But in a week when my son and his wife brought our beautiful new granddaughter to visit and a third of Japan washed out to sea, it’s difficult to avoid them.
It’s easy to say she sure is cute or that’s such a tragedy. And it’s true too, and serviceable enough. But we begin to cast about for something more meaningful, and end up with phrases that hardly do the subject justice.
The baby can be as cute as a button. Japan has fallen on hard times but will no doubt tough it out. But why would we want to diminish the miracle of a newborn or the magnitude of devastation in this way? Surely every child deserves her own celebration and every human misery its own prayer.
A nice literary allusion might work. Someone wiser must have thought about this. Threads of truth must run though the fabric of our past. There must be comparisons more compelling and phrases more fresh.
But here is the problem: no one understands them anymore, unless they are willing to look them up on Google. We might get away with the suffering of Job. But not the weeping in Rammah.
Adam Kirsch explored this problem recently:
Latin and Greek are out of the question, of course, and have been for some time, since virtually no one still studies them. But even if you stick to English, it is almost impossible to be confident that your audience knows the same books you do. It doesn’t matter whether you slip in “April is the cruelest month,” or “To be or not to be,” or even “The Lord is my shepherd”—there’s a good chance that at least some readers won’t know what you’re quoting, or that you’re quoting at all.
Kirsch says allusion is a “high-risk, high-reward rhetorical strategy” and he’s probably right. Most people won’t get it, but if they do it will be quite satisfying—like strangers on the bus whose eyes briefly lock, realizing they are thinking the same thing about the way the coach lurched or the baby in the back cried.
When you write, however, your eyes don’t meet, although perhaps for a moment you and your reader see the same thing. This is why imagery is so important in writing today. And why the lines we share with others likely came from a poorly written movie or pop song, although a well-known one.
Historical and literary references seem elitist, however, unless they have themselves become clichés. And Scripture is too judgmental, we are told, as the language of faith is driven further from the public square. Yet if someone says their love is like a red, red rose, they run the risk of being taken as original.
We are the poorer for it.
Not only is our language more limited, but our values and our vision more constrained. We have no common perspective or shared discourse. We have no reference points. Literally. Most every argument lacks context. Words fail us.
And we no longer have enough sense to come in out of the rain.
How would you describe the devastation of Japan? Or who in the past explained it better than you can? Or what image does it raise?