One good sentence
Staring helplessly at a broken appliance or other household
malfunction, I often recall a quip by Joseph Epstein, an essayist and editor:
the only thing I can fix is a sentence.
If editors are
good at fixing sentences, it is because before they learned to fix sentences
they learned to enjoy tinkering with them, the way some people like tinkering
with a faucet valve or the inside of a toaster. What would happen if one used a
different verb there? What if one compressed that thought this way? What about
linking those two sentences with a dependent clause? What about slowing the
sentence down or speeding it up? Is it better or worse that way?
Stanley Fish likes to tinker with sentences. His little book
How to Write a Sentence
(HarperCollins) is a meditation on sentences he admires. Like an athlete
looking at videotape of an all-star performance, Fish breaks down some great
sentences--by writers like John Updike and John Donne--to see why they have the
effect they do. Then he sees if he can imitate it.
First sentences rightly get Fish's attention. When a first
sentence is doing its job, it announces an angle of vision or a set of
complications that compels the reader into the rest of the essay or novel. Some
great ones are well known: Melville's "Call me Ishmael"; Austen's "It is a
truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good
fortune will be in want of a wife." Fish cites some lesser-known gems, like the
start of Francis Bacon's essay "Of Truth": "What is truth? said jesting Pilate,
and would not stay for an answer."
Fish's book made me wonder about theological sentences. What
masterful theologians' sentences might be listed in such a book--sentences that
don't just convey a thought but snap off an insight in a memorable way? We
don't often think of theological writers as great stylists, but in all good
writing the style enacts the content.
One has to admire the first line of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: "Once, there
was no 'secular.' " The "Once, there was . . ." sounds like the start of a
fairy tale; we sit back and wait for a magical story to unfold. But it leads
straight to academic fussiness--"secular" used awkwardly as a noun, not a verb,
as if it were a solid entity, and quotation marks that put the whole idea of
the "secular" into question. All in all, a good introduction to Milbank's
The first line of the English translation of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship goes like this:
"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church." Perhaps as audacious as the
phrase "cheap grace" is the way Bonhoeffer places the reader firmly within "our
church." Within nine words, the reader is asked to take sides in a theological
battle that is deadly serious.