A journal of academic theology

June 1999 editorial

On February 27, 1999, the New York Times published a wry account regarding the sad state of academic writing in North America. Among the items reported was the fact that the journal Philosophy and Literature now holds an annual Bad Writing Contest with prizes going to the work of some top scholars. An Internet site (http://www.cs.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/postmodern) automatically provides free of charge postmodernist essays, replete with bloated jargon and incomprehensible sentences, thanks to a precious Dada generator.

Are theologians making themselves irrelevant because of ponderous and undistinguished writing? Yes. Obviously, some do display an excellent command of the language. Their prose flows gracefully. But a disturbing number of theologians write as though dullness and mystification create an impression of importance.

Critique about obfuscated writing is not just ordinary folk’s poking fun at specialized vocabulary–something around since Aristophanes. It is a legitimate reaction to boring, misty academic texts. Too much theology appears as turgid prose lacking lilt and directness. Not even a gifted copy-editor can redeem some manuscripts. This, at least, is my conclusion as an editor, professor, and thesis director. Many of my working hours over the last 40 years have been involved in reading essays, term papers, abstracts, dissertations, and journal submissions. I have concluded that quality prose is becoming a rare commodity. Is there no cure? How did this situation originate?

Bear with me if I lay the blame on teachers in our schools and colleges for not coaching writers (or on ourselves for not reading good prose). It wasn’t always so. Back in the 1940s, my high school teachers demanded three hours of homework every night and on weekends assigned a “composition” on all sorts of topics. Sometimes they provided pages from a famous author for us to imitate—I remember especially Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hallow. By midweek they returned the corrected assignment, splattered with red penciled remarks and corrections.

This practice continued for me as a college student discovering poetry and rhetoric. Not only did we labor to outline Cicero’s orations, but we spent part of Sundays “composing” in order to stretch our creative imagination (“Describe the Stockbridge Bowl to a Blind Person”). Professors had lots of tips to help us get started: begin by listing random first thoughts, move toward an outline, conceive a beginning, middle, and end. See what Horace or Aristotle had to say in their Poetics and use Strunk and White. Write a rough draft, rewrite and rewrite, read your text out loud, use a thesaurus. Learn to be self-critical; be clear; render your readers attentive, benevolent, and docile.

So although composing for me never was an effortless task, I discovered the joy of writing. No matter that I would never compose music like Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler, or design a high-rise like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or even shape a vase with the artistry of a potter. I produced a satisfying paragraph, a coherent essay. Such was within my reach and produced that special joy called an esthetic experience. And, by being urged to read good writing by the experts, I started to acquire an ear for the sound of musical prose.

Theologians have to share the blame for the decline in good writing and for the loss of a certain reading public. But instructors too need to train students the old-fashioned way, by demanding written work that communicates effectively. A few suggestions, albeit not that original, might help. Writers will need to be coached to listen to crafted prose with their inner ear, texts published not in academic journals but in literary magazines, newspapers, or books. They will have to devote at least a few hours to composing every week, preferably at the same time. They will have to learn to identify potential readers and address them engagingly. They will rewrite, rewrite, read aloud their drafts, rewrite, and share their efforts with a friend or colleague. They will regularly consult the best journals in their field to see what still needs investigating. They will illustrate in their compositions why this particular material is pertinent for society and Church. Their footnotes will be a useful map for further exploration, not be an overgrown maze. They will dialogue modestly and gently even when opposing the convictions of others.

Most of us have little of that precious commodity called free time. But I find that those who know the joy of writing do manage to squeeze into those rare moments a few written reflections, a thoughtful letter, a short position paper, a sketch for a future talk, even a draft of an article still in gestation. So the ancient craft has not completely disappeared. If the theological guild is to survive all of us need to nurture and promote that craft.

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