Darrow tells of sitting on a plane years ago next to an executive of a leading European electric company. In their conversation the gentleman related some of the firm’s history. For years, they had asked three questions of any proposed product. If they couldn’t answer all three in the affirmative, they scrapped the idea. 1) Are we being good stewards? 2) Will this product contribute to excellence? 3) Will it edify?
Edify; useful word, that. Webster’s 1828 defines it, “To instruct and improve the mind in knowledge generally, and particularly in moral and religious knowledge, in faith and holiness.” It appears in the Bible, of course, such as, “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing,” 1Th 5:11 NKJ. Most modern Bible versions render it “build up.”
Edification is vital for all our service as Christ followers, including all we create. It must never be assumed, because it’s not instinctive; it must be intentional.
A couple of years ago I joined an online course in novel writing. For several months we viewed videos and created copy, learning to write in “media res”—grab the reader by the throat with immediate, vivid action, show don’t tell, minimize description, proliferate dialogue. The goal was to make the best-seller list by imitating authors like Dean Koontz and James Patterson.
I finished a novel and submitted samples to about thirty agents and publishers. Like most aspiring authors, I received multiple rejection letters. Undaunted, I worked to improve my book before dispatching another round of submissions. All the while, a vague unease hovered over my writing desk, a disquiet of heart that receded in one Aha moment last week when I read something from Darrow.
Bragg, not Patterson
Before I explain, here are two rejection-letter stories to set the stage.
First, an agent was kind enough to suggest I needed to work on my craft. Ah, there’s a concept that applies to any sort of production. Take it with shelving. You can buy some 2x4s and plywood and build a perfectly functional set of shelves for your garage. But a bookcase for an elegant living room requires beauty as well as function, which entails craftsmanship.
Then I received another No thanks, this one from a publisher, who elaborated, “I’m looking more for Rick Bragg than James Patterson. Leaning toward literary rather than commercial.” I waded back into my novel, inspired by a rereading of West With the Night, the memoir of Beryl Markham, whose writing prompted Ernest Hemingway to reflect, “She has written so well … that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”
A few days later, editing Darrow’s transcripts from a teaching session on the arts in preparation for a forthcoming book, all this converged in one piercing gleam.
High culture vs. pop culture
It’s been my privilege to work closely with Darrow for almost ten years, adequate time to become very familiar with his material. But here was an observation unfamiliar to me, and striking. Referencing All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers, Darrow remarked,
You have traditional or high culture on one side and popular culture on the other. Traditional culture focuses on the timeless, the eternal. Popular culture focuses on the new and the faddish. What’s the latest, what’s the greatest?
Traditional, high culture encourages reflection. Popular culture is mindless entertainment.
High culture offers what could not have been imagined. It takes you to a higher level. Popular culture gives you what you want.
High culture deals with content and form. It is governed by the created order. Popular culture is governed by the marketplace. What’s going to make money?
High culture encourages the understanding of others. Pop culture promotes self-centeredness.
This insight captivated me, like a bird in a trap. The novel-writing class had trained us to produce pop culture. The gist of the course: follow the formula and write a best seller. Open the story with the protagonist in terrible trouble and keep him in trouble, every attempted solution exacerbating his plight. Remember at all times your readers are consumers of media; you are competing with videos, movies, and TV. Only media res will keep the reader turning the pages. And maybe you’ll capture an agent or publishing house, maybe your story will snag a market. And you’ll make a lot of money.
Who will edify?
That’s what drives much of the Christian book industry. Would-be authors chase the carrot: publishing and selling a book. In pursuit of that end, they buy trainings, consultations, conferences, software and innumerable books about writing; lots of cash changes hands. It’s how things are done, everybody knows that. Not as clear, especially in fiction writing, are valid questions about the edifying value of the work. Does it contribute to beauty, truth, goodness in the world? Does it build up?
Which brings us back to Darrow and his airplane conversation. The executive admitted that some 80 years ago, his company tossed that third question, Does it edify?
I wonder why. Too much bother, maybe? An unnecessary, cumbersome drag slowing progress? Now we measure mastery by the market. If a book sells, it’s successful. In our post-Christian, post-moral world the word edify has faded from view, dropped from our list of virtues.
Plenty of reasons—whether economic, or political, or personal—can be mustered to abandon the Good Ship Edify. Let someone else worry about building up the culture, contribute beauty and goodness to the world. It’s not our job.
H’mm, I wonder who’s job it might be?
- Gary Brumbelow
Don PahlFebruary 9, 2021 - 1:58 pm
Thank you for that good piece of edification, Gary, and especially that reminder of whose job edification remains.
“Lord, is it I?”
adminFebruary 9, 2021 - 3:00 pm
Thanks, Don, for reading and responding. An important question to keep in front of us, eh? 🙂