Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ (Genesis 32)
Almost 60 years ago (on December 10, 1950), William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his award speech, Faulkner said that good writing comes from a writer’s grappling with the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” That alone, he said, “can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Good writing—writing that lives and moves, weeps and laughs, wounds and heals—is what remains on, or returns to, its feet after the heart’s wrestling. For that reason, a writer must, according to Faulkner, engage the heart’s conflicts:
He [sic] must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Faulkner’s words challenge me, because a preacher’s writing and speaking could (should) always traffic in “the old verities and truths of the heart. . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” The gospel is about real defeat and surprising triumph, about crushing despair and rising hope, about God’s passion for the world and the world’s need for, and resistance to, grace.
The gospel, then, deserves, demands, and creates its own unique eloquence, not ornate eloquence that calls attention to itself, but simple, spare eloquence that serves to point beyond itself to God and to life in its broken-but-radiant fullness.
Sometimes, I feel like the gospel gets concealed behind dense and opaque language. The divine-human drama gets lost in a thick fog of hastily-formed sentences. Maybe my language would be cleaner and clearer if I followed Faulkner’s way and only used words that had survived the wrestling of the heart and had received, like Jacob, the requested blessing. There’s cost involved in such writing. Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life. But the cost is nothing compared to the privilege a writer/preacher has of, as Faulkner said, helping “man endure by lifting his heart.”