One of the books on my bookshelf at work and at home is the revised edition of Cornell professor William Strunk’s “little book” of grammar and style, as later revised by his student, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and a regular essayist in the Saturday Post before his death. I’ve written about Strunk and White before, but suffice it to say I’m a devotee and read The Elements of Style devotionally. That is, I often pick it up and read a page to encourage a greater devotion to the English language, to grammar, syntax, and style, to, above all, economy of words. Only today, however, I realized that Strunk and White’s maxims on style in written expression are also excellent provocations for living “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2), for, if you will, living with style.
How can we not see these maxims as guides for Christian living? I have no idea what, if any, religious persuasion Strunk or White had, but I have to smile at the most assuredly unintended second meanings that their “reminders” of style have, of how they connote a far greater mystery than they imagined. Their “mystery story, thinly disguised,” is more mysterious and fulsome than they could have imagined.
“Place yourself in the background,” they say right off. And here I could quote chapter and verse of all of what they briefly say, but won’t. Suffice it to say that “the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none --- that is, place yourself in the background.” What they mean is that good writers should focus on “sense and substance,” not their own “mood and temper.” When you focus your energy on the task at hand, proficiency in the use of language, the “mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed.” Get out of the way. Stop worrying how you will appear, or how you will sound, or what impact you will have. Stop trying to find yourself and simply pay attention to the task at hand, to writing well, and who you are will emerge. Lose yourself. Paradoxically, you don’t find yourself by focusing on yourself.
Good writers of fiction learn the craft. They serve the characters that beg to be written. They write not to sell books or impress people but because it is what they want to write, feel called to write, or must write. Good writers love the word.
The Apostle with the argumentative style of a lawyer said that we were to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but [must] in humility consider others better than [ourselves]” (Phil. 4:3). He said we were to “conduct [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), not worthy of the opinions of others. We are commended to live in Christ, to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13). It’s a life lived coram deo, not coram mano, a life lived out before God and not before others. In fact, the only work I have to do is that of continually resting on the finished work Christ has done for me. If I do that, everything else follows. But if I try to do everything else for everyone else, I will not get there. The “mood and temperament” that is revealed will not be my own as shaped by Christ but that of others shaped in me. Thus, one of the mysteries of style is not focusing on style at all but on that which brings style. For writers, that’s word and craft --- the work of writing well. For Christians, that’s Word and craft --- the work of resting on Christ, of living out of an identity shaped by the Word who always accomplishes His work in us.
It’s not easy. Strunk said that “[w]riting is, for the most part, laborious and slow.” And so is the Christian life. It requires that we “cultivate patience,” that we wait for God who wills and works in us. Place yourself in the background. Lose yourself. Live with style.
[By the way, I highly recommend the beautifully illustrated hardback edition of Strunk and White’s classic. Check out the book and the video preview by its illustrator here.]