Order and Beauty

A Little Theology of Christian Writing

The Wisdom Literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) is not simply insightful in its content, but delightful in its craft. As dwarves with rare jewels, these authors didn’t just discover golden nuggets of wisdom; they shaped them, forged them, hunched over their obsession, inspected them, held them up to the light, cut them, and framed them into sentences poetic and memorable.

We are wise to enter their mines and learn their skill, not just to discover beauty but to adorn it beautifully. Briefly, then, I want to travel into the mountain of these sages’ eloquence, exploring the deeps of their craftsmanship. Notice what was spoken of one such sage:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. (Ecclesiastes 12:9–10)

Handcrafted writing, beautiful writing that adorns God’s wisdom, weighs and studies, arranges with great care, and seeks out words of delight and writes words of truth uprightly.

Weigh the World, Study Scripture

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying.

First, to write well, this master-jeweler prepared well. Superior gifting did not alibi sloth. That the Preacher possessed superlative wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:16) did not shorten his preparation. He pored over the wise sayings of others; he wrote wise sayings of his own. And we, with lesser wisdom and ability, also measure and ponder, read and study, roast the truth over in our minds, never tire to hunt each morning for fresh discoveries in the forests of God’s Book.

Particularly, we do not just study how to write, but what we write about. We must have knowledge to teach. Here, some of us step along a cliff’s edge, tempted to preoccupy oneself with how we say over what is said. Many have lost their footing. Pride drags much of man’s toil over the edge to shatter upon the rocks. I grimace when I discover myself painting, like the worst of modern art, indistinct displays of my own artistry, instead of the landscape or the glories beyond.

No, the writing life gropes for metaphor and imagery and beauty because it has heard creation singing God’s praises and has seen his beauty in the face of Jesus Christ. In other words, we love God’s diamonds more than our metal rings and sentences that hold them. In all things, his Son must have preeminence (Colossians 1:18). The wise never lose sight of a God greater than our pens can ever tell. “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as [the reader’s] servants for Jesus’s sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). So, first, we weigh and study and place all in the light of God and his truth.

Arranging the Flowers

The Preacher did not merely weigh and study, however; he “taught the people knowledge, . . . arranging many proverbs with great care.” He made straight, he put in order, he composed. He forged proverbs, wisdom compressed into Hebrew poetry, what Robert Alter calls “the best words in the best order” (The Art of Biblical Poetry). He engraved the truth to be remembered, considering both style and structure. He knew that to add order was to add beauty and force. He knew a proverb or poem could be less or more than its parts.

Whether compiling proverbs of others or composing his own, he saw that truly beautiful writing has pleasing cohesion. One note out of place disrupts the recital — and is detected even by those who have never heard the music before. How? Because beauty has its anatomy, its symmetry, its mathematics, its order. Assonance, alliteration, metaphor, contrast, and more — the science of lovely prose.

Our God is a God of order and beauty, and he will not have his children fight. Beautiful writing is not a collection of notes struck on a whim, but a symphony; not a handful of casually picked flowers, but a pleasing bouquet. Marvel has their Avengers; Christian eloquence her Arrangers — of words and phrases and paragraphs and chapters. Such writers position their thoughts, others’ thoughts, and (most importantly) God’s thoughts into the vase with “great care.”

“The wise never lose sight of a God greater than our pens can ever tell.”

Again, the man to whom God gave “wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29), had to work at writing (and rewriting) — but also in arranging (and rearranging). Solomon did not publish first drafts. We almost hear his exhaustion (and see his smile) as he finally puts down the quill: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

Words of Joy and Truth

You’ve experienced it, right? Halfway through the second paragraph, the writing tastes stale, unappetizing. You travel on, if you travel on, against the wind. It has words of truth, perhaps, but not delight. But then you turn to another writer whose beliefs all but nauseate, but whose prose allures. As in Athens, his verbal idols are well crafted. Here, we find words of delight, but not much truth.

The Preacher sought something different. He “sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.” He loved beauty and he loved truth, and he took great measures to wed the two.

He quested for sweet sayings. He climbed mountains, entered forests, dove as a merman into the sea, searching for words of delight. Not smiling, quirky words such as “platypus” or “whizzle,” but sayings that gratified, “‘words that would give pleasure [to the listener]’ — presumably because they were well phrased and elegant.” He hunted them with a fierce love. “Elegant expression, deep and satisfying meaning — these were the goals of [the Preacher’s] work as a thinker, a teacher, writer and collector of wisdom” (A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, 436).

Lovely Christian writing does not apologize for its poetry. For those suppressing creativity in unloveliness, be free to search for words of joy. We know secularism only pretends to hate beauty; dark angels still dress as angels of light. To fight only with aesthetics leaves the bow without arrows; to fight only with naked truth is to toss your arrows at the heart. But let the archer place the golden arrow into the bow of bronze, let earnest prayer draw it back, and who knows how mightily the Spirit of the living God will let it fly?

Pens of Pure Hearts

The writing of Solomon has a further detail easily overlooked: “Uprightly he wrote words of truth.” Straight words did not emerge from a crooked heart: “That which was written was upright and sincere, according to the real sentiments of the penman, even words of truth, the exact representation of the thing as it is” (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible).

The painter, not just the canvas, is in view for the Christian writer. He speaks the truth truthfully, sincerely, as he knows it before God. Out of the overflow of the heart, the pen writes. He says with Job, “My words declare the uprightness of my heart, and what my lips know they speak sincerely” (Job 33:3). And with Augustine, “What I live by, I impart” (quoted in James Stewart, Heralds of God, 10). We err if we finely craft content but not our lives. Christian writing is done from a higher art.

Holiness adds to the force and wholesomeness of our writing, just as bad lives spoil otherwise good content: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7). We don’t fit this paragraph after that because it fits together — while obeying neither. Here lies the grand departure from all sub-Christian writers.

This means we obsess over reality. “I talk of love — a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek,” Lewis once wrote in a poem (As the Ruin Falls). As far as it goes with us, we refuse to write of God’s truth, of the wonders of the world, of deplorable and enduring things as a parrot overhearing its owner speak what it doesn’t understand. We do not arrange and weigh and judge and search for words of joy and truth from a heart that loves none of it.

The words of joy and truth the Preacher found first pleased his own soul. He loved what he wrote for more reasons than that he wrote it. He searched the tropics because he valued beauty — not to cage and sell what he found. He didn’t love ingredients just to cook meals he never tasted; he really loved the food. He delighted in the spiritual taste of words because words were doors into reality.

Dispatches from the Shepherd

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

What we’ve seen is that beautiful writing for Christ considers the object of its writing more than the writing itself, yet spares little expense to arrange words of joy and truth in the most pleasing and effective ways possible. Beautiful writing for Christ also passes from the pen of a pure heart. And now finally, striking Christian writing descends from the Great Shepherd.

We might imagine this Shepherd picking us up in his arms and laying us down in green pastures — and so we have warrant, given Psalm 23, perhaps the most beloved beautiful writing in the Bible. But here, the Preacher instructs us that wise sayings are not down pillows for the soul, but rather nails and prods spurring us onward. And here is one of the most important lessons for Christian writers today: the beauty of the writing must not blunt truth’s blade.

Otherwise, beautiful writing can devolve into flattery and man-pleasing when it never cuts to the heart. Too many skilled writers try to give the God-breathed word a breath mint. It doesn’t need one. Against purple prose that only soothes, what imagery did the lover of joyful words find to describe the carefully arranged sayings? “Goads” and “nails firmly fixed.” They stand behind readers as cattle drivers and prod us forward with sharp pokes. They animate us. They bestir us. They protect us from veering from the path of holy living.

Christian writing, eloquent and comely, crafted and arranged, will not always be comforting or encouraging. The message is not ours, but that of the One Shepherd.