Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, March 27, 2019

How not to create a masterpiece

At an art show, I chatted with an artist. In her studio, she explained, artists painted collectively.

            I found that hard to comprehend. “Don’t you get upset when someone meddles with your vision?” I asked.

            “Sometimes,” she agreed. “If I’ve done a canvas built of blues, say, and someone plops a blob of orange into it. But then my blues take on a different mood.”

            She clearly believed her creed – many minds can work together for common benefit.

            I like the idea of working together in a community. For one thing, it’s much more enjoyable than working alone. But I can’t imagine a dozen different painters producing a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt. (A Picasso, possibly.)

            Perhaps my skepticism results from working with words. After 60 years, I’m convinced that editing by committee never produces a better text. Never. Friend and fellow-writer Isabel Gibson called “group editing” the “most pernicious form of compromise known to humans.”


Horrible example

            Here’s how it works. Or doesn’t.

            A group of health-care professionals gather to develop a “mission statement.” Someone suggests a theme: “Health matters.”

            No, says someone else, “Yourhealth matters.”

            “So what?” says another. “You’ve offered no rationale for ourinvolvement. It should be ‘Your health mattersto us.”

            “But that doesn’t explain how we’re going to do it,” a fourth person objects.

            The amendments and additions keep coming. Eventually the committee settles on this sentence: “Our  objectiveinthis businesslineisto providealeadership roleincollaborationwithprovinces/territories,health professionals,  administratorsandotherkey stakeholders,focused ondevelopingashared visionforCanada's healthsystem,and identifyingkey prioritiesandimplementationapproaches toachieveneeded changesthatwill improvethetimeliness ofaccessandthe qualityandintegration ofhealthservices (includingprimary, acute,home,community,andlongterm care)tobettermeetthe healthneedsof Canadiansnomatter wheretheymayliveor theirfinancialcircumstances.”

            Don’t laugh – I copied that sentence directly from a published Health Canada brochure. I’ve kept it as a horrible example ever since.

            I dare you, I defy you, to find a single clear and concrete concept in that 87-word grab-bag.


How to work together

            Granted, creative artists benefit from having a support group. Writers’ groups critique each other’s drafts, and sometimes suggest alternate approaches. I’m sure painters do the same. Musicians help each other cope with difficult phrases and fingerings. Toastmasters clubs help fledgling speakers hone their craft.

            But a club cannot collectively deliver a brilliant speech.

            Collaboration helps. Rodgers and Hammerstein, for example. Laurel and Hardy. Simon and Garfunknel.

            But most often, the finished product has to flow through a single mind. Stephen Hawking built on the work of generations of mathematicians and physicists, but the final insights were his alone.

            My friend Ralph Milton summarized this principle in the early days of Wood Lake Books, the publishing company he and I founded together: “Consult as widely as possible; keep the decisions to as small a group as possible.”

            I can think of only one literary masterpiece produced by a committee -- the 1611 King James Bible. Perhaps their achievement itself qualifies as a miracle. But I note that, even in their inspired narrative, God did not call a committee to create the world.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Last week’s column told about a mattress coming flying through the night sky at my car. But it was really about what God –let’s not discuss what God is here – does or does not do. And how the platitudes we utter to offer comfort  in times of tragedy reveal what we think God does or does not do. 


Doug Giles liked that theme: “I really appreciated your understanding of what God does and doesn't do.  I've been in ministry for over 30 years.  Somewhere in that time I realized that there is no sensible reason for the death of a child.  And the platitudes you mention do nothing to address the grief the parents are enduring.

            “Yet, these same friends are themselves grieving.  They want to do or say something that will help because they care.  Often what seems to work best is just to simply be present.  Present making coffee, present cleaning house, present babysitting, present grocery shopping, present offering prayer, or maybe present just holding hands. The grieving process is intensely personal.  Sometimes all we can do for those we love is to be present.”


Steve Roney disagreed about the value of platitudes: “It seems to me those reassurances are valid, and not platitudes, if they are true. They become comfortless platitudes if you do not believe them.

            “There are familiar and valid philosophical arguments to explain why an all-good and all-powerful God would permit evil, both natural and human, to exist in the world."


Tom Watson took a lighter perspective: “I certainly agree that God doesn't throw mattresses into the dark of night, nor do any of the other things you cited. From my whimsical side...I'm glad you came upon that pick-up truck. Otherwise you might have concluded the large white thing that flew from the sky was dropped out of an alien space ship, and you just never know what them alien fellers are up to.”


Isabel Gibson liked“the bungee-cord metaphor: a good reminder to think about what's holding us down, and what will hold us down in the storm.

            “And I liked Henry Yorke's story about Ellen [who spoke up in a cashier’s lineup].  We rarely get to see the ripples we've caused.”


George Brigham wrote, “Your column put me in mind of two similar incidents in my experience. In both I did not come off as lightly as you.

            “Most recently I was driving on the outskirts of Ottawa, behind a truck. As the truck moved forward it revealed a ladder lying on the road. It was too late to avoid. I was fortunate to only blow one tire, not two.

            “Some time ago I was driving, with my wife, along a main road in Hampshire, England. We saw what appeared to be a large block of concrete coming through the air toward us. It smashed the windscreen (windshield) and continued over the top of the car. I pulled over to inspect the damage and discovered a large opaque white plastic crate a little way back. Meanwhile my wife stepped out onto the grass verge and fainted. When she recovered she told me she’d dreamt the whole incident several times in the previous two weeks, but it was a concrete block and we’d both been killed. Perhaps that raises questions about dreams and visions etc.? We knocked out the remaining glass and finished our journey wearing sunglasses, though it was a dull day.”







I’ve written several paraphrases of Psalm 32. This one seemed appropriate this year, for some reason.


1          A great load of guilt hangs around my neck 
like a millstone strung on fine steel wire. 
If someone would free me from my burden, I would be so happy.

2          That would be almost as good as never having failed in the first place.

3          Can you imagine what it's like never being able to stand up straight? 
I have become a wasted cripple, my body bent low by tensions.

4          My bones are brittle as twigs scorched by the summer sun; 
When I try to sleep, a gigantic pillow suffocates me.


5          But you, Holy One, gave me a second chance. 
I confessed; I didn't try to hide anything. 
I poured out my soul to you, and you forgave me. 
You cut the cord around my neck and freed me.

6          Without my millstone of guilt, I feel light as a feather. 
I can float; I can rise above a torrent of troubles.

7          God, I can trust you completely, because you trusted me. 
Wrapped in your arms, I feel safe as a baby, murmuring to its mother. 


8          And God says: "I will teach you my ways. 
I will share my wisdom with you. 
I will watch over you, and keep you safe. 

9          I do not expect you to obey blindly, without understanding. 
You are intelligent creatures, not sheep. 
You do not need reins to steer you; 
you can learn the right road." 


10        The millstones of failure still burden many, 
but those who know God have been set free.

11        They shout with relief for they have been saved; 
Their hearts have been scrubbed clean; 
they can stand straight again.


For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet


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