Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Boreham and the Art of Writing

Knowing that “true ease in writing comes from art, not chance,” F W Boreham observed good speakers and studied the style of those he selected as his literary models.[1] He was a wordsmith who delighted in the beauty of finding the right words and he recognized with reverence their mystical power and spirit. To capture the imagination Boreham penned words that were concrete, visual and vivid. Always seeking to “grip the hearts and sway the minds” his language was designed to arrest and persuade readers of the Saturday newspaper with a captivating title, lively prose, intriguing detail and a bombardment of images.[2]

His enjoyment of the task and enthusiasm for his subject was always evident even if it led him to lapse into ornate language and exaggerated claims. Boreham’s theological writing lacked an intellectual and analytical depth because of the constraints of editorial space and his views about sentiment and emotion.[3] In the heady world of theological scholarship, Boreham’s editorials deserve to be studied for their appeal to the emotions and the simplicity and freshness of language that is required, especially for presenting theology to a general readership.

Geoff Pound

Image: “F W Boreham observed good speakers and studied the style of those he selected as his literary models.” Joseph Parker of the City Temple, one of the speakers FWB heard often in his days in London.

[1] Alexander Pope, An essay on criticism, l. 362.
[2] F W Boreham, My pilgrimage,140.
[3] For examples, Boreham, Mercury, 4 May 1957; Mercury, 3 September 1957.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Boreham on 'The Whisper of God'

“Lo, these are the outskirts of His ways; and how small a whisper do we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?” Job 26:14 (R.V.)

THESE words were written when the world was young. Yet they contain a scientific statement which the long file of centuries has not rendered obsolete: “Lo, these are but the outskirts of His ways.” They voice a sentiment which expresses one of the most intense problems which are throbbing in the minds of thoughtful men to-day: “How small a whisper do we hear of Him!” And they contain a shout of triumph in which the saints of all ages may participate: “The thunder of His power who can understand?” We have here:

A TREMENDOUS TRUTH.-“Lo, these are but the outskirts of His ways ! "

It obtains in the natural world.-I do not know how much you have seen of God's work. It may be that you have deeply and exhaustively explored it. You may have taken the telescope with Galileo, and Newton, and Kepler, and Herschel, and Ball, and scanned the heavens so thoroughly that the courses of the planets are your familiar paths, and the stars your most intimate friends. You may have descended into the earth with Logan, and Smith, and Dawson, and Carpenter, and Murchison, and Miller, until all the secrets of the rocks and the sands, the stones and the strata, have whispered themselves into your mind. With Ray, and Brown, and Bantam, and Lindley, and Hooker, you may have examined the ferns and the flowers, the mosses and the mammoth trees, until there is not a broken leaf or a crushed petal that does not unfold a revelation to your soul. The mysteries of all the arts ;in all the sciences may be mere commonplaces to you. But though you have all the -osophies and -ologies at your fingers' ends; though air, and earth, and sea, and sky have been unable to withhold any of their mysteries from you, yet of this I am certain—that you have but seen the shell and not the kernel, you have seen the part and not the whole. For, “Lo, these are but the outskirts of His ways.” And though, over and above this, you have followed the acts of God in the history of the ages; though you have sat side by side with Herodotus and Xenophon and Caesar, with Gibbon and Hume and Prescott, with Macaulay and Carlyle and Froude; though you have gone from event to event, from reign to reign and from battle to battle, saying to yourself: “This is the finger of God,” yet have you only seen the outskirts of His ways. You must still stand like the great philosopher and say: “I am but as a little child, picking up shells on the shores of Eternity”; or, like a great English writer, you must confess: “I have but kissed the hem of the garments of God!” I am not surprised that the words that were considered most appropriate to be carved over the archway leading into our splendid museum at Christchurch were the words of our text.

The best of man's work is to be seen on the surface. He, to use an expressive colloquialism, puts all his best goods in the window. The more deeply you probe and search into his manufactures, the more you see of their imperfections, and the less you see of their beauty. Take a microscope to them, and the loveliest work of art is a daub; the finest production of the sculptor is but a, rough-hewn block; the greatest masterpiece is full of flaws. Not so is it with the work of God. The superficial observer admires the stars that bespangle the heavens at night—the “forget-me-not of the angels”, as Longfellow called them; but the superficial observer cannot admire them with one hall the rapture with which the astronomer almost worships them. A little child can admire a lily; but only the botanist can fully appreciate it. A landscape painter may be delighted with a piece of mountain scenery; but the geologist sees in it a greater grandeur still. With the work of man familiarity breeds contempt, and distance lends enchantment to the view. With the work of God the very opposite is the case. He who gazes upon the external loveliness of Nature may say: “How beautiful!” but it may always be added: “These are but the outskirts of His ways.”

This is an excerpt from one of F W Boreham’s earliest published sermons, ‘The Whisper of God’, from the volume of the same name.

Image: “I am but as a little child, picking up shells on the shores of Eternity.”

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Boreham and the Art of Capturing Attention

In considering the relationship between poetry and religion, contemporary Australian poet Les Murray stated:

“Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.”[1]

F W Boreham’s editorials offer a fertile soil for poets, preachers and writers who seek to dream out theology in words in such a way that the truth will figure in the imaginations and lives of those who hear and read.

While grabbing and maintaining attention is an art for every communicator, presenting theology to the uninitiated, especially to Australian audiences that have been characterized by their reticence, embarrassment and skepticism towards religion, increases the challenge.[2]

In his editorials, Boreham exhibited a strong consciousness of his readers. Frequently, he revealed the condition of being ‘spellbound’ by an author and he tried to reproduce this magic in his own writings.[3] He possessed not only an itch to write but also a yearning that his words be read and experienced.

Geoff Pound

Image: Boreham “revealed the condition of being ‘spellbound’ by an author and he tried to reproduce this magic in his own writings.”

[1] Les Murray, ‘Poetry and religion’, New selected poems (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999), 95.
[2] Descriptions of Australian attitudes towards religion are to be found in Russel Ward, The Australian legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 16-17. Veronica Brady, A crucible of prophets: Australians and the question of God (Sydney: Theological Explorations, 1981), 1; David Tacey, Re-enchantment: The new Australian spirituality (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2000), 5, 22.
[3] For example, F W Boreham, My pilgrimage (London: The Epworth Press, 1940), 7, 25; Mercury, 19 July, 1924.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

F W Boreham Communicating Theology to a Public Audience

F W Boreham enjoyed two significant public platforms in the daily newspapers that gave him an opportunity to communicate theology. However, the medium also shaped his theological content and style.

Immersed in the Culture
Boreham’s articles appeared alongside columns about politics, finance, industry, entertainment, sport, births, deaths and marriages. The symbolic placement of his editorials within secular newspapers, amidst the issues of life, expressed the concern of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who called not for “reserving some space for God [at] the boundaries ... but recognizing God ... in the middle of the human village.”[1] These were unattributed articles that made no reference to Boreham’s clerical title and were not marked ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. These factors of language and integration countered the common marginalization of theology.

Literary Style Adjusted to the Readership
Frank Boreham’s editorials differed in theological content and style from his essays and sermons which endorses the view that he was writing to attract a general public audience. While he was motivated to write editorials for a number of reasons, Boreham’s paramount concern was to convey theology, that is, to reflect on the person and presence of God and to encourage his readers to do the same.

Public Issues Shaping His Writing
The public context shaped Boreham’s ‘editorial theology’ by suggesting topics, although reference has been made to the factors that loosened his connection to the local context. Over the years, Boreham settled into a rhythm in which the context of time, season and annual festival prompted many of his subjects.

Reminiscent of the plaudit once paid to the contemporary Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig, Boreham was “never ‘relevant’, ‘socially aware’ or narrowly political”.[2] At a significant period in the development of Australia as a nation, Boreham contributed to the public conversations about Empire, war, the Anzac legend, the role of women, the care and contribution of the disabled, the stewardship of natural resources, the quest for an Australian identity, the need for an Australian voice and the importance of the arts.

Boreham’s major themes focused on the public spheres of nationhood, nature, history and everyday life. Boreham looked to public affirmation rather than churchly authorities to give his editorials validation.

Expressing Theology Attractively
F W Boreham’s abhorrence of theological jargon and abstract language was linked to his desire to express theology attractively to a public audience. His generous use of visual imagery, characterization and stories were ways Boreham sought to win audience interest and assist their comprehension. His approach was to popularise theology by addressing down-to-earth subjects and everyday issues that he judged to be of interest to a general audience.

While the limitations of space placed major constraints on his ability to provide comprehensive theology, Boreham’s role as a ‘pointer’ allowed his readers to think and act theologically rather than to relegate this task to professional theologians.[3] This trust of his readers was indicative of the friendly stance and the reserved, suggestive tone that Boreham adopted towards his audience. The downside of Boreham’s irenic demeanor was that his theology lacked a pungency borne of courage, thus limiting the prophetic element.

In his editorials F W Boreham was a public theologian who addressed theological issues beyond the personal and outside the garden gate. His childhood puzzlement concerning the purpose of religion was transformed into a passionate commitment to discovering and helping other people to understand how religion connected with all aspects of life.

In his last decade, Boreham restated his conviction about the relationship of religion to life when he wrote, “Religion, to be piquant and satisfying must stand directly related to human life and human labor, human laughter and human tears.”[4] This insight clearly indicated that Boreham believed that the rightful place of religion and the focus of theology were neither bracketed at the margins, nor in pride of place at the centre but on the same level and inextricably connected with all aspects of life.

Geoff Pound

Image: “Religion, to be piquant and satisfying must stand directly related to human life and human labor, human laughter and human tears.”

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and papers from prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, Enlarged ed. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1972), 282.
[2]This compliment was paid to Leunig by Barry Humphries. Barry Humphries, introduction, The Penguin Leunig, by Michael Leunig (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1974).
[3] Boreham’s editorials in 1912 were limited to 1,500 words, 1,000 words in 1930 and 500 by 1958.
[4] Boreham, Mercury, 5 June, 1954.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Boreham and the Issue of Literary Courage

The early years of F W Boreham’s public ministry revealed his bold outspokenness in addressing social issues and his condemnation of harmful and erroneous social practices.

Spurred on by mentors who modelled a ‘civic Christianity’ and increasing his knowledge through reading, his writing was developing a breadth of interest. Frank Boreham had a painful encounter with controversy through the pages of the Otago Daily Times newspaper which led him to make a vow never to become entangled in public controversy again. This self-imposed silence lacked courage, involved a sacrifice of truth and, as he later confessed, it diminished his editorial duty. This decision weakened his editorial responsibilities of protesting and provoking his readers. It limited Boreham’s range of subjects and severely curbed his engagement with readers on sensitive matters of ethical complexity and public debate.

There were very few readers who engaged with Boreham through the newspaper so it is difficult to determine who comprised his readership or to judge the response of readers to his editorials. The lack of letters to the editor concerning his articles appears to endorse the view that he adopted an encouraging style. He had a difference of opinion over style with the editor of the Age and Boreham’s stand indicated that he possessed the courage to maintain his new approach even at the risk of losing his editorial role.

Geoff Pound

Image: The courage to write.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Boreham’s Literary Style and Consistency

F W Boreham wrote editorials every week for 47 years and must win a prize for longevity. But would he receive an award for consistency?

Consistent Style?
The quality of consistency has sometimes been identified as an important criterion for assessing the contribution of a public theologian. An earlier posting addressed Boreham’s inconsistency in maintaining a lively connection with his context. Furthermore, from 1943 onward, without any explanation, Dr Boreham changed his style when adopting the habit of concluding most of his editorials with a religious moral. This shift was more dramatic as it was inverse to the general decline of religiosity and biblical knowledge in the Australian populace in general. While Boreham’s mood had been consistently bright and optimistic his failing health and his acquaintance with grief in the last decade of his career were factors that caused many of his editorials to take on a dismal tone.

Consistent Addressing of Public Issues?
While in the first year of the First World War Boreham vigorously discussed this public issue, the breakdown of his health early in 1916 contributed to an almost total silence on matters to do with the war (a practice of neglect that he also adopted during the Second World War). He justified this change by drawing attention to the example of Jane Austen and other writers who ignored international wars, promoted a ‘literature of escape’ and refused to become captive to a particular age.

In reflecting on this shift, some consideration must be made for the value of newspaper articles that might alleviate war news fatigue. Boreham’s turn-about and avoidance of discussion about the war represented an inconsistency in his editorial ideals and, some measure of failure in his theological responsibility.

In Conclusion
Throughout his career, F W Boreham maintained a remarkable evenness in the quality of his writing and the attractiveness of his expression. His gradual disconnection from his local context, the emergence of a moralistic style and the adoption of a more sombre tone represented inadequacies and inconsistencies in his editorial role.

Geoff Pound

Image: Today’s front page of the Hobart Mercury online.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Boreham on Truth and Gilding the Lily

F W Boreham’s writing was popular with his audience because his words conveyed colorful images, his language aroused emotion and he used vivid elements that made his writing come alive. However, Boreham’s efforts to enthrall his readers and communicate to them a literary magic had a downside. C P Scott, the longtime editor of the Manchester Guardian, asserted that a newspaper must present “the unclouded face of truth” and that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.”[1] In writing his newspaper editorials, Boreham’s preoccupation with the fascinating and the distinctive sometimes led to a clouding of the truth, a lack of analytical depth which resulted in simplistic explanations. Boreham was aware of the bias and exaggeration of writers like Dickens and he forgave this because of their passion and enjoyment of their subject.

Varnishing the Truth
There were other ways that Frank Boreham unintentionally varnished the truth. The gusto with which he wrote exuded an optimistic air but it sometimes became monotonous and failed to recognize and value the other moods of human experience. This was surprising for a person who wrote with enjoyment about the variety of the seasons. There was little evidence that Boreham experienced or advocated what John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the state in which a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[2] Boreham’s unwillingness to write editorials in a minor key or to conclude with questions or ambiguities was one of his literary and theological weaknesses.

Diluting Theological Terminology
One of the significant features of Dr Boreham’s expression of theology for his public audience was his attention to appropriate language. Prior to 1943, when Boreham began to give many of his editorials a religious appendage, his articles had scant religious references and language of an overt theological nature. In the interests of maintaining contact with his readers in a secular medium, Boreham was intentional and skilful in liberally ‘diluting’ theological terms and hiding theological ideas in metaphor and story. For example, when discussing religious festivals like Christmas and Easter, he practiced the art of portraying their ordinary and most accessible features.

Pastel Sounds
In addition to thinning or disguising abstract theological language, Boreham guarded against the tendency to moralize and sermonize. Ever attentive to tone, his editorials were confident without being cocksure. While Boreham wrote several times of the ‘pastel shades’ of the autumn season, in 1949 he mixed his metaphors when commending the ‘pastel sounds’ that described the theological tone he favored. In his explication, he asked:

"Is it any wonder then that the Divine voice, whenever and whenever heard, is invariably marked by softness, calmness and restraint? The most convincing and compelling exhibitions of super human power come to men not in the earthquake nor in the fire, but in a still small voice. Isaiah has a quote about the servant who “Shall not scream.” The eloquence of heaven is always couched in pastel accents and in delicate and melodious undertones."[3]

Boreham’s theological writing was invariably ‘couched in pastel accents’ rather than in black and white. His editorials were restrained and open-ended rather than hard-hitting and dogmatic. While this predominant tone appeared to be appropriate for a public audience and in keeping with Boreham’s personality, his avoidance of controversy muted his prophetic voice when tough words needed to be declared decisively and with courage.

Boreham’s non-religious language and restrained style seemed appropriate for writing about theology and life in Australian newspapers until the addition of his overt religious conclusions from 1943 to 1959. Pitching his theology in open-ended, pastel tones heightened the longevity of Boreham’s editorial career but his writing would have improved with a broadening of the mood and a variation of the tone, especially the inclusion of a clearer, stronger, prophetic voice.

Geoff Pound

Image: Gilding the Lily.

[1] C P Scott, Manchester Guardian, 5 May 1921.
[2] Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 December 1817, Letters of John Keats 1814-1821 vol. 1 ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 195.
[3] F W Boreham, Mercury, 19 February 1949.