reading the Bible is to see and savor and show the reality the authors are trying to communicate.
One Point for Writers
This means, then, if you flip the process around, that the aim of writing is to communicate reality so that it can be seen and savored and shown by those who read what you write. This implies many things, but here is the one I gave to the writers: See truly and savor duly the reality you intend to show through writing. This was my one point.
Solomon Makes the Point
To make this point, I let Solomon and John Owen speak for me. First, one of the Proverbs, from Solomon:
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart. (Proverbs 3:3)
In other words, before you write about steadfast love and faithfulness on paper, or on the screen, write them on your heart. In writing them on your heart, you are making the reality clear to yourself. In writing them on your heart, you are making the reality felt in yourself. Great writing is about great reality — clearly seen and greatly felt. Don’t write it on your screen until you have written it on your heart.
John Owen Makes the Point
Now, I want to let John Owen have the last word. He’s talking about the relationship between reality as we grasp it in our minds and hearts, on the one hand, and the effort to communicate it to others, on the other hand. Here’s what he says, with the repeated main point in italics:
[All-important is] a diligent endeavor to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but that we have a practical acquaintance within our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth — when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us — when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts — when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men. (John Owen, Works, XII, 52)
“The sense of the thing” — I love that phrase. Let it sink in. A huge amount of my time and effort over the last fifty years has been spent trying to get a great “sense of the thing” before I say anything publicly.
Great Reality Fuels Great Writing
“Great writing is about great reality — clearly seen and greatly felt.”
This is, I think, what made John Owen a great writer — even though stylistically he is for many inaccessible, which is another issue for another day. But sixteen volumes of his work would not be in print 400 years after his birth if there were no greatness here. And I think his greatness lay in this: Great writing is about great reality — clearly seen, and greatly felt.
One last quote from Owen — he said this about preaching, but it applies to writing. I will substitute the word “write” and “article” where he says “preach” and “sermon.”
A man [writes] that [article] only well unto others which [writes] itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savory unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. (Works, XVI, 76, emphasis added)
So, with Solomon and John Owen, I close with my one point for writers: See truly and savor duly the reality you intend to show through writing.