I’ve been listening to Aaron Sorkin for a few years now. Sorkin is the screenwriter behind The Social Network, The West Wing, Sports Night and much more. If you’ve been listening with me, you know there is something forceful in his words, something that champions excellence and points to a deeper, truer beauty.
I’ve wrestled to put flesh to bone, but in hearing Sorkin articulate his writing aim, I finally have the vocabulary to describe why I’ve been so captivated by his words. In 2012 Sorkin appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, plugging his latest work, The Newsroom:
Gross: So what about you? Why did you want to set a show in a newsroom?
Sorkin: I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that’s usually looked at cynically, the way journalism is now, you can get something fun out of it.
Gross: Why do you like writing idealistically? Another example of that would be “The West Wing.”
Sorkin: I like writing about heroes that don’t wear capes or disguises. It’s aspirational. You feel like, gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world. Why can’t that be the real world?
Sorkin dares to write how he wishes the world would be. This idea reminds me of the Puritan pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards and his view on the power of the imagination and language. Edwards spoke extensively on the ability of words and phrases to illustrate ideas that are beyond tangible grasp, images of the everyday that point toward the image of the Divine.
This is why Sorkin’s words ring true, because they are written to be heard, intended to leave you a bit unsettled, engaged at every comma and left wanting at every period. Edwards believed that the preacher’s words are to take the everyday experience of the person in the pew and use it to point to the nature of God. The imagination discovers something it cannot create and continues to discover for eternity.
The puzzle for me then is why some words are so weak, our frame of reference so limited. We hear of the beauty of Christ, we know there is something deeper than the abstract, but words fail to make His beauty clear to our souls.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian NYC, says it this way:
If the people are materialistic and ungenerous, it means they have not truly understood how Jesus, though rich, became poor for them. It means they have not truly understood what it means that in Christ we have all riches and treasures. It means their ’affections’ are clinging to material things—their souls are inclined toward riches as a source of spiritual security, hope, and beauty. They may have superficial intellectual grasp of Jesus’ spiritual wealth, but they do not truly grasp it. Thus in preaching we must re-present Christ in the particular way that he replaces the place of material things in the affections. This takes not just intellectual argument, but the presentation of the beauty of Christ. Edwards believed that at the root of the heart’s affections was the search for ’excellency’—that which is appreciated and rested in for its own sake. Edwards essentially defined a nominal Christian as one who finds Christ useful (to get those things the heart found ’excellent’ or beautiful), while a true Christian is one who finds Christ for who he is in himself.
There is a reason that hearts swell when words stir affections, helping imaginations discover what they could not see before. This is the work of the preacher, to point to what is truly excellent. There is a particular work of the Spirit that gives this sight, and He has chosen to do it through preaching the Word.
We are speaking about the Hero who needs no cape, who entered into the real world that we might know true ideal and romance in His excellency.
We follow beauty, and Christ is most beautiful, so let us use every syllable of our words to paint the colors of His excellency in the minds of our hearers. It would be a shame to do otherwise.