Humility Meets Clarity
By Kevin L. Howard –
The shortest way of saying something is usually the clearest. The goal for Christian writers, especially academic authors, is not to impress but to humbly communicate God’s truth. That said, style and humility can be friends. Perhaps a formal introduction is necessary—Mr. Humble meet Mr. Clear. Simplicity often unites these two. Consider John Owen’s line, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” It is memorable because it is precise, although he was not always given to such simplicity.
Charles Spurgeon spoke and wrote extensively, but he knew the beauty of words and how to use them well, “I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.” If you read theological journals, academic writers often give the impression that they are competing to win a job at a firm where they will compose insurance forms. The writing comes across with all the pleasantries of a lawn mower hitting a rock. Why write “It was rightly stated” when a better option is “John Mbiti rightly stated”? Passive has its place, but it is usually in the back of the bus.
Consider the following sentences as they progress:
“A wife found forgiveness for the woman who stole her husband.” (11 words).
“A wife gave forgiveness to the woman who stole her husband.” (11 words).
“A wife forgave the woman who stole her husband.” (9 words).
Note the difference between the following quote from an old study Bible, “The case to which Paul addresses himself is that of two non-Christians who married” and the better option, “Paul addresses the case of two married non-Christians.”
What a treat when a scholar paints clear pictures, even with a long sentence: “Only as we increasingly appreciate the dark image of ourselves in the pages of the divine mirror of Scripture are we likely to yield up to God those final areas of our thinking where we have the innate tendency to smuggle into salvation some little contribution of our own” (Sinclair B. Ferguson). Note Mojola Agbebi’s graphic words, “To render Christianity indigenous to Africa, it must be watered by native hands, pruned with the native hatchet, and tended with the native earth.”
Utilizing instead of using will constantly tempt the academic writer, but he will sleep better at night knowing he resisted. Also, in our desire to change the world one Latin word at a time, we may be leaving many English speakers behind. Before we pepper our next paper utilizing imago Dei and missio Dei, we should consider using “image of God” (imago Dei) and “mission of God” (missio Dei). It just might help our readers enjoy the meal we have made. And no one will hate us for it.
A famous person may have said “French is the best possible language” but not many of us believe it unless French is our heart language. And the same holds true for other languages. As you ponder your next writing project on Moltmann or Barth, if the target language is English, how about “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte) rather than just the German word? While the author of the next great work on Kierkegaard is bound to delight in Danish, the rest of us may be less enthused. Mindre begejstret. Forstå?
Taking time to sharpen our saw is always worthwhile. A little Strunk and White with the morning coffee never hurt anyone. Perhaps it is better to fight the urge to intimate and instead suggest, hint, or imply. While procure will dazzle with her elegant dress, get or obtain will deliver the jewels. Using the “noetic effects of sin” may send goose bumps down our scholastic arms but the “effects of sin on the mind” can move an army down the battle field. To postulate with polemics will populate our paper with pedantic prowess but may paralyze our prose. Some puddles appear deep but are only muddy.
“So what?” is a useful question that we should ask often as we polish our drafts. Will this paper help anyone better communicate the gospel or better enjoy the God of the gospel? A bit of pastoral salve will help train the reader to care about the soul along with the mind. If our words are to edify our readers then we must not treat people as if they are merely minds and must guard against puffing up their intellects or showing off. With pastoral sensitivity, a phrase rightly turned can do wonders for the heart, soul, and mind–“…the godliest of Christians are characteristically most aware of their sin, yet equally aware of the limitless measure of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus” (D. A. Carson).
There will always be readers struggling with their spouses, grieving the death of a child, or seeking to stay out of the government’s crosshairs while serving overseas. If possible, build the readers’ souls and their minds. Help them crave a closer walk with Lord Jesus and long for his presence in heaven: “You know that heaven is all your hopes, that nothing below can yield you rest, that a heart seldom thinking of heaven can fetch but little comfort here…” (Richard Baxter).
Maybe your concept cannot be reduced so easily but you might explain it more simply than your third draft shows. Keep at it until it is clear. Consider John Calvin’s precision, “Although our heavenly Father never slumbers nor sleeps, he often seems to do so, in order to train us in prayer.” He was a master of words, but you already knew that.
“It is common” usually works better than “it is not uncommon.” Occasionally one of those fancy British phrases like “an argument not unrelated” might be just what our paper needs, but “an argument related” will more often put the bullet in the chamber, unless we possess the skills of C. S. Lewis (and let’s face it, we don’t). Otherwise we run the risk of sounding pompous, which also translates into the clanging we hear when a vacuum cleaner sucks up a screw.
Along with the sharp tool of clarity we want to carry a large bag of charity. Before we read someone’s words and think how he could have said it more clearly, may we not forget to dispense grace like hot cakes to the homeless on a Chicago winter morning. We all walk on earthly soil and no matter how well we have written, someone could probably write it better.
Now let us review some important points:
Employ use whenever Satan tempts you to utilize. Come on, you can do it.
Choose the active voice instead of the passive. When the passive voice is chosen too often by the writer it makes for awkward sentences.
Anglicize instead of Latinize. Whether good or bad, most Americans do not read Latin or speak French, so an English translation on your part is a better choice than Rosetta Stone software on theirs. Comprenez-vous?
When the shorter word works, go with it.
The shortest route to your destination is often the best for your reader. Mr. Humble has shaken hands with Mr. Clear and loves him as a dear friend. By God’s grace, let us help them stay united.
We can rest now knowing humility and clarity will dwell together in peace, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz sends us off to our writing with a touch of class. In “The Page Turner,” Schwartz describes a lady who turns the pages for a pianist at a concert which involved other musicians. May we apply it to our writing. “She is on stage merely to serve a purpose, a worthy purpose even if a bit absurd—a concession, amid the coming glories, to the limitations of matter and of spirit. Precision of timing, it goes without saying, is the most important attribute of a page turner. Also important is unobtrusiveness.”
Kevin Howard took his master degrees from TEDS and GCTS. He worked as a writer for two years and has been serving overseas for several years in both Asia and Africa with his wife and children. He writes at NeedNotFret.com.