"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Perhaps a Verb--a theology

"The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three."  --U.S. Grant, shortly before his death.

For a Southerner to quote U.S. Grant, it must be special. It is. When I first read this a few years ago, I gained new respect for the man, the man whose armies kept the Union together. The Constitution does not prohibit secession. Grant's armies did.
But that's not what grabbed me. I write and I teach writing--or try to--and it's my privilege and passion to  study how others write and teach this craft that is so much of my life and others'.

In my studies and teaching, I've learned to appreciate more and more the creative force of The Verb in the quality of writing, of living.

This explains the quotation at the bottom of this blog that has become my theology of writing: "En El Principio, era El Verbo, y El Verbo era Dios." --San Juan 1:1 

I have rudimentary, survivable Spanish skills, growing up in Nuevo Mexico. What's taught in Spanish class is not what's spoken on the streets of Albuquerque, which is a mixture of Spanish, Indian and gringo. And fluent Spanish speakers leave me almost clueless, because they are so fast, and can switch from English to Spanish in the same breath. I still have to think. I envy and admire them.

But I know enough, and that led me to a theological revelation about writing.
I ask my classes, "Quien agui habla Espanol?" I get a few hands and then I ask, "Que es 'the word' in Espanol para 'word' in Engles"?

The answer of course, is the the Spanish word for word is "palabra." Female gender. "La palabra."

Accordingly, you would think, as I did, that if you were translating The Gospel of John, into Spanish, that Chapter 1, verse one, "In the Beginning was The Word, and the Word was God...," the translation would be something like "En El Principio, era La Palabra, y La Palabra era Dios...."

But as you already have seen, that is not the translation, besides the sticky problem that The Word is masculine, not feminine.

I discovered that almost 20 years ago in the Perkins, Oklahoma, Church of Christ, sitting next to a robust, muscular young farmer who spent his winters in Mexico. He always had in the pew beside him a Spanish New Testament, having taught himself the language.
The Gospel of John is my favorite New Testament book, the most literary, well-constructed and written--in my opinion. So one Sunday, bored with a sermon, I reached down and picked up his New Testament. I leafed through the pages till I game to San Juan.
I expected to find the word "Palabra" in the first verse.

Theology lesson. I make this point to my classes, noting they don't have to agree with it, but it's a background needed for teaching writing. The theology--not just Church of Christ but in Christendom--behind the first chapter of John is about the Pre-Existent Christ--"He" --Greek "Logos"--was in the beginning with God, was with God, was God, and he was the "agent" of creation--the "Power" behind  God's "Let there be light," etc. " Note that "The Word" is capitalized. Note later, it says "The Word became flesh (the incarnation)."

What does this have to do with writing?  Everything. Most of my students, even at a state university, know some of the Bible. Many are fundamentalists. They understand what I'm saying, though they're amazed that this old liberal geezer knows The Bible better than they.
Understand too that the Spanish version was not translated from English--but from the Greek and Italian. I understand that the Latin for "word" is "verb."

Here's my point--The Verb is the Power of the sentence, the most important word in the sentence, the power of writing. Master verbs and you'll be a powerful writer. In journalism, it's simple, to quote Clark: "No verbs, no news."  For instance, "Five men yesterday in Edmond." No verb, no news. Add a verb and you have news: "died," "choked,": "graduated," etc.  I think this comes from years as a copy editor, and loving headlines--but I can remember when my old newspaper partner  at the Waurika News-Democrat Donald J. Morrison and I would argue over verbs in a headline. They're that important.

All good writing is built around verbs. They're the locomotive for the entire train, the box cars of nouns and adjectives and more; the accelerator for the sentence.
The writer Victor Hugo said it this way, "Le mot est le Verbe, et le Verbe est Dieu."  I can't even pronounce it, but in  English, it is: "The word is the Verb, and the Verb is God."

Which brings me back to Grant, and my blog, where I identify myself as kinfolk to that bulldog Yankee, as "perhaps a verb." It is my theology of writing. Verbs matter. I hope I do.


  1. You do matter and you are a superb writer. I just wish a little more of that had rubbed off on me during those classes when I struggled to stay awake and pay attention.

  2. Great post.

    I grew up in New Mexico also, mostly in Albuquerque. Many of the Spanish words I picked up I didn't dare repeat in Spanish class.

    Verbs are the locomotive. I deal mostly in the corporate world of writing where the passive voice rules. Drives me crazy.

  3. Roy Lee, You made up for that with sheer will, and good will

    Yogi...thanks, and small world. Where in Albuquerque? High School? Highland High School, 1962 here.

  4. Terry,

    I liked this line of thought very much -- I took the Verb with me into my work yesterday. And I came back to tell you 'thanks' for the gift.


  5. Janell,

    What a great line..."I took the Verb with me into my work...."

    I think there is a watercolor painting there, and more

  6. I've been passing some site involving Verb Theology because of my assignment and found out that yours was the greatest post. Thanks for posting an amazing blog.


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