Friday, February 27, 2009

Knowing the Rules in Order to Break Them Effectively

The Milk Guy and I have recently admitted to each other that we kind of (no longer secretly) enjoy it when the other one is sick, because it gives us respectively the upper hand in our verbal sparring. Not that we don't sympathise with the other's discomfort and wish him or her health. Just that . . . it's nice to have a moment when our albeit friendly opponent is not likely to contest our advantage too much.

Last night, while talking to him on the phone, my head was too congested to have much room for coherent thought and the Milk Guy had taken it into his head to analyse how we each typically end our stories. He said he most frequently ends his with an "oh well." I said I did, too, but he denied it, asserting that my favourite way to end a telling is tailing off with a "so yeah. Anyway." Then he said it surprised him, since I'm such a grammar and spelling snob, that I also include the phrase in my writing. He said I do not, as I posited, always write the way I speak.

I didn't have the energy then to take up this next point, but somewhere in college I picked up the maxim that the reason to learn grammar rules was so that you could break them effectively in your own writing. I really believe this, too. You have to know how something works at a basic level before you can see its true potential and have the freedom not to be bound by those basics. There is good writing and bad writing, and in my opinion and experience, either remaining rigorously tied to grammar rules, or being totally ignorant of or flouting them, generally leads to bad writing. One is result is wooden and the other is often incomprehensible. Both are often self-conscious. I feel free to write in vernacular sometimes because, if I think about it, I suspect I know how the language works well enough to be able to write it so that it reads like actual speech. My relationship here is more with the living language than with the rules themselves. My best writing flows unselfconsciously out of a love of words and of communicating.

I didn't have the energy to bring up this point because I was pretty sure the Milk Guy would seize the opportunity to universalise the maxim and ask if I apply the same thinking to my faith, or something like that. And I didn't want to talk about it right then because I wanted to think about it. I don't know. Do I? And is that wrong, or is it appropriate?

I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. And there are a lot of rules in it. Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law and He also told us that if our righteousness didn't exceed that of the religious leaders of His day, we were in sad shape. I think we need to know what's in there. I think it needs to guard our hearts and inform our thinking and give us a framework for our lives. But it isn't enough to get us into God's good graces--He gets us there Himself through relationship. If I don't know the Law at all or go out of my way to disobey it, or if I am completely tied to it by legalistic fear or self-righteousness, either way it's "bad writing." I'm not following Jesus in those cases. I'm following (or intentionally breaking) Rules--and I'm very self-conscious about it. But my relationship is supposed to be with the Living Word, and with everything I think and say and do flowing more and more out of unselfconscious love for Him.


Young Christian Woman said...

Interesting. I just wrote a post about grammar recently as well :)

I agree with you about knowing the rules in order to break them; my peeve is with rules broken for no reason, not those knowingly broken, especially for effect.

And just to make things more entertaining, only one of my sentences here is grammatically correct.

Jeff said...

I probably should not say much about grammar or spelling. Neither are particularly strong suits for me.
I am constantly amazed by how often that principle plays out, though: the idea that a master of a genre learns the rules to know how and when to break them.

I'd never considered the idea that this might apply to Jesus and morality. What a great way to distinguish between legalism and obedience, to consider the obedient person more like an artist who knows the rules in order to break them effectively.

It seems to me that there are 2 implications of all this.
The first is that someone who is obedient, rather than legalistic is somebody who's focused on the larger picturer than just the rules for the rules sake. As you say, this larger picture would be relationship with Jesus.

The second implication is that most of the rules will be followed most of the time if we know the rules in order to break them effectively. If a writer through out every single rule every time they wrote, this wouldn't be effective... it'd be chaos. If an artist disregard all the rules of painting composition every time he painted, we couldn't even know that she was a great painter. By picking and choosing selectively which specific rules we choose, we end up being much more effective.

Jenn said...

YCW--I agree. Both about the grammatical correctness and the peeve. ;) I share the peeve. I don't think breaking rules for effect is actually very effective.

Jeff--you draw this out a little more. Thanks for the helpful clarifiers. I think what this is really about is when something becomes second nature or something. So we aren't breaking rules for effect or because we "can," nor are we usually consciously "choosing to break" certain rules. It's more about how the relationship with Jesus is playing out and how He is leading, I think.

And incidentally . . . I think you're a really good writer. ;)

Jenn said...

I take back some of that. Maybe sometimes we do choose to break rules. Maybe in our relationship with Jesus we have to question and question and question again to make sure we're getting the right answer.

I guess what I mean is--I agree: it's not for effect.

I'm going to stop talking now . . .

K. said...

I liked this post, and was challenged by it. Having recently had a brush with 'the rules', I wonder if (or feel that) maybe many people use rules as a stick to hit somebody (or themselves). Poets and writers use them (in language) but explore the limits. I'm sure one cannot break grammar rules indefinitely, there must be some underlying greater rule that decides when something is understandable and when it stops being communicative. I wonder if rules (including Gods rules) are there to confine us to a neat box, or to explore His limits... I imagine some greater rule is at the basis of the universe, put there by the Lord himself. Both the Lord by mouth of the prophets, and Jesus in the Gospels, break the 'rules' quite often if you notice. Why? Maybe because rules have their limits in usefulness...?

Jenn said...

K.--thanks for commenting. Yeah, I think "rules" per se only function up to a certain point. Afterwards the motivation for action has to be something deeper and more heart-connected, I suspect.

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