“The literary theme of ‘God’ in the general sense…”

This sentence has a very serious and capable tone and starts out like a college paper. In fact, going on in a rather periodical way, it feels pretty promising (for a professor in a survey course), although it does suggest something unexpected about Christianity, until one unfortunate word creeps in. That word ups the academese at least a couple of points but undoes every other effect the writer was hoping for:

“The literary theme of ‘God’ in the general sense, whether it be pagan gods or Christian gods, has never ceased to disappear from writing.”

God as Cheshire Cat, never ceasing to disappear.

The Cheshire Cat, by Tenniel. I got it from Fetch Portland, but you would do better to reread Alice in Wonderland (with the Tenniel illustrations) and enjoy it there.

Back in the days when I used to use Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass as texts in Freshman Composition, I had a very bright student who really got into the idea of translating image patterns. He wrote one paper discussing the Rabbit Hole as birth canal—remember that pool at the bottom?—when I invited the class to discuss the theme of growing up in Wonderland; he wrote another demonstrating the relevance of “Jabberwocky” to a student of writing, the Jabberwock being clumsy, vague, verbose prose and the “vorpal sword” being the verbal tools mobilized in good revision. One of those two papers ended “Whether the Cheshire Cat is God is a subject for another paper.” If only he had written that one! (I interject this reminiscence to prove that I have some pretty special students as well as some pretty inept ones, all of them amazing in their ways.)

Once we pause at “never ceased to disappear,” we can go back and wonder at what the writer meant by Christian gods, or consider what a “theme of ‘God’ in the general sense” would really be. He probably meant that he would be discussing literature on the theme of “God,” and he would be using the term generally so that he could include literature from several cultures and thus several gods. I can let that phrasing slide. Whether by “Christian gods” he meant the Trinity, a tricky concept for those not accustomed to pondering it, or whether he was unfamiliar with Christianity and thought the Trinity was three separate gods, or whether he just wanted to be sure that if Christianity DID have multiple gods he wouldn’t be caught out, I cannot say. We can’t explain it away as an unintentional “s” because of the lack of an article preceding “Christian”: he did mean to pluralize.

And about that intruder: certainly there’s nothing wrong with the verbal phrase “has never ceased to.” It’s a pretty nice phrase, in fact, and many of us use it relatively often, especially with the infinitive “to amaze”: My students’ writing never ceases to amaze me.

What this student has failed to absorb with the phrase is that the infinitive that follows it represents an action that DOESN’T STOP, not an action that IS STOPPING. “Has never ceased to disappear from writing” means “has never stopped disappearing.” God becomes, perhaps, a word in disappearing ink, and the ink’s process, though evidently quite slow, never stops, so ultimately God will utterly disappear from writing, or at least from the writing done in lemon juice.

If my student had been writing a paper arguing that as cultures develop they tend to become more and more secular, the sentence might have been well taken. I’m not sure the premise would hold—I think it well could—but it would be a premise that legitimized the idea of a gradually disappearing god. The paper did NOT argue that, though: it merely offered a discussion of two pieces of literature that were about god. The student meant that the “theme of ‘God’…has never disappeared.” Not as interesting, but less bizarre as a picture and less objectionable as a statement.

So now you know what you probably suspected from the first: this is one of those Opening Sentences. Students want to establish the sense of a broad sweep of history, or a broad literary territory, or a global perspective, before they get down to business. And that is almost always a mistake, because they’re simply too young, too inexperienced, too naive, or too pleased with themselves to question their generalizations or hold them up to the test of fact.

This morning the sun is shining; up where it lives the sun is burning and storming; maybe up beyond there we have god, never ceasing to disappear….

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““The literary theme of ‘God’ in the general sense…”

  • englishteacherconfessions

    Enjoyed this, RAB, esp your flourish at the end–really funny.

    As a high school Eng teacher, I need to start collecting sentences. Opening sentences are often particularly entertaining. Though I try, try, try to teach students to avoid generalizations, they’ll often begin their essays with phrases such as “In today’s society,” “Since the beginning of time,” etc–followed, of course, by an imprecise/awkward/incorrect generalization. A student last year–who was actually a terrific writer/thinker–used to love beginning his essays with “Since the dawn of mankind”–as in, “Since the dawn of mankind, humans have argued over the nature of kindness”….

    I got up early this morning to grade essays, and was treated to this compelling opener: “Suffering is a commonality through out humanity.” Luckily, the essay improved.

    • RAB

      Good one! Yes, the urge to begin in a cosmic pronouncement seems very strong, and the more intellectually ambitious the student, the more likely the tendency. But even the weak indulge: a friend and I used to use this opener and call it “Freshman-speak”: In this modern world of ours that we live in today, …”
      Anyone who begins “Since the dawn of mankind” must be laughing at his own temerity somewhere deep down, don’t you think?
      Good to hear from you! Yes, you should start your collection right away. Meanwhile, do feel free to share here!

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    I don’t know which I enjoy more: your hard-nosed logic that drags out absurdities from the dark pools of Verbal Molasses in which they swim and sets them out to dry on the shores of Clarity OR your whimsical, visual imagination.

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