Style and Experience

Everybody knows that it’s important to relate what’s being studied or advised to a person’s lived experience. One of the more popular ways of saying this is: how is this material relevant? Why is this important to me?  But it’s easy to misunderstand, even when making something relevant to oneself, and especially to others that one hardly knows. I’ve experienced that a lot in youth oriented settings — the leader will use pop culture, technology, and generational references and suppose that to be more relevant. They’ll use colloquial phrases and hope that helps. Very often it doesn’t — or it doesn’t help everyone — and I wasn’t always as charitable about that as I ought to have been; as I could be with the luxury of time and distance.

Since then I’ve learned from literature and little forays into writing that it takes a certain kind of attention, talent, and skill to be able to communicate inner experiences, and not only communicating but observing experiences with any sensitivity and precision of feeling takes a rare faculty for language, feeling, and education indeed. At first I was baffled: a person had some experience of God, and would speak or write about it — “God moved mightily in this place tonight; His presence was palpable.” I would also be there, and my experience was of such an extraordinarily different content that I would be baffled: but what do you mean? I only saw the lights, heard the noise, wondered if I ought to raise my hands or if I might get away with standing up, straight and still; could we have more silence and darkness, please; that song does not have very good grammar; why do some people suppose laser lights and fake mist will make an environment more worshipful? Must it be so noisy? I would like to believe you, but that doesn’t sound quite right. That was my experience. I’d like to hear about yours. But I didn’t know how to ask, neither did they ever tell in language that meant something to me. So we never did understand each other very well.

Miscommunication isn’t limited to experiences of God: I’ve met it a lot in Education as well. You won’t  ask me what I mean and I can’t tell you, so, here, let’s work on skills some more. I have a language for skills, and can grade your use of them. Good use of one point perspective. You should work some more on shading and using negative space. Try thinking about the rule of thirds; no important lines in the middle ninth of your composition. We can use words for this, and judge it. But why is great art great? Ah, I don’t know that I have words for that yet.

I was talking with my father about communication: why is it so difficult to be articulate about important experiences? Well, because articulating experience is an entirely different talent and skill, and, as Barzun would say, power, than experiencing things and participating in them. He mentioned an article wherein David Foster Wallace, an excellent essayist, writes on tennis: he wasn’t a great tennis player, but knew it well enough to write about it. But, he said, really great tennis players not only couldn’t write about tennis better than he could; they could hardly write on it at all, because they don’t think about it that way. Their experience of it is in muscle memory and motion and responding to ball and court and racket; not in words. It doesn’t take words to be great at a sport, but action. But Wallace had the words; the kind of mind that was all about words and ideas and questions.

“I wish I knew what you meant.” I wish I knew what you meant when you said “give everything up” and “give over the steering wheel” — or the “whole enchilada,” or spoke about a “personal relationship” with God. Wish I knew what you saw in the drums and motion and flashing lights. “I don’t get it.” Or I get it, but am dissatisfied: that’s fine, it may be true, but your writing isn’t so good. I don’t know that it’s not better than mine, but, still, it isn’t so good. If St Augustine said that it would take him about one chapter, not a book, and it would sound lovely, like a prayer.

Last summer I went to a lecture on style and Plato’s Republic. I don’t remember much of it, but what stood out was the assertion that style matters in a way that’s not only aesthetic, if by that one means only a matter of pleasure and taste — not only in literature, but perhaps in everything. Some people can present a geometric proof with good style, and make it a pleasure to learn. Ah, yes, so clear, precise, orderly, thorough — how satisfying; of course this most be a well proven proof. But there must also be truth, of course — even a politician can get by on style alone for only so long.

But then: how does one develop style and “voice,” as English teachers are wont to say? And how does one communicate with clarity and precision? And how does one make one’s style a pleasure to hear or to see? And how much of this must be conscious, and how much of it cannot be? What of it is controllable by us, and what necessary to our person?


3 thoughts on “Style and Experience

  1. Well, I should like to have heard your father’s comments on this, too. The more I travel around the sun, the more this very question takes center stage in absolutely everything.

    • What do you mean by “takes center stage in absolutely everything?” The difficulty of communicating our experiences so that others can understand them, and understanding what others mean in turn?

  2. Hey Molly,
    I’m still reading…at least when I can follow along well enough. Philosophy is not my strength. But I want you to know that I think that you are asking good questions, honest ones about faith and God Himself and this experience of Him we share corporately and at times within our person. I hear your questions and I am wrestling a bit to give you good and helpful words in response. I’ll probably just offer more of my own questions though.

    I don’t make excuse for what are many times unhelpful, perhaps even less than than accurate renderings of God’s appearing or not appearing. But I think we both know at times that God does make Himself, if strangely, known. Describing that is difficult. Such produces a great deal of stammering from me. But I try in my blog and elsewhere to give some voice to my perceptions, to give words to what some degree of attentiveness may garner me.

    Not everyone encounters God’s presence the same, some are more sensitive in some ways than others. But, I know for me, there are moments when I do sense some holy thing. I think that my imagination and intuition serves me. I think my experience of God comes when those doors are open to Him.

    But you are not crazy to at times smell only hype. It’s often there ( fear necessitates it) and usually crowding God out. But I think that God is there too, when we come together in His name, no matter how foolishly we may presume to do so. I see in Jesus, God who loves us, wants to be near and known by us. Pretty much what we want as well, you think?

    I enjoy reading what you have to say, and your vulnerability and honesty. You have been a blessing to me.


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