When I was quite young, I read a book whose themes were beyond the ability of my preteen mind to grasp. Nothing about it stuck with me except a description of a new wife who, with her up-and-coming husband, moved into an up-and-coming neighborhood. The author described her figure as so perfect that “every other woman in the room took one look and went off her diet.” There was no way to compete with such perfection of form.
And that’s how I feel after finishing “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. The writing—each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph—is so beautifully formed and unified and presented that it makes me despair of even bothering to approach the perfection.
All envy aside, however, good writing makes me happy. Here are a few examples, all from Scripture, that delight not only my heart and soul, but my mind’s eye and imagination. (A quick disclaimer—most of the phrases below come from the New King James version. Depending on which version you use, you may or may not find the translation of these verses as engaging as I do.)
Sometimes good writing is really good because, in a few words, in perfectly pairs a mental image that perfectly portrays Truth. Like this phrase from Romans 5, the end of the 20th verse. Most versions have some form stating:
…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more
And immediately grace is personified, leaping over the multitude of sins trying to trip it up. But there goes grace, bounding effortlessly over the top. And sin will never be able to keep up.
I don’t bother getting any more detailed than that in my mind’s eye. I couldn’t write a sermon or a homily or even an entire blog post on what I’m envisioning. I don’t know what the text says in the original Greek. But the image in the translation I use delights me with such precisely lovely writing.
Also from Romans (chapter two, the twenty-first through twenty-third verses) is a textbook example of how a writer can vary the rhythm in a paragraph to keep it fresh and avoid that singsong lilt that puts readers to sleep.
You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?
Every sentence starts with “You,” and poses a sort of rhetorical/accusatory question, but the apostle changes up his verbs and varies the length of each question so that the reader can’t ignore the indicting finger leveled here, then there, then over there. Some day, I want to write a paragraph using this sort of repetitive variety.
My most recent find comes from Psalm 97, the first part of verse 11.
Light is sown for the righteous…
What? How does one sow light? While the “grace abounded” verse gives me an immediate and clear image, I can’t come up with anything for light sown. Which is what makes this such good writing. I have to puzzle over it. Is there a “light seed” that one places in furrows? Is it scattered into the wind, to land where it may? What kind of conditions does light thrive on, how does it grow and how fast? I LOVE this phrase precisely because my mind’s eye struggles with an image to match the beauty of the words.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
This one from Romans 8 goes way back. Maybe my high school days? We used the Revised Standard Version at my childhood church. Most other versions use “groanings that cannot be uttered.” And maybe that is more accurate? I don’t know. But sighs too deep for words is my first love. The visual depiction and reality of these words didn’t just delight my imagination with its imagery and tickle my ears with lovely phrasing.
The comfort personified in that beautiful phrase carried me through decades of doubt and self-recrimination. And fear that “I wasn’t praying right.” The vehicle that carried the reality to me was really, really, really good writing.