Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch

   Even though Flesch wrote his book in the 1940’s, it’s instruction is relevant for today’s writer.  I found The Art of Readable Writing to be an entertaining and interesting way to learn how to write better.

    The book is made up of twenty-one short chapters.  I spent a couple minutes each day just reading one chapter and absorbing whatever point it made.  He starts with debunking Aristotle (“his rules were meant for political speeches, pleadings in court, and funeral orations.  You’ll have rather few occasions for these three types of writings”) although, I still recommend reading Aristotle’s books on rhetoric and writing. (Besides, they’re free downloads on Amazon).

    Chapter two discusses getting inside other people’s minds in order to effectively communicate your ideas.  Don’t assume your audience knows more than they do.  In this instance he’s talking about people who write non-fiction information. He provides examples from government pamphlets that are designed to give people instructions to help them in whatever situation.  These pamphlets were largely incoherent because they assumed the reader had the type of informed background that allowed them to understand the rhetoric used.  Wow.  The government using our tax money to furnish us with useless material.  Surprise, surprise.

        Other chapters deal with shaping ideas after the writer has done his research but before he starts writing his book, the art of readability, developing an ear for writing (how to write as we talk but not really), degrees and results of plain talk and how to be human even when writing factually rather than creatively.

     Every chapter is loaded with examples from writings from newspapers, journalists, government legalese, magazine articles and advertisements, to name a few.  Thanks to these I now also own a book from Pulitzer prize winning journalist Hal Boyle (“Help, Help!  Another Day!”-funnnnnyyyyy!!)  For each topic Flesch examples of both good writing as well as bad (like aforementioned government pamphlets).

     Two particularly interesting chapters are devoted to showing how our sentences have shrunk over the ages but our words have expanded.  He compares English prose by Hakluyt written about 1600 AD to a modern passage.  Hakluyt’s sentences average about ninety words per sentence while the modern essay only had twenty! Nevertheless, he asserts that “Our sentences have grown shorter in number of words, but these words themselves have grown longer and richer in meaning.  And while we don’t need so many words any more to express our thoughts, the words we do use carry a much heavier load of ideas.   He concludes that “our modern short sentences are an illusion as far as ideas are concerned”.

     He has a chapter about unpredictable words followed by a chapter about unpredictable readers. Both chapters are to help the writer make sure that he chooses the right word to convey what it is you actually want to say.

      Feslcher adds an appendix at the end of the book that includes a readability formula and a reading list which sites the sources of all his examples.  I found this useful so I could look up books I could order for myself (as I already mentioned.)

  My verdict?   A great book to add to a writer’s library.

 Other books on writing:


Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Triumph of Truth: A Life of Martin Luther by Jean Henri Merle D’Aubigne (translated from the French by Henry White)

This book is valuable to read, not only because it chronicles the life of the founder of the Reformation but because the author wrote it in the 18th century. Consequently the style is quaint but eloquent.

Martin Luther is D’Aubigne’s hero. This is made clear from the get go by his almost fawning descriptions of Martin Luther, omitting any faults or negative attributes and his demonizing of the Roman Catholic Church. D’Aubigne’s opinions were not fettered by the narrow confines of political correctness or “cultural sensitivity” writers today feel obligated to conform to.

On the one hand it’s refreshing to know exactly where someone stands on a subject without having to read between the lines. On the other hand a certain amount of credibility is lost when it’s so obvious where the author’s prejudices lie.

On yet the other hand, it’s not as though today’s writers don’t write from a specific bias, we’ve simply had to become more clever at looking even handed. And besides, it’s not the bias that discredits a person’s viewpoint but whether the bias is a valid one or not.

But I digress.

Having said all that, I found D’Aubigne’s biography to be beautifully written, if stylistically dated, and highly informative of a man who has recently begun to fascinate me as I have become interested in more liturgical forms of worship. I’ve recently finished reading Luther’s Small Catechism, which is as solid an exegetical thesis on Christianity as I’ve ever read, not to mention his Ninety-nine theses and another book called “The Lutheran Difference.” All of these books break down in specific points what exactly it means to be a Christian and what precisely do we believe when we say we are a Christian.

Only a man as robust as Martin Luther could have had the gumption to take on the Roman Catholic Church. For those who aren’t familiar with Luther or the Reformation, the can of worms that Luther opened is that he translated the Bible into vernacular German. For over a thousand years, the Bible had been in Latin, the Church service had been held in Latin (and was until the 1960’s), a language that people, except an elite few (priests, scribes, etc.) no longer understood. (Ironically, the reason St. Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate in the 4th century was that it was the language of the masses.)

Now, for the first time in Germany, the average citizen could read the Bible for himself, in his own heart language. This created complications, because people could compare the mandates of the Holy Roman See to what Scripture actually said and see if they were compatible.

It turned out that not all of it was. There is no mention of purgatory in the Bible. Or a paying for pardons, or praying for the dead, or a works-based salvation. Or anything remotely implying that a man could be an infallible Pope who had the authority to forgive sins and have power over people. In Luther’s Ninety-nine theses, he demands of the Pope that if he did have that authority, why did poor people have to pay exhorbant prices to receive salvation? Why didn’t the Pope give salvation away freely?

Needless to say, the Roman Church, did not take any of these challenges lying down. Luther had to go into hiding for a while but the can of Worms (pun intended-Worms is the city where Luther nailed his Ninety-nine theses) had been opened and the Holy Roman See to this day blames Luther for fracturing Christians into contentious groups.

It is true that different denominations got off to rocky starts and bloody wars were fought as a result. The wars didn’t go on forever, however, and frankly, another way to look at it is realizing that instead of blindly following one man who claimed to have sole authority given to him by heaven, every individual could now think for himself. He or she could read scripture for him or herself and commune directly to God without going through a human mediator.

One could argue that this also ushered in the “Enlightenment” era where people decided to reject God altogether. That may be, but I believe that people who reject God will do so regardless of whether they belong to a church or not. Compulsory church membership saves no one.

Martin Luther, a monk who had once been plagued by guilt because he realized all his good works could never save him, realized it is by grace alone a man can be saved.

The main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is that Catholics believe that good works are instrumental in producing salvation (along with taking the Eucharist) and Protestants believe that salvation is by God’s good will alone and afterwards produces good works. That’s an oversimplification, but still the bare bones truth.

Luther lived long and had a wife and children but his last days were very sickly and it’s possible he became mentally disturbed. He was a turbulent, fiery and at times, highly antagonistic individual, but you won’t hear about any of that in D’Aubigne’s account. However, in a future review I’m going to discuss Table Talk, a collection of Luther’s actual sayings. Reading his quotes, one can see why many people-not only the Catholic Church- could become offended at his inflammatory language.

Even Hitler used some of his quotes to incite anti-Semiticism in the thirties and forties.
Many of these quotes were taken out of context and also were said when he was extremely ill. Still, I won’t justify his words.

Luther was a sinner saved by grace. If you don’t believe in sin, then don’t judge him.

As an aside, Luther’s translation of the Bible not only helped set off the Protestant Reformation but it also codified the German language and united the Germanic speaking peoples.

If you’re interested in the life of one of the major movers and shakers of the Western world, D’Aubigne’s biography would be a good (but shouldn’t be the only one) source to start.

I bought this book.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Rabbi Looks at the Last Days by Jonathan Bernis

       It amazes me that many Christian authors who are focused on the last days do not seem to be aware of what is happening in the Jewish community around the world.

  Just as the Bible predicted, the Jewish people are being restored to their land and to their Messiah. 

   Although Jewish people who accept Yeshua HaMashiach are often ostracized by their families, friends and business associates, Jews all over the world are turning to him and becoming Messianic Jews in numbers not seen since the first century.

    This is how Mr. Bernis opens his book, A Rabbi Looks at the Last Days.  Bernis first describes his own Jewish upbringing and how he came to know the Lord (a girl he used to do heavy drugs with in college became a Christian and was instrumental in leading him to faith.)

      Bernis then goes on to give a brief history of  the Jews and how we can know that the last days prophesied in Revelation are near.

     In his chapter “Why Satan Hates the Jews", he gives a history of their persecution from the Roman destruction of the Temple, the thousands that were massacred during the Crusades, all the countries that expelled them, the Spanish Inquisition, the ghettos of 1826, Russian pogroms, and let’s not forget Hitler. 

     The infamous Adolf Eichmann (1902-1962), sometimes referred to as “the architect of  the Holocaust” and who was hanged for his crimes in 1962, once said, “Throughout history men have dreamed of destroying the children of Abraham.”

     True but the question remains:  Why? (pg. 31)

  Bernis then goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and explains God’s purpose for the Jews and His plan of salvation for all of mankind through the Jewish nation.  This is why Satan wants to destroy the Jews.  Because he hates God and wants to destroy as many of His creation as he can.

    The second reason we can know that Jesus’ return is imminent is that the scattered Jews are returning to Israel from the four corners of the earth.  He discusses Israel becoming a nation and Jews from all over the world returning there.  He points to Biblical prophecy from the Old Testament that is being fulfilled today.

      The third reason is because many thousands of Jews are turning to Yeshua (chapter 4 "Something is Happening among the Jewish People" pg. 57)   Bernis describes his trips to the former Soviet Union where hundreds of Jews came to Bernis’ preaching venues and surrendered their lives to Christ. 

      In a country beaten down by atheistic values Bernis describes the hunger for the Gospel there.  He found the Jews there very receptive to hearing about Yeshua (as opposed to the U.S. where there is great resistance to belief in Christ and fear of losing one’s “Jewish identity”).

   He also has some interesting comments on the times of the Gentiles nearing fulfillment which ushers in the time for the Jews to receive salvation.

      The second part calls upon Christians and their responsibility to share the gospel among Jewish people.  
      Bernis points out that many well-meaning Christians won't share the Gospel with Jews because they don't want to offend them or even believe there's no need since being God's chosen people saves them.

    Bernis gives a helpful chapter in which he discusses what sort of semantics a Christian should use when sharing the Gospel with a Jewish person.  So much of Christianity has been so "Europeanized" that Jesus Christ is practically unrecognizable to Jews (he said he thought Jesus’ parents were Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Christ is the Greek word for "Messiah").

    He finishes with an interesting chapter on the Tabernacle feasts and especially the Passover and how they foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Passover lamb “who died once and for all for all our sins, yesterday, today and forever”.

       All in all, I found this an interesting book and a good one for Christians to read to learn about the end times and witnessing to God’s special people from a Messianic Rabbi’s perspective.