Friday, February 23, 2007

The death of the biographical adjective

There is no such thing as Platonic love between a man and a woman.

Though some fervently disagree with Mr. Bush, few would suggest he has taken a Machiavellian approach to domestic policy.

American political candidates concretely espousing Marxist platforms do not fare well.

Calvinist. Darwinian. Newtonian. Tolkeinesque. Jeffersonian. Confucian. Cartesian.

Examples of biographical adjectives, born of earlier eras where authors were known only for their major works, works that were fixed in scope but deeply influential and widely read. And while intensive biographies written about these authors continue to argue over the precise nature of their thought worlds, influences, and character, the broad contours are well enough defined to become meaningful as a new category. Those who make such profound impact on the imaginations of their society are immortalized by becoming adjectives.

I wonder if the fluid world of online writing will bring about the death of the biographical adjective. The nature of the online world is never definitive, always "in conversation". From day to day, the moods of bloggers and authors change. And, as the author discovers more information, encounters aggressive and rhetorically persuasive counterproposals, and navigates the sea of non-substantive but emotionally rapacious comments, what effect will this have on the marketplace of ideas? Given the potential output of such thinkers over their lifetime, how much shift in thought might we detect? If Darwin had written a blog, would his views on his own discoveries have changed over time, especially in dialogue not only with sympathizers, but also with critics? In such a world, how would the impact he made differ?

Even in the traditional world of "old" media, you can sometimes detect this trend. Scholars who study Dietrich Bonhoeffer have a hard time figuring how a guy who wrote The Cost of Discipleship (a profoundly pacifistic call to obey Jesus' commands) went on to become part of a cadre of men who attempted to kill Hitler near the end of World War II. Even his later writings from prison differ markedly from his earlier works. And, judging from the way the man is known in our circles today, the impact of his more theologically provocative work is blunted because of this perceived wavering in perspective.

Other authors are well known for this. Michael Medved made the shift from political liberalism to an aggressive conservativism, recounting his journey in a series of books. The well known scholar of pastoral ministry, Thomas Oden, underwent a similar dramatic shift in transformation which he recounts in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. I remember that as a seminary student, after reading this book, I wondered how much I could trust in his earlier works regarding pastoral theology.

As an aspiring author (both of fiction and nonfiction), I find myself daunted by the prospect of publishing. I find myself sympathetic to people like Brian McLaren, who, having written provocative statements and published them for all the world to see, now finds himself modifying statements he once made in an ever-evolving attempt to say something current. His language in his books is peppered with the concept of journey, and he openly admits he is figuring things out along the way. No matter the disclaimer, are not all his claims rendered more hollow merely because of the medium?

The medium of the written word, whether in print or pixel, comes with a radical permanence which frightens me each time I attempt an article. I will readily admit that some things I have to say are more refined than others. Some questions I have posed before have seen their answers. And yet there is much that is fluid in my thinking. What responsibilities do I have to my readers (and my hearers on Sunday mornings, my partners in Bible study, my children in the faith)? What eternal disciplines apply to expanding worlds of new communication?

As I write this, it occurs to me: do Jesus' words in Matthew 5:33-37 have anything to say to this?

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

I wonder.

But one thing's for sure. I seriously doubt we'll see Campbellian as an adjective anytime in the future...


Jake Shore said...

How interesting.

It seems to me that ultimately, it is the ideas that we remember. Many of these people were subject to intense criticisms from the leading thinkers of their day (not bloggers), and yet their ideas continue to resonate with us, despite how their views may have changed. I don't know that the message of Bonhoeffer's writings has been blunted because of his experience during the war. Were his earlier views rendered untrue? What is he remembered for, Cost of Discipleship or Letters from Prison? I guess it begs the question, when a person walks away from a particular viewpoint, does it tell us more about the viewpoint or the person?

I know one thing. No matter where your life takes you, you will always be known for Campbellian notions such as the corruption of people's names from Jake to Snackwhip, or Melissa to Smeepers.

James Wood said...

Um . . . how about Campbellite? It's not quite an adjective . . . but I think it might have some sticking power.

Dude, I am freaked out when I go back and read something that I wrote a while ago (college papers, journal entries, blog posts). Sometimes I think: "Crap! Did I write that?" because I have matured and changed since then. But other times I think: "Wow! Did I write that?" Because what I wrote is still true, and has even gained deeper meaning for me. It's even weirder when someone quotes me back to myself and my own words convict me (I hate it when that happens).

I think that there are two things necessary for the creation of a biographical adjective: first, the person must be incredibly famous and influential; second, the name needs to be easy to change into an adjective. I'm serious, it won't catch on if it doesn't flow well. Fergilicous is just catchy. However, Woodian, Woodish, or Woodesque just don't have the same flow.