Good theology demands good writing

See that book on the table over there, the one with the word “theology” in the title? Without even picking it up, I bet I can tell you a lot about it. At the very least, I’m sure it will use a lot of impressively multi-syallbic words, amazingly complex sentences, surprisingly few paragraph breaks, and no pictures. In short, it will be properly academic.

And, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible to write good, academic prose. Granted, it will never be the kind of easily digested fare that one finds toward the front of your local Barnes and Noble – nor should it be. But, good academic prose can use language clearly and powerfully to construct an argument both captivating and compelling, regardless of whether you find it ultimately unconvincing.

And, as James K. A. Smith has recently argued, good writing and good theology should go together.

For a discipline indebted (one hopes) to the Word become flesh, theologians seem rather docetic about publishing–didactically focused on concepts and ideas and argument with little attention to the “flesh” of writing. Fixated on “content,” they are remarkably unconcerned about form. The result is a strange paradox: by basically not thinking about language, form, and writing, the theologian treats language as if it were transparent; yet it is precisely when language and form are invisible in the writing process that we get the most obfuscating prose.

Now, having said that, I do have a warning to offer as well. “Good” writing and “creative” writing are not necessarily the same thing. At times I find that students who are concerned about the overly “academic” nature of theological writing swing to the opposite extreme of focusing entirely on creative writing. The two are very different beasts. A donkey may not be as pretty as a peacock, but if I need to carry a bunch of packages to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, guess which animal I’m choosing. Writing works the same way. Pick the genre that works best for the purpose you have in mind. And, many times, the academic style of writing is the best beast in the barn.

So, this isn’t necessarily a call for more creative writing in the theological task, though we could certainly use more of that as well. Rather, it’s an appeal for theology students, teachers, and writers to take language seriously as the medium that both conveys and shapes the ideas we seek to communicate.

Update: By the way, there’s nothing like writing a post on the importance of writing well to make you immediately paranoid that you wrote something wrong in the aforementioned writing. Please know that I deeply regret and retract anything I’ve written wrongly.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on March 14, 2011, in Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Let’s say we labored long and hard and finally unearthed a truth of significant import for all of churchendom.

    We hold this raw, unrefined ore in our hand longing to put it on display for the public that all may be impacted by its grace and beauty.

    True, we may have used a donkey to carry the raw ore up from the bowels of the earth, but for this ore to see the light of day, we need a process that goes beyond donkey or peacock, we need the artistic sweat of a sculptor, like Michael Angelo, to unveil every jagged edge of our new diamond.

    Creative writing is not a peacock, what can a peacock do really?

    Creative writing is that force of the universe that brings truth to its audience in such a way that makes resistance futile.

    We have lots of donkeys. We have few Michael Angelos.

  2. Marc, you suggest that creative writing is a peacock… an animal good for nothing but looking pretty… at least when it comes to carrying bags. And yet, our source material is full of poetry, narrative, parables and the like used to communicate the most in-depth theological truth we have known. Could anyone suggest that these “creative” forms are not up to the task of intense theological writing? As we have all seen even you have opted for a more creative style to communicate the deep truths of the gospel. Why? Audience. If you thought the form compromised your communication I believe you would not use it. Instead, as we have seen, the creativity of your approach has enhanced your communication.
    I think the real reason we write boring theological prose is because this is what the academy expects, nay, demands. It is hardly the best “form” but it is the one that is necessary to communicate to our audience.

  3. I find it interesting that you both jumped to the conclusion that the peacock is “an animal good for nothing but looking pretty.” I have to conclude from this that (a) you have an unfortunately low view of the power of beauty or (b) you have something against peacocks.

    I actually agree with most of what you have to say. I’m definitely not trying to disparage creative writing. As Adam points out, I’m trying to learn to use it more effectively in my own writing. I’m simply pointing out that they have different purposes. So I would reject the suggestion that I’m saying creative writing cannot communicate deep theological truth. Far from it! But I am saying that it communicates that truth differently.

    I would also reject the idea you both seem to be conveying that creative writing is “better.” First, make sure you’re considering what good academic prose can look like. It’s not fair to compare the best of creative writing to the worst of “boring” academic prose. Second, I’d still say that creative writing is not “better” because it has different purposes. If I need to create and sustain a lengthy and complicated argument, creative writing is not “better” for that. Now, as you’ve both pointed out, if I want to take those same ideas and present them in a different way with a different (and probably much broader) effect, then creative writing is an outstanding tool. But, it is a different tool.

  4. Actually, thinking about it a bit more, I think we also need to be careful about associating beauty only with the more creative/artistic styles of writing (exactly the mistake I made in my post). A carefully constructed and clearly articulated argument has a beauty if its own that we shouldn’t denigrate simply because it doesn’t have the same beauty as another kind of writing.

  5. “If I need to create and sustain a lengthy and complicated argument, creative writing is not “better” for that.”

    I agree. Academic writing would get the above mentioned job done much quicker and perhaps clearer than a creative narrative. But I do wonder if there is any point that can be made in all the world that cannot be made as well (or even “better”) in a narrative. Sure, it will take many more pages and perhaps vast array of well-developed characters, but I believe the same point could be made with as much or more potency behind the words.

    You write your posts very carefully, so it is difficult to find a point of disagreement. Nothing works better than to disparage your animal analogies. For certainly, it is obvious to any natural observer that a peacock is nothing more than a frivolity, a speck of lace in God’s grand creation.

    • There’s nothing wrong with a little frivolity in the world! (I have to admit, though, that I’m not a big fan of peacocks either.)

      I’d still have to disagree that narrative et al can make the same point as well as or better than academic writing. The two genres are inherently different, and consequently the point made by using each will be importantly different. Consider, for example, the relationship between metaphor and academic writing. Many people use metaphors to explain difficult, technical concepts (e.g., using the analogy of billiard balls on a pool table to explain molecular interaction). The metaphor strives to communicate the same ideas in a way that is clearer and more powerful (to the average person, at least) than the technical theory. But, it definitely does not (indeed cannot) communicate the same thing as an academic paper devoted to the same topic. They’re different modes of communication. Both equally important, but fundamentally different. (I do think, though, that mixing genres can be very effective when done carefully.)

      Thanks for the interaction on this, by the way. It’s helped me think through how I’m understanding the differences here.

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