Continuing the First Sentences series in which I reflect upon the first sentences of books, Ford Maddox Ford penned one of the most memorable first sentences to begin his novel The Good Soldier:
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Now, this sentence is not especially creative, it doesn’t bend reality or blend words in unique ways. Yet, any author that begins their work in this way has, as Michele Bachman would say, CHOOT-spa. You’ve gotta deliver the goods after a statement like this. Half measures simply won’t do; the author must reach into their readers and rip hearts out mid-beat.
Contrast Ford’s opening salvo with Fretheim’s first sentence in The Pentateuch (IBT; Abingdon, 1996):
The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.
This sentence is economical–it conveys information and, really, nothing more. The reader has no expectations other than this book will be about the Pentateuch (which they could have gathered from the title), no approach is hinted, nor controversies alluded.
While Ford’s readers move to the edge of their seats merely after glancing at the first nine words Fretheim’s (who, by the way, I appreciate as a creative interpreter and stimulating writer) remain with their backs against the chair.
There are many reasons why academic books are so bland. In contrast to literary works, scholarly writing intends to convey information, to teach. So, writers seek clarity and economy of language. However, I think there is more to this story. I have a suspicion that some of the main reasons why academic writing is so boring is because scholars rarely try to improve their writing and since boring writing is ubiquitous in the academy they meet this expectation in their own work, that is, they try to fit in to this flaccid mold. And, I admit, much of my writing also swims in this stream but I am trying to break free and navigate a less travelled current.
So, how could we refashion Fretheim’s first sentence? Possibly,
In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.
This sentence reflects Fretheim’s relational approach to god’s interaction with humankind and the universe as well as establishes a contrast. A contrast that will cause a quarter of his readers to fling the book across the room in righteous disgust, a quarter to nod their heads and wonder if Fretheim fleshes out this picture in a way similar as they, and the rest will say, “Hmm, that’s new to me, I’ll keep reading to learn more about this.” This kind of sentence produces a response in readers, albeit a negative response in some. However, that is merely a cost of business.
Thoughtful people, careful scholars, good writers are not afraid to cause people to break ranks. If everyone agrees with you, if all of your readers put down your book after the last page and do not experience any contrary feelings toward you you either haven’t said anything or you are just saccharine to no constructive effect. Things worth saying will naturally cause debate–there is no use hiding them behind limpid prose or timid fig leaves.
One of the worst things that can happen to a writer is nothing at all. Criticism, even if it be harsh, is still better than silence. When others bash your work at least they imply that your work is important enough, significant enough, or influential enough to merit the effort of castigation.
The sentence I provided also includes a modest literary flourish that hopefully engages readers. Normally, the phrase “all too human” has negative connotations but I employ it here in a positive fashion that slightly disorients the reader and captures some of Fretheim’s thoughts as well.
In any case, this sentence produces expectations and invites readers into the conversation instead of leaving them reclined in their chair merely along for the ride.
My attempt is far from perfect, probably short of adequate, and certainly could be improved. How would you rephrase Fretheim’s first sentence?