There is Nothing, Son, Under the Gnu: Or, Originality is Overrated

If you want to make a name for yourself, a good way to start is to attack something people believe without question. The broad-minded will hear you, the doctrinaire will attack you, and everybody else will check you out just to learn why everyone is so excited. “Blind” faith can be a sort of scurvy of the mind, so it is right to disturb the unopposed from time to time. On the whole, though, originality is overrated.The best sort of originality is the stuff that comes from your own sincere and tested beliefs, though you may never have aired them in public. When I discover my own beliefs, I often find myself unfortunately in agreement with an army of people who think and speak better than I do. Even if my thought is truly my own, New Idea 1.0 already exists in a 7.3 or 7.4 version in the writings of C. S. Lewis or some other famous smart person. I wake up in excitement only to find breakfast already finished and the morning chores well underway.

Why should you bother to try anything if someone else does it better than you do? Pastors might as well read Spurgeon sermons to their congregations. Studios might as well rerelease old movies. Authors might as well stick at updating the classics. The main problem with originality is not that it is new and exciting but that it wants to be old and revered, so fears of reinventing the wheel have no traction. We love Ford for its adherence to old round wheels and would curse it for introducing exciting new square ones. As novel as square wheels would be, their only value is their novelty.

Originality is not a primary quality, though cyanide is hardly the primary ingredient of a poisoned glass of lemonade. A poisoner is orthodox to the utmost in his preparation of food and drink, but for the inclusion of the fatal ingredient. The best and most effective original things come when their inventors do not mean them to be particularly shocking, but the worst things are original for the sole purpose of being different.

As I write, I remember G. K. Chesterton having written something like what I am writing now. Read Heretics and Orthodoxy and you will have all that you need to write this post for yourself. You might even do a better job because you will have read Chesterton more recently than I have. Read C. S. Lewis’ preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God to get much the same thing. I am not really writing anything new, but if I am writing something important, it is because I write something we always have to have fresh even if it is not completely new.

Originality is perilous in the produce section. People want apples and oranges. They want their apples and oranges. Take away all those pear-apple hybrids and those ghastly other Frankenfruits, I want apples and oranges! People learn to love new things, but they want the same new fruit hybrids again, not more combinations of other fruit. Though customers want the same fruit that they know and love, they react surprisingly poorly to presentations of old fruit. People like John Piper because he writes profoundly true things, but they merely appreciate Piper’s humility when he cites Jonathan Edwards’ influence in his own life. Even so, it is important to give fresh expression to old truth, and therein lies the value of originality.

Perhaps this is from Chesterton, perhaps this is from Lewis; nevertheless, many exciting new ideas are just bad old ideas. Jesus is not God? They have said it for thousands of years. Do you have ideas for radical changes to the structure of society? Please just confess your love of dead white male authors. If you must write, write to speak the truth to your neighbors; write because you get a paycheck for your column in the newspaper; write because the person in front of you has a story to tell — even if stories like it come again every year. If you do not do right now the good that you can do, then it will have eternally never happened, no matter how big it is. “Size matters not,” said the short green Jedi master. Then again, so did C. S. Lewis, as did George MacDonald before him. Originality is overrated.

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  • Paul Park

    What eye has not seen, what ear has not heard… I guess God must be the keeper of original thought… distributed to those who He finds worthy of His mysteries

  • sunraytony

    how about what was before the big bang?