I know the title of this blog sounds like I mistakenly mixed two genres of writing. But it was completely intentional, and it leads to my main question: is there some unspoken (or perhaps unwritten) rule in theological writing that our blogs and articles have to be as uncreative as humanly possible?
So many Christian blogs and articles seem so much like a mixture of academic writing and burnt toast that they’re completely unpalatable. I don’t just mean they’re hard to understand; I mean they read like Ben Stein speaks: droning and monotonous with no life to them. They read like a list of mere facts with no attempt at being compelling or interesting.
I know, I know: God’s truth is compelling in and of itself. But does that mean we must work our absolute hardest to make it look like we put no effort in writing well?
I wonder if we’re being reactionary. I think we theological writers have seen so much of mere rhetoric from the culture—which are mainly appeals to the emotions meant to mask the fact that one has no argument—that we’ve turned tail and charged in the opposite direction, making our writing so heady and rigidly logical as to be impossibly boring. It’s as if we must recite the facts, more facts, and only the facts, lest we be like those people.
Are facts bad? Absolutely not; facts and truth are necessary for the Christian writer. But is there room in theological writing for an author to be not just logically sound, but creative and artistic? Is there a place for craftsmanship? I would argue that there is.
When we undertake the task of theological writing, we are (or should be, anyway) seeking to understand the master craftsman himself. And if you read the book that he wrote, you see that he is an artistic writer.
Approximately 33% of the Bible is written, not in the fashion of a scholarly article, but in poetic form. For some of us logical people, that has made it harder to understand and interpret. Some people have approached the poetic books and sought to interpret every detail in an overly literal fashion, assuming each image corresponds to some kind of event or person (locusts and Apache helicopters come to mind). But when we do this, we miss the beauty of the Bible. We fail to grasp that this is God’s creative way of communicating deep realities.
About 43% of the Bible is written in narrative form. This has also been difficult for those of us who just want to be told facts. Because we don’t know what on earth to do with these stories, we tend to either (1) merely retell them with no explanation about the truths they are meant to convey, or (2) skip them entirely. But the stories—and story—of redemptive history communicate God’s truth in a way that is far more memorable and interesting than a set of doctrines.
This means that the discourses of the Bible—such as the letters of Paul, where most of us will admit we spend a vast majority of our time—only comprise about 24% of it.1 But even those have a certain elegance to them—a beauty that the Westminster divines referred to as “the majesty of the style”.2
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m absolutely not saying that doctrine is a bad thing. I read and enjoyed Herman Ridderbos’ Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures and John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied as much as the next geek. Doctrine is unavoidable and, as such, essential for understanding our faith. But why can’t those doctrines be communicated in a lively way that grabs the attention of the reader?
What would be the solution? I’m not qualified to give writing advice. But I think the best thing we can do for our writing is to read.
Read the Bible first and foremost. Even on a human level, the authors of the Bible were literary geniuses. But it was ultimately written by the greatest literary genius, the one who made literary genius (and, as it happens, literary geniuses). And if we are made to image God, we are also made to image his creativity. Therefore, we ought to read his beautiful work of art carefully, and quote it often. Remember: God has no problem with you using his work. You’ll face no accusations of plagarism from him. Just use it correctly. Study and understand it.
Second, read other books, even non-theological works. Yes, it’s okay; you can branch out from reading Calvin’s Institutes over and over (though do read that, and read a lot of other books from the best writers and theologians God has given the church). Read history. It may be surprising, but history can be written with literary flair. Read fiction. Read classics. I’ve yet to do this, but read poetry (though I would probably look like a pretentious idiot if I tried). And yes, I even mean non-Christian works. Thanks to common grace, even unbelievers strike gold at times, even if their method is completely wrong and such gold is riddled with impurities.
This is only tangentially related, but I’ve been completely unable to come up with a good conclusion for this post. Writers tend to lose sleep over things like using exactly the right conjunction in exactly the right place. So I’ll leave you with this: despite what I’ve said, sometimes something just needs to be put out there. This is the Internet, for goodness’ sake; it doesn’t have to be perfect. So, don’t stop writing anything just for the sake of a few adverbs. Put effort into it, but put your writing out there. It’s probably better than 98% of what’s there already.
1 Special thanks to The Bible Project for these percentages. View their video on the Bible’s literary styles here.
2 Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5