On Writing

Because I have spent much of my life writing articles and books, it has been necessary to consider what good writing is like. While I am sure that I do not have all of the answers, I think I have a few. In this post, in a running outline form, I shall share some of my guiding principles with the hope that some of you will find them useful and be encouraged to put some of your own ideas into print.

Christian writing should be

I.  Biblical—but not academic.

  1. Writing that is informative, scholarly, and substantive,
  2. that uses the original languages and the best commentaries and helps,
  3. need not be dry as dust,
  4. using a stilted, abstract, passive, colorless style
  5. similar to that which is found in most Ph. D. dissertations.

But, instead, it can be,

II.  Interesting—but not shallow.

  1. Interest can be aroused over a variety of matters:
  2. stories, jokes, unusual experiences.
  3. But, good writing arouses interest from the subject matter itself
  4. by exposing the interest values that are inherent in it,
  5. by relating it significantly to the reader and
  6. by doing so in a style that at every point is appropriate to him and that grows out of these values.
  7. Such a style will have warmth and vividness, will stress active verbs, and will adopt the best colloquial form of the day.

Good Christian writing also will be

III. Practical—but more than a stress on “how to.”

  1. While “how to” and good methodology are essential,
  2. the writing must address itself to problems and issues
  3. and meet needs;
  4. in short, it must be motivated by a desire to help someone in some way
  5. and should, in fact, do so.

That is why it must be

IV.  Substantive—but clear and simple.

  1. It is hard work to strike the proper balance between substance and simplicity,
  2. but that is an essential factor.
  3. There is a large class of people who need to read substantive material but will do so only if they think that what they are reading isn’t.
  4. Because most academics refuse to write in a style that will reach them, their scholarship results in too little good.

When necessary, Christian writing must be

V.  Polemical—but not personal.

  1. It should attack faulty positions, but not people.
  2. However, a writer should never smash a window unless he has another, better one to replace it; negative writing, calculated only to tear down or root up, is a blight.
  3. The Christian writer, therefore, must also plant and build.
  4. But there must be a zeal for truth, coupled with boldness; people are tired of pussyfooting.

And, finally, conservative Christian writing should be

VI.  Innovative—but for a purpose.

  1. It must never contain innovation for its own sake.
  2. Rather, innovation must be used to clarify, freshen, and strengthen old truths,
  3. and it is important to realize that in many things the most radically innovative step of all is to be more biblical.

The Write Way

I’ve been writing a book. In order to do so, I’ve been spending a great deal of time researching, studying, and digesting materials from the Scriptures and commentaries. I wonder, sometimes, when other people write. how they do it. With me, it’s hours of commitment to work, prayer, thought discussion. I couldn’t do it without these.

Yet, when I read some of the materials that are published today I wonder—did people spend much time on this book, pamphlet, article, or not?

Writers, please give us something to sink out teeth into when we read it—please?

I have picked up (and put down), purchased (and regretted I did) any number of books that probably shouldn’t have been written. The titles are great, but the content doesn’t measure up to them. How about some really good stuff?

What do I look for in a book? Something I didn’t know before I read it that makes it worthwhile reading. Something that challenges my beliefs, views, etc., and makes me think. Something that let’s me know what problems people are facing that, perhaps, we could do to help them deal with. I could go on; I won’t. I will say this: when you write, please make it substantive.

Equivocation

I’d like to say a little more about equivocal language. It was interesting when in graduate school, I had to read some of Tillich’s writings. As you know, Tillich was nothing more than an atheist hiding under an ecclesiastical garb. His definition of God: “the ground of our being.”

In one class I was forced to read his massive two-volume theology. It was torture wading through pages of intricately convoluted thinking, paradox, and reams of equivocal language. It was written in a style that was nothing short of planned obfuscation. By many, therefore, it was thought profound! Their unspoken (also unthought-of?) presupposition being that whatever is obtuse is, therefore, profound.

Coincidentally during the same semester, in a preaching class, I was required to study Tillich’s sermons. So, I was able to compare and contrast the one with the other. I found the sermons lucid, as clear as the water on which you ride in a glass-bottomed boat in Florida. It is so clear that you can see fish swimming many feet below, who look as though they were close enough to grasp with your hand. There wasn’t anything in the sermons that I found difficult to understand (That’s one reason why I can confidently assert he was an atheist).

Now, I have one question to ask: Why did he write so differently in one place from the way he did in the other? He was capable of doing both.

I cannot read his heart, of course. But I may venture a thought or two about why a person might do such a thing. In one context he might want to be understood; in the other he might not want to be. Why would a person not want to be understood? Because he might not want people to know what he really believes. Also, because obscurity is often kin to supposed profundity. And, because an academic atmosphere in which obfuscation and equivocation is the style of the day almost demands such writing.

Christians ought not give in to such pressures that prohibit clarity and simplicity of writing on the basis that people maintain if plain, it must be puerile. We ought to write clearly, but trenchantly, since we have something to say that is authentically profound. It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christians to set a new standard for writing that is consistent with the simple, inspired writings of the apostles. In doing so, we may not always be considered worth reading by those academics who live and write by the standards of the time, but the common people will hear us gladly.

“I Believe . . .”

Recently, I was sent (along with many others it seems) a book by an author whom I do not know that struck me as a perfect example of how not to write a book. The topic (I shall not mention it) concerns a highly questionable point of view he wants to convince others to accept. The subject is biblical and the attempt that he fails to make is to present his views of various Scriptural passages.

So far, OK. But let me tell you how he “reasons.” Throughout the book, he sets forth outlandish concepts based on historical events. His history is not bad, but his adaptation if this history to biblical passages is horrific! Yet throughout, what he does in order to support these strange ideas, is to assert the following two words:

I believe . . .

What sort of argument is that? To reiterate those words time and time again (until one becomes weary of them) hardly enhances his cause. Yet, he must think that using them over and over again will convince others of their truth.

Now I have nothing against the author (after a thorough scan, his book now resides in my trash can). I certainly don’t accept his views! But that isn’t why I’m writing. Over the years, I have noticed others who simply don’t seem to know how to reason to their conclusions in ways that are cogent and helpful to readers, trying to reinforce their thoughts by the use of those two words “I believe!” After reading them for the twentieth time in what is the early portion of the work, I can only find myself saying, “So what? So you believe it! Well, good for you—but why should that have any impact upon me?”

Now I write, not to say anything else about the author of this sad book, but to urge the many others who do write useful material to avoid trying to enhance their words with thee unhelpful two words! That’s all. Take it or leave it—I got it off my chest!

Adams, You Are Too Simplistic!

Sorry, your charge doesn’t hold water. Just because I refuse to use the jargon of the field, because I write for pastors and elders in language they can easily read, and since I do not hide ignorance behind half-understood or esoteric terminology, there are those who think that what I have to say is simplistic. I claim that my writings are simple, not simplistic.

I have spent a lifetime attempting to put difficult matters into easily understood language. My students at two seminaries will vouch for the fact that I always strongly urged simplicity and clarity in preaching. I have taught that the second cousin to truth is clarity and the brother to lying is obscurity! It is my belief that by hard work, anything—once understood—can be made simple and intelligible. It is with that conviction in mind that I always sit down to write.

Because I do not theorize, speculate, or hypothesize, there are those who think what I say is unscholarly. I admit to the charge, if that is what scholarship is all about. But, wait a minute! Ask yourself, “Would Jesus have stood up to the charge?” His clear, simple language was so different from the rabbis that people were amazed at what He had to say. But because what He said was simple, that does not mean that it was simplistic. It was at once simple and profound. I try to be a speaker and writer who is as fully in that tradition of Jesus as possible.

The same concern drove Paul who, in writing to the Colossians, asked for prayer so that “I may proclaim” the truth “clearly, as I ought to.” I consider myself equally obligated to set forth God’s truth clearly. I think that it may be fairly said that though others may not always agree with me, they understand why they don’t because they understand what I have written.

Akin to the charge of simplicity is the companion charge of proof-texting. Apart from the fact that there is a correct way to proof-text, as Jesus and the apostles showed us, I deny the charge as made. What I deny is the claim that I give the Scriptures short shrift, taking passages out of context, making them say what they were never intended to say, and the like. That is what is usually meant by proof-texting.

I ask you, does the charge stand under scrutiny? How many other counselors have translated the entire New Testament, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Psalm 119? How many others have written commentaries on all of these books? When you look at the shoddy exegesis that is so prevalent among eclectic “Christian counselors,” you will find more than enough proof-texting together with poor exegesis at its worst. I cannot accept this irresponsible charge from those who, themselves, are prime examples of what they decry. Indeed, it is time for those who hurl these missiles to reconsider their own feeble efforts at using Scripture.

When Scripture is so casually handled, when its teaching is equated with the flawed statements of men without any recognition that the two are radically different, when hermeneutics is not only a word hardly understood but a science whose fundamental principles are persistently violated, it is time for the practitioners of such an “art” to cease and desist calling names!

In other words, I challenge those who love to bypass the teachings of Nouthetic counselors on the basis that what we write is too simplistic, to come to grips with the major arguments that we set forth. That is certainly a fairer, and more “scholarly” way to go about things than to ignore these as “too simplistic” to give the time of day. It is amazing how often objectors use the ad hominem approach rather than grappling with the issues. Let’s stop that sort of thing and begin to talk sensibly, simply. One, not so insignificant issue, is how to present truth! Another has to do with the target audience for whom we write. Should we write to impress other “scholars,” or to help those who are ministering to God’s flock? Think about it!

Simplistic? . . . or Simple

OK. So you’ve become an avid reader of this blog. Good. We appreciate it. But have you profited from any of the articles? Now, you don’t have to, you understand—we don’t want you working at it too hard. And some of it is more joshing around than it is instruction. But the former is usually attached to some point, and the latter may even be pretty heavy.

Though—it is a settled maxim with me that no matter how complex, how profound, how difficult to understand, it can be made intelligible. Indeed, I would go so far as to say simple. That which is simple is not necessarily simplistic. Simplicity often takes more effort to achieve than obfuscation. Some of us who have spend our entire writing and speaking lives working at simplicity will testify to that fact. So, when you hear someone say, “That’s simplistic,” pause and ask yourself “Is what he is commenting about really simplistic, or is his understanding of it so?”

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Books!

Does anyone have an accurate list of how many new books are published here in the USA every year? There must be something fairly accurate—but, as I did yesterday, I received a self-published book that will probably not become officially copyrighted. Solomon in Ecclesiastes said there’d be no end to writing books—and he knew nothing of the computer, or the printing press, for that matter!

Why does a person write? In reading some books, I wonder. The writer who authored the book I was sent yesterday had a clear purpose. I appreciate that! You can read some that just seem to be words and lots of printer’s ink that you wonder why anyone went to the trouble to put together.

I read a book last week that had a purpose, but it was wrong in the way it cut-and-pasted other people’s work. The best part of the book was the quotes; the rest—well, it would have been better if he had simply made it a book of quotations. The rest of the book got in the way of reading the excellent quotes.

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I Can’t Imagine . . .

“I can’t imagine anyone thinking that way”

Aw . . c’mon. You know how people are.

“Sure, but for anyone to think that God had not supplied all that is necessary for His people to honor and serve Him from the beginning, but that it was necessary for Freud and his crowd to come along and supply what the Bible supposedly lacks—unimaginable!”

Very imaginable. Though seriously questioned on every hand, and certainly no longer the prevailing Bible-believing view, this sad notion hangs on.

“Well, it’s time someone did something about it.”

What do you think we’ve been trying to do for the last 40 years?

“Well, yes. But you’ve made so little impact.”

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Computer Problems

I’ve been having some trouble with the computer lately.

“Seems like par for the course.”

You’re having trouble too?

“Have had in the past. Got it fixed—what’s your trouble?”

Well, we operate here with a wireless system, you see.

“And . . . “

My computers were not picking up a signal from our router. Had to borrow (so to speak) signals from the router of my son next door.

“So what’ja do about it?”

What I always do—messed around for a couple of weeks unsuccessfully trying to fix it.

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Ever Write a Book?

Most people haven’t, so, perhaps you haven’t heard the one most common piece of advice all authors give.

“What’s that?”

Simply this: “Revise, revise and revise.

“Interesting for authors, I suppose; but why mention it to me?”

Because, in a very important sense you are writing a book.

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