Lesson 2. artificial, inflated or exaggerated language
We will consider the second sort later, but let us reflect on the good sort for now. It is perfectly possible to use words poorly and ineffectively, and those of us in the communications business need to develop our communication skills.
There has been recent discussion in the British press about two men who were famous for their rhetoric, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. Churchill originally gave his famous, “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons. It was apparently electrifying and members were so excited they insisted he deliver it to the nation on the radio the following day. He was very reluctant to do this, and in the event, he merely read his original script. This came across as flat and uninspiring – though he used exactly the same words!
Now this is very interesting. Imagine saying now in a loud voice, “The house is on fire – get out as fast as you can.” Imagine saying it in a way that will induce immediate action, if not panic. Now imagine saying the same words in a way that no one would take seriously. The difference here is not in the words but the way you deliver them.
In Martin Luther King’s famous speech, he repeats the phrases “I have a dream” and “Let freedom ring” nine times. Because of the energy and passion he famously put into it, it is difficult to imagine that speech being delivered in a tedious way, but it was certainly repetitious, and could potentially have been a real turn off!
The art of rhetoric is more than formulating the sequence of words. It is also in the way they are delivered – and that goes for all speech. We can be boring, passionate, humorous, sardonic or sincere – just in the way we deliver our words. Certainly, the apostle Paul showed rhetorical skills in his writing, as 1 Corinthians 13 demonstrates so clearly, but he evidently had skills in rhetorical speech as well.
So if the salesman on the doorstep is going to sell his product, he needs to give attention to his appearance, his manner, his sale’s pitch, his descriptive powers, and the clarity of his explanations, as well as the force and integrity of his arguments, if he is going to persuade people to purchase his product.
Philosopher Peter S. Williams says that Aristotle taught that rhetoric had to do with three aspects of communication: ethos, pathos and logos; that is:
1) the character and credibility of the speaker (ethos),
2) the disposition and responsiveness of the audience (pathos)
3) and the content and construction of the speech itself (logos).[i]
He quotes the apostle Paul, who urged the Colossian church to pray, not only that he would find “an open door” to speak about Christ (pathos) but also that he would speak clearly “which is how I ought to speak” (logos). In turn, Paul advised the Colossians in their evangelism to be wise, and to “let their speech be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (ethos) (Col. 4: 3-6). So the challenge that faces us is identical to the challenge which faced the early Christians. “Good rhetoric,” Williams concludes, “is crucial for persuasive evangelism.”
The same applies, of course, to writing. It is my experience that whatever we write can be improved! If we are writing something important, we must not settle for the first draft. I have just checked a manuscript for a friend, which has already been checked by several people. I found a further 38 errors. He is most grateful! But I was just checking for typos. I left him to worry about the words.
Years ago I read a very helpful little book called “Words on Target”.[ii] The title itself alerted me to the fact that words are the weapons of truth. They can be fast, sharp and penetrating, making a deep impact! Or they can equally well be sluggish, blunt, and ineffective, going off with a “fut”. It taught me the value of well-deployed short sentences to arrest attention; the use of unexpected adjectives to stir the imagination; to avoid repetitions; to use dictionaries and a thesaurus to select fresh words; and to understand the difference between strong words and weak ones. The author wrote, “Economy, energy and subtlety pry open the twentieth century mind.”
In my view, and probably yours, every sentence that I write could be improved! The stuff we churn out reflects the amount of effort we have put in. Obviously, we should get other people to check our work. But we should be our own most critical analyst. To my mind, the golden rules include:
1) Always sleep on a text and review it next morning
2) Re-read it at different times of the day and in different “moods”
3) Read it imagining you were quite ignorant about the subject matter
4) Alter every sentence that needs to be read twice – if you doubt it, change it!
5) Be constantly asking, “Is there a better way to say that?”
6) When you think it is finished, then start to polish it. Those final tweaks can smooth out the remaining glitches and make the prose flow smoothly.
7) Never write a book – it takes too long!
Billy Wilder, the film producer of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, said, “I have a vast and terrible desire never to bore an audience.” The quickest way to bore an audience, apart from being dull, is to make sure they lose the plot! If we are to persuade people that Christianity is true, we must make sure that we are making sense to people and that they can follow what we are saying. The moment we use terms they do not understand or try to explain concepts which we haven’t properly grasped ourselves, they will quickly glaze over – losing not only the plot but probably the will to live!
It has been well said that “it is not what we say that matters, but what they hear”. So what words should we use to explain incarnation, sin, justification, redemption, faith and repentance? We have to work at these things. We need sparkling illustrations to carry these ideas. For instance, I like to explain the incarnation as Jesus being the “human face of God” and sin as “self-worship”. I describe redemption in terms of buying and restoring a damaged antique. And I always explain faith in terms of trust. Metaphors have their limitations and weaknesses, but good ones can go a long way in getting across complex ideas. Like parables, they convey packages of truth – and we need lots of them. However, we should not allow ourselves to believe that Christianity is too complex to explain. It would never have taken off so dramatically if it was. Our problem may be that we spend too much time listening to amateur theologians and not enough time listening to the straightforward questions of unbelievers!
Once the door to door salesman has explained what he has to offer, there are three basic questions that we need to ask: Is it true what he is saying? What are the implications of buying it? Do I actually need it?
Most other questions we might ask come into those categories (Is there a guarantee? Does it smell? Have I got a good alternative?)
I have often heard people say that the questions people ask about Christianity today are different from the questions they asked a generation ago. Certainly our cultures evolve and do so with increasing speed. So the questions relating to culture will change. But once the Gospel is “on the table” it invokes the same sort of questions that it always has done, because they are not questions about our culture but questions about a very specific and, at first sight, improbable proposition. And they are highly predictable!
Is it true and how can we know it is true?
1. Are the New Testament documents historically reliable?
2. Is Christ unique among the world’s religious figures?
3. Has science disproved God?
4. Isn’t religion all psychological? What are the implications of it being true?
5. What are the natures of faith and repentance?
6. What happens to unbelievers and those who never hear about Christ?
7. Why would a good God allow suffering and evil?
Do I need it?
8. Aren’t I good enough for God as I am?
Those basic questions are thrown up by the very nature of the Gospel, and are asked, sometimes in identical words, by both educated and uneducated people in every continent and every culture.
I once sat an exam where (without cheating, I might add) the class had managed to work out in advance what the questions would be. The exam paper was exactly what we expected – and everyone in the class scored the top grade. Well, they would have been idiots not to! If you know the questions in advance, you can get to work on preparing good answers.