Twelfth Day: Bad Theological Writing

I’m teaching this term and selected two textbooks for the course based on prior experience with both. I’ve been re-reading these books as one should do when teaching a course. One is not a bad read. The other is pretty dreadful academic theological stodgy writing. The grammar isn’t bad. It is just that the writing is terrible. You want an example? Happy to oblige. Please note that I’m not going to tell you the titles or authors of the books. I’m just going to show you what I mean by giving a sample sentence from both. Both are about Christian Education since that is what the course is about. Here is a sentence or two about education in the church from both.

Not A Bad Read: “I believe that a broad definition helps us to see the basics that are necessary in developing a strong and vital educational ministry. Education in the church calls for religious instruction, socialization, personal development, and liberation. There is a need for transmitting knowledge, for shaping people through their participation in communal activities, for helping people on their individual faith journeys, and for developing a critical consciousness that leads to faithful service in the world.”

Dreadful Prose: “Christians are called to be faithful in the theory and practice of Christian education to assure the transmission of a living faith to the rising generations. In support of this task, Christian educators are called upon to reappraise their thought and practice in relation to the foundational issues of Christian education. These foundational issues represent perennial or recurrent questions for those involved in the teaching ministries of the church. They deserve careful consideration by those who reflect upon their ministries of the past, the present, and future.”

Not A Bad Read isn’t great, but the author varies sentence length, tells stories, puts themselves into the text, and expands upon key points to explain them. Dreadful Prose has sentences all about the same length, saying similar things using slightly different language, without rhythm, and without really saying much. What does “their ministries of the past, the present, and the future” mean? Ok, I can unpack that, but shouldn’t the author do a little bit of unpacking and not be so dense? And if the first thing that happens when I read a sentence is to yell What? that means the author has not properly done their job in writing clearly.

I admit that I can write dense putrid prose with the best of them. I’m an academic theologian. It is what we do. But, I would like to write better prose so that reading theology doesn’t automatically cure insomnia or require reading at a snail’s pace with coffee and a notebook to unpack every sentence. I don’t think that is what academic writing should be like. You are not smart just because no one can understand you. You are smart if you can clearly explain your new ideas for others to understand them.

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