The Biblical Style of Writing

This article is about the importance of good Literature, and why all Christians writers should take a lesson from the Bible and Classic Christian literature and why we should all immerse themselves in great literature.

There are several historical works are responsible for shaping our Christian culture and our Biblical worldview into what it is today. Of course, the most important of these is the Bible itself. But the Bible began as separate books, and some of the writings of the prophets were not particularly welcomed or valued in their own day.

Nevertheless, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is apparent in these works that have been validated and elevated to the status of scripture—that which is recognized by God’s people at the authoritative word of God. It is an amazing and enviable gift—God’s word in written form! There is no greater tangible asset to Christian culture than God’s written word. Alexander the Great made a national project out of translating the Old Testament into the Greek translation called the Septuagint.

Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, wrote in a very abstract and logical way, as did his mentor, Plato. Works of such abstract clarity is the ambrosia of the redeemed, but what ultimately changes hearts and minds comes by a different pathway. Most of scripture is written, by design, in a kind “shadow-language” that is nothing like those works of Classic literature that frame philosophical issues in terms of pure logic. This is what makes biblical truth so different.

Jesus himself spoke in parables, and he explained his reason for doing so saying, “It is not given to them to understand.” This is not just a put-down aimed at the “spiritually unenlightened” of his day. It is something that applies to all of us. We all need parables because the abstract clarity of God’s truth is something that takes time to permeate and grow in the mind of the hearer of God’s word.

What Christian Writers Can Learn From the Bible

So what can the modern Christian writer learn from that style that God has used in his own written word—the Holy Scriptures? We should take note of those methods of spiritual instruction used in Holy Scripture.

God’s word clearly teaches us that The full light of divine truth can have a blinding and incendiary effect on us humans who are not properly prepared to receive it in the form of a lecture. By contrast, consider the nature of a parable. A parable introduces a small seed of biblical truth that is not fully understood all at once but is allowed to germinate and grow over time. This is how biblical truth takes root in the heart and not just in the mind.

That explains the power of parables and it also explains why God usually chooses to have his written word in the shadow-languages of psalms, symbols, enigmatic visions, and lots of stories. This also explains the power of Christian classic literature in general. In fact, it explains the need for all of the arts.

Real Change Comes through Art—Not Intelectual Debate

The vicarious life experience of a good art permeates our consciousness in ways that become more than just an intellectual awareness of one thing or another. This is the substance of our Christian worldview. Truth becomes experiential over time. If you are suffering from an infected cut on your hand it helps to wash it, but it is far better to soak it for a long time in hot water and Epson salt. That is the difference between good literature and a mere lecture on some moral truth. We need a good soaking in the culture of Christianity.

Abolitionist pastors and moralists lectured against the evils of slavery for 2 generations before the Civil War. But it was a novel titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe that finally raised anti-slavery sentiments to a fever-pitch. Great literature is that long soaking of low-dose medicinal value that can give you moral clarity without ever having to be lectured to. In fact, the best Christian literature avoids “lectures” altogether by simply putting you in a story experientially.

But this does not just apply to works of fiction, but also works of theology. The best of theological works employ this same “soaking” effect. Saint Augustine tediously recounted a long history of disasters—all to refute the claim of pagans that Christianity was responsible for angering the gods and provoking them to inflict terrible disasters that the empire.

The real reason for Rome’s distrust of Christians was the fact that that the culture of Christianity was simply an enigma to the pagan mind, and one that challenged values that were central to Classical paganism.

Augustine lampooned the absurdity of pagan beliefs and practices with irony and humor. There is a portion of City of God in which every page is like the sound of another nail being driven into the coffin of the Old Pagan polytheistic religion! It represented a paradigm shift that moved all of western Europe toward the Culture of Christianity.

The same might be said of Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” and of Samuel Rutherford’s “Lex Rex.” Both of these were definitive works that changed history and shaped Christian culture profoundly. Also, both works wear out the reader with a tedious cross-referencing and with an exhaustive “soaking” in a particular body of biblical truth that causes the resistant mind to succumb to its message out of sheer exhaustion! I am exaggerating here, but not that much. Both of these were definitive works. The only way for any thinking Christian to reject the message of these works is to simply not read them.

Why We Still Need the Ancient Authors

Great literature is tedious work. To produce a book that will grow in the mind of the reader requires drawing upon a depth of life experience and inward contemplation. It is this that enables a good Christian writer to have a profound and enduring influence upon the values and beliefs of thousands of people.

With rare exceptions, the modern mind does not have the temperament for this. So it is incumbent on the best modern Christian writers to absorb the thinking of those historical authors who did have the temperament for producing world-changing books. C. S. Lewis puts it another way, saying that Christians need to, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Of course, Lewis is talking about classical literature.

What Does this all Mean to the Christian Writer?

The main point is simply this—that world-changing truth does not make its way into the human consciousness via cliff-notes and snap-chats. Like those that came before us, Christian book writers must soak our minds in the Bible and in other great literature as it is the most valuable of any Christian writer’s resources. All of us must immerse ourselves in it, or we will not grow much spiritually.

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Biblical Style of Writing”

  1. Very well said!

    The Bible is indeed a great example of a great and classic literature. I have read the Bible from cover to cover a couple of times and I am truly amazed at how the writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have consistently conveyed the same message from beginning to end, even though they lived several centuries apart.

    Today, many people seem to disregard the Bible and its core message of hope and salvation, but it’s still the only book that has made an impact in the lives of many people from every nation and culture.

    As regards to parables, yes, the Bible seems to indicate that Jesus often spoke in parables to plant a small seed of biblical truth but He also did it for several other reasons.

    For the disciples, Jesus taught in parables to provoke their deeper thinking, but with the goal of giving a full explanation in private (Mark 4:33-34). But more importantly, Jesus spoke in parables to prevent His disciples from hindering His death.

    Christian writers and bloggers do have a lot to learn from the authors of the Bible, thanks for pointing that out.

    Blessings,
    Alice

    1. Thank’s Alice!
      I am glad you pointed out the difference between what Jesus would say to the multitude and what he would say in private with his disciples. The disciples loved it when Jesus spoke to them plainly and seemed to encourage it saying “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech.” (John 16:29) It is human nature to want clear answers to everything, but God in his wisdom often withholds clarity to achieve his own purpose. He gives us parables and enigmas to work with until we are ready for the full light of revelation. As you said, it is designed to train us to think deeply.

      Steve

  2. Very good points! I appreciate the historical aspect you pull into your article and how they can help motivate and even mentor today’s Christian writers.

    I do recommend a few things. Check your grammar by reading the article out loud to yourself, preferably as much as you can in a single breath and you will feel where the sentences fumble. There were a few places in the beginning where I fumbled because the right words are not being used. Many people will loose interest right from the beginning from bad grammar and word choice.

    I do have a question: toward the end, the last paragraph in the “Why We Still Need Ancient Authors” section, what ‘temperament’ are people lacking? That actually is not obvioulsy clear. Temperaments are typically descriptors like someone has a calm temperament or a sour temperament, stern. Something to do with the very nature of their personality. I, in particular, have a serious nature/temperament. Are you referring to having a work ethic as a temperament?

    1. Great comments, Bethany—thank you!! 

      It is a very good question you raise with regard to what I mean about temperament. Yes, work-ethic is part of that temperament. Imagine what it was like for ancient writers to record what they know with ink and parchment—every letter applied to the page with a quill pen. 

      Even with our computers, search engines, and spell checking, few people of today have the temperament to process complex stories and ideas into a finished literary work comparable to the works they produced. Theirs was a tedious labor of love that absorbed hours. They relied largely on their extensive knowledge and memory of things read in the past. Also, penmanship was a demanding art in those days and every letter was applied to the page with great patience and considerable tedium.

      Jonathan Edwards had a round desk that turned in the middle like a “lazy susan” so he could have several sourcebooks opened to certain places that he could then turn to for quick reference. That was the extent of Jonathan Edward’s technology, yet he produced works that his publisher would not even bother to proof because his manuscripts were always letter-perfect. 

      Works of fiction, poetry, and playwriting were, no doubt, more liberating than academic works, but even those often reflect an extensive academic knowledge showing up in commentary and satire. There are many thought-provoking elements of philosophy, history and theology to be found in the works of Shakespear, John Bunyan, Milton, and Blake that are borrowed to this day by non-fiction writers.

      Average people could not be writers in those days. I doubt if the ancient writers would have been obsessed with the social media and sports trivia that fills the minds of modern citizens. The ancients had their own mindless diversions in those days—the taverns, horse races, blood-sport, etc. But writers were clearly cut from a different cloth. 

      A good writer had to live inside his head a lot and love it there. The things that captivated their imagination were the thoughts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Holy Scripture and the like. It is a mindset that is far too uncommon in today’s world. It is what was required to produce the literary legacy they handed down to us. The rest of us would go crazy trying to produce what they gave to the world. That is what I mean when I speak of the temperament of the ancient writers.

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