Plain Writing

Keep it simple.

We had dinner with long-time friends from out-of-town a couple of nights ago and the conversation turned to our appreciation for our respective pastors and their abilities to communicate complex teachings with simplicity and clarity.

My friend contends that one result of seminary education is to ruin the ability to communicate in everyday language. As seminarians are required to dissect the technical language of theology, he said, they lose the skill to talk with people about their faith in common words. He’s a seminary graduate, so he was reflecting on his personal experience.

When I went away to seminary the last words I remember hearing from my local church are, “Don’t get educated beyond your raisin’.” That meant, don’t come back using dollar words to talk to us when nickel words will do as well. But we doget educated beyond our raisin’, and we do learn to use dollar words. in fact, we have to learn these words to successfully complete the course work. The mainline churches prize an educated clergy. But most people value someone who can speak their language.

The ability to communicate clearly in understandable language is a real gift. As our knowledge grows, many areas of life become more complex. This makes writing or talking about this complexity even more challenging. In order to accommodate complexity, language becomes more specialized and technical. It becomes difficult for those of us not schooled in the specialty to understand. Specialists use language known to insiders but not to laypersons.

Stephen Hawking writes of this problem in physics. Yesterday, the New York Times technology writer, David Pogue wrote of the difficulty of writing for a mass readership that includes unskilled users and technology professionals. He tries to accommodate both by putting technical information in parentheses. The less technically savvy get the information they need but don’t get confused with unnecessary technical specs that don’t help them operate their gadget. The technically savvy get the information they need to compare performance, capacity and speed.

Faith language has fallen into the trap of fogginess. It’s very hard to find a theologian who can step from the complexities of theological discipline to talk about faith in everyday language. (In fact, it’s hard to find a theologian who even cares about doing this.) I read theologians who write of working on their latest “project” and wonder if they’re building a chest of drawers. In fact, they’re writing of their current theological “construction.” And mostly they write for other theologians.

I heard recently of a preacher in a college town who is able to communicate with the professors, blue collar folks and youth by preaching the same sermon three times; not in separate services, in the same presentation. First, he gives an academic interpretation. Next he puts the academic into colloquial language. And finally, he uses the everyday slang that he garners from his children. He effectively bridges the different languages spoken in the congregation.

All of this leads me to a couple of posts I’ll do in the next couple of days before heading off to Manila, Uganda and the Sudan.

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