Jesus Wept

Jesus wept.I signed on very early this morning to discover a submission in my editing inbox. The manuscript was a total of 2 words (for which a payment of $.07 was enclosed), and it came with a query: “Can you improve this.”

You may have guessed that the two words were: “Jesus wept.”

This is actually a famous literary trope, the assertion that the simple declarative sentence, “Jesus wept,” is one of the greatest bits of prose/poetry in the English language.

Unfortunately, it was not submitted by the author, but by one Gene Weingarten, who is the type of wiseass who, instead of calling me up to discuss this little bit of business, would, at roughly 6 a.m. when it occurred to him, go to my website, go through the whole story calculator process, pull out the credit card, and actually submit it.

No doubt he loved the idea that the total cost was 7 cents.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was the essence of what Gene does. It’s a kind of performance humor, all cheeky silliness at first glance, but with a profound aftertaste.

Why is “Jesus wept” so great? Well you can find a treatise on that subject at Wikipedia.

But basically, when you can say, and imply, a tremendous amount in a very few words, it is always powerful. This is an almost perfect distilation of that phenomenon. Dealing strictly on a literary plane, there may be no more potent a figure than Jesus — both human and divine, doomed to death but destined for ressurection, a symbol of our greatest failings (as demonstrated by his persecution and crucifixion) and our only chance for salvation.  And as any hack writer knows, “wept” is the go-to verb when you need to juice up the emotions fast.  Put them together, and you have a nuclear explosion of meaning. Weeping is a very mortal act, uniquely human. It speaks of Jesus as a man, who can suffer in a very bodily way, pre-figuring his coming torment on the cross. If Jesus could not feel pain, his sacrifice would be meaningless. If he could not doubt, his faith would be unnecessary. The more Jesus is like the rest of us, the more power there is in his story.

So the accompanying memo with this two-word submission, a mere four words itself — “Can you improve this?” — is itself a kind of poetry. Good writing isn’t about words, it’s about meaning, and very often, the fewer words the better.

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