Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Paradox of the Passive Voice

Paradoxes intrigue me. As a writer I strive, with less than perfect success, to reduce or eliminate the passive voice from my work. I routinely do searches for key words: is, am, as, are, was, were, be, to be, and variations of them. Yet the passive voice saturates some of the most dynamic passages of Scripture. The great "I AM" statements of the Old Testament use the passive voice at their core: (emphases added)

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The
God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?'
Then what shall I say to them?"
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the
Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Exodus 3:13-14

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to
them: 'Be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
"Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my
Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.
"Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the
LORD your God." Leviticus 19: 1-4

The New Testament also bathes many passages with the passive voice, yet they somehow remain so dynamic that language can scarcely grasp the fullness:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines
in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. John 1:

What then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who
can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us
all---how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who
will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who
justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus who died---more than that, who
was raised to life---is at the right had of God and is also interceding for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or
persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long:
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved
us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of
God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:31-39

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who was, and who is,
and who is to come, the Almighty." Revelations 1:8

"I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I was dead, and behold I
am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades." Revelations 1: 17b-18

The Bible claims to be inspired by God, or "God-breathed" as Paul puts it in his second letter to Timothy. I accept that claim, believe internal evidence supports it. But the repeated use of the passive voice still raises questions. The King James version of the Bible, first published in 1611, set a tone for English literature that has never been surpassed. Yet it, and every English translation since that I have examined makes repeated use of the passive voice in the same places. Does that mean God didn't know basic rules of writing? Greek and Hebrew, the original lanugages of the Bible, prove beyond my skills and knowledge. The saga of hardship and bloodshed before the earliest English translations became widely available reads with more drama than the best fiction thriller imaginable. The literary beauty of King James English in the 1611 and the 1769 editions still sets an incredibly high standard for writers to strive for, even if you dispute the possibility of God's involvement. Newer translations make it easier to understand, but the passive voice continues to show up in key Scripture portions. So the question remains: Did God not know basic rules of writing?

I will argue that those passages are still so dynamic that we can only grasp the smallest part of them. If you take God out of the picture, they remain literary treasures to stand beside anything in print. If you acknowledge even the possibility of God, they have a wealth and richness worth a lifetime to explore.

The paradox of the passive voice in Scripture continues to fascinate me. All the trade-marks of "weak writing" seem to try to bring key passages of the Bible down to something we can grasp. Yet those passages still rank among the most dynamic works in English literature, and doubtless, every other language. I'll risk believing Paul got it right in one more verse that uses the passive voice:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of
God is stronger than man's strength. 1 Corinthians 1:25

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

The Alpha and Omega

Four small words, so simple,

say so little,

reveal so much.


and after years numbered in thousands:


AND WAS. . .

AND WAS. . .

Passive voice chosen,

writer's bane

to reveal truths

too deep for words,

too alive for mortal comprehension;

too active for minds to grasp.




Profound truths

in oh so simple phrases.




It is enough.


and in the end

God still.

Copyright Brian C. Austin


The Sheepcat said...

That's interesting, Brian. Those are indeed powerful passages of scripture, notwithstanding the profusion of forms of "to be," which, as you say, often saps sentences' energy.

Most of them aren't actually the passive voice, though, because that requires a past participle. The few examples here include "were made," "was raised," "are considered," "to be slaughtered."

Marian said...

Thanks for that profoundly simple poem.

Peter Black said...

Thank you Brian, for your interesting and passionate writing. In your wrestling with the issues of strong vis-a-vis weak writing in this piece you invite the writing reader to also interact with them. Your lines of verse, while stark, are also rich.

Anonymous said...

I teach Latin and am familiar with Koine Greek. The passive voice is frequently used in these languages and was an acceptable form of speech. The English versions that attempt a high correspondence with the original languages will reflect the passive when it still makes sense to do so in English. It is really a modern convention that English writing avoids the use of passive verbs.

Popular Posts