Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Q: Comma power and evaluating the media

Dennis sent in this intriguing question:

"Novels, remarkable only for their exaggerated pictures, impossible ideals, and specimens of depravity, fill our young readers with wrong tastes and sentiments" (Science and Health, p. 195).

Was Mrs. Eddy against all literature, or was she speaking of just trashy novels? I noticed that you have Wuthering Heights in your library so I assume Christian Scientists are not against all fiction.

Jesus spoke in parables so I assume He would not be against fiction with a lesson. What is your take on this?

Dennis R.

This is certainly grist for the conversation mill, isn't it? One person's literature is another's trash. What I'd like to focus on first are two commas in MBE's statement—the one after the word "novels" and the one before the word "fill."

MBE wrote her book in a time when authors were much looser in their use of the comma. In contemporary writing, commas appear for very specific purposes. We're so used to this that we read older texts with what would be today's meaning. I believe this doesn't result in an accurate reading of the older texts.

For example, in the passage in question. Today, I believe she'd write that sentence without those two commas. My opinion is that the phrase from "remarkable" to "depravity" is meant to be a qualifier for the novels she's discussing. Meaning, she's only talking about novels like that. She's not casting aspersions on *all* novels, nor is she saying that all novels carry those characteristics. Those commas, however, make us, readers of today who are used to commas meaning exactly that, think that she's against all fictional literature.

Try reading the sentence without those two commas and with a slight edit: Novels [that are] remarkable only for their exaggerated pictures, impossible ideals, and specimens of depravity fill our young readers with wrong tastes and sentiments. I think this is closer to what she meant and how it applies to today. It also makes a lot more sense as a recommendation, since it would be hard to believe that a well-read and cultured woman such as MBE would tell her readers to eschew all literature. She *wrote* fiction herself as a young woman.

I am in no way suggesting any alteration is needed to Science and Health—we each need to approach it with our own individual inspiration. I think, however, in our reading of it, we need to gain a knowledge of the context of the times in which it was written, and then expand the meaning to find its relevance for today. For example, today I would add television, film, radio, magazines, the Internet—really any media—to the arenas regarding which I should be discriminating and which I should shield my children when appropriate. (Hence the "discussions" I've had with my son about Grand Theft Auto.)

As far as evaluating the media, the core criteria for me is: does it uplift or degrade my self-definition or my definition of others? Some of most violent films ever made (Saving Private Ryan, Children of Men) uplifted my outlook, while some of the most well-made and award-winning (Silence of the Lambs, Jaws) left me only horrified. So now I look for the uplift.

Thanks for your question, Dennis! What does everyone else think?

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At 12/05/2007 12:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a sometime novelist myself, I agree with your interpretation of the commas in MBE's comment. I used to write trashy stuff and after I got into Christian Science, worked to make my writing more substantial and meaningful. The connection with Jesus' parables is helpful; he didn't tell any stories about, for instance, 'Desperate Housewives'.

At 12/05/2007 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is entirely possible that Mrs. Eddy meant exactly what is written here, commas included. And it is possible that it will be a long time in the future before Christian Scientists as a whole begin to realize this. It seems to me that one who is trying to faithfully reflect the divine Mind in sound, sober, reasoning and application of Truth, would find that novels and movies take away from that. They are forms of escapism, and may very well have something to do with the failure of the CS movement to progress more quickly, since the invention of movies and television. I personally love movies, etc. (although I rarely read novels), but I can see where these may be something that will have to be sacrificed in the future to keep our thinking sharpened and in tune with God at all times.


At 12/05/2007 02:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think it's best to go back to yesterday's post and let each person take the time and think for themselves. Anything else is mere human opinion and as Mrs. Eddy says, is valueless.

At 12/06/2007 06:50:00 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

It might also depend on what she means by "novel." If I'm recalling correctly, MBE has quotes from SHakespeare in her works. Those are works of an imaginery nature.

So she might be finding a difference between novels and literature. One is trashy, the other uplifts. But to say that all literature falls into a depraved category would make no sense, especially since literature can be used to critique society in a way that real life can't.


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