I was left pretty confused as I wrapped up a theological book this morning. It’s almost entirely my fault since I sped way too fast through it without listening very well or giving much space to pause and think. But even when I did stop, I found that I had a very hard time understanding much of what the writer was saying or if they were even saying anything at all.
Usually I’m not alone in this feeling when I finish a book, so I quickly browsed some of the reviews on social media, but I was surprised to find that everyone generally loved the book and that they seemed to understand it quite well. One person even said, “I could maybe come up with three or four books that I genuinely believe could change the world. This is one of those books.”
What!? I thought to myself. What did the author actually say? Did I miss everything?
All those who reviewed it seemed highly educated and I felt both a bit stupid and a bit ashamed. But then again, maybe I didn’t have to feel that way. In college there was a student in one of my classes who loved to interrupt the professor and spew out so many theological words that he might have well have just spoken Latin. No one (not even the professor, I think), knew what the heck he was talking about. And I imagine he knew it too. His comments weren’t helpful. Nobody learned from him and his intelligence was demeaning. Sure, words were coming out of his mouth, but they mostly translated, “Look at how smart I am. Aren’t you impressed?”
We all need to take a page from C.S. Lewis when he says:
you must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused…. A passage from some theological work or translation into the venacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.
Ouch. We all should be convicted a little bit, because we’ve all tried to sound smart when we say things. Some of us seem to only open our mouths if we think we can sound smart and disprove whatever someone else is saying. I’m sure I do this all the time and I’ve preached plenty of messages where I’ve done the same. But I’ve found that the best messages I ever seem to preach are the ones where I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to present something complicated. In fact, I spent probably over half a year trying to learn how to teach some of the themes in my recent messages. I knew they were complicated and I knew early on that I wasn’t in a place where I could put it into understandable language yet.
Theologians: we want to understand—we need to understand—and it’s your job to disciple us! But often you seem to be writing your books for other theologians and that doesn’t do the majority of the church any good. The most famous theologians are the ones that write in ways we can all understand—and that includes many of the Bible authors themselves.
It’s great to be smart. Just share that gift with the rest of us so we can benefit from it too. And that means writing it in a way that we will understand. We don’t necessarily want it dumbed down—by all means, we want to be challenged—we just want it to be accessible.
I close with a story from missionary Heidi Baker, who once overheard someone talking about her in the bathroom at an event she was speaking at. She often gets hit by the Holy Spirit while she’s preaching and the people made it sound like she would just be lying on the ground during her whole message. She was a bit hurt by the statement, so she put her doctorate to work and started writing an in-depth message, but then God convicted her that He just needed her to be her usual charismatic self. She trashed her scholarly message and the Holy Spirit poured out of her.
Lewis, C.S. “Christian Apologetics.” God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, p. 98.
Baker, Heidi. Birthing the Miraculous: the Power of Personal Encounters with God to Change Your Life and the World. Lake Mary, FL, Charisma House, 2014, pp. 95-96.
Picture credit: Ben White