Friday, January 13, 2012

If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

Since I started this blog, I’ve received several Christian books, many of which I’ve liked. But I admit, as Christian as I am, I’ve started to grow bored with many Christian books being published today. I wanted to keep my doubts to myself. But when I received Terry Smith’s Ten—How Would You Rate Your Life?, I couldn’t hold me tongue any longer.

Reverend Smith asserts that God made human spirits to live lives of courage, accomplishment, and meaning. Too often, we sit back passively, waiting for God to hand us an accomplished life, or worse, wait until we have our lives on track before turning to God. But if we step forth boldly, confident that God has commissioned us as partners in His creation, meaning will arise from our trust in God’s infinite goodness.

Smith repeatedly insists that “this is not a self-help book.” He emphasizes that we complete God’s mission when we place others above our own ambitions. We are called by God to love our neighbor and serve as God’s eyes and hands in the world. As we do that, we will discover who we are in God’s grand scheme, grow to fill the role God has picked for us, and lead others in the risky business of holy living.

I agree with everything Smith says. He in fact voices many concerns I’ve gnawed over in my private prayer. But his way of stating it is very, very... ordinary.

Smith structures his argument around an outline so straightforward that we can get the salient points by reading the Table of Contents. While I favor clarity, he only barely fleshes out this skeleton with orphaned references to Beethoven, Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, Waiting for Godot, and the New York Yankees. He treats these examples as mere ornaments on his core argument, which, stripped down, might make an energetic magazine article.

Somewhere around page 150, my problem with Smith’s style crystallized: this book feels like a really long Sunday sermon. With short lessons drawn from personal experience and various reading, very brief chapters highlighting sequential points, and his catchphrase of “better, best, and preferred life,” Smith treats us like parishioners in the pew. Unfortunately, reading is not church, and a book is not a homily.

Not that I object to Sunday sermons. I like a well-constructed and theologically sound sermon. But conventional homiletics are bound by the format: sermons are spoken aloud, to a diverse audience, who may or may not understand important concepts, and who expect the preacher to keep it lively and short. This context rewards short sentences, brief illustrations, and unwavering focus bolstered by repetition.

Books bring different demands, and more self-selecting audiences. Readers speed up or slow down to their comfort level. If readers miss a point, they can go back to double-check, or even research or Google it. This gives writers freedom to unpack a concept, rather than just illustrate it. Unfortunately, this also means that written articles sound stilted when read aloud, and sermons often read awkwardly when written down.

Many Christian publishers look for writers’ credentials as part of the publishing package. Pastors, particularly megachurch pastors, bring a certain cachet and a prepared audience. As the senior minister of a metro NYC “campus” church, Smith presumably made an appealing prospect for his publisher. And well he should, as he has successfully led a growing congregation for over two decades.

But the best writers are often not the best ministers. A researcher like Diana Butler Bass, or an engaged layperson like Donald Miller, often has a better sense of what works better on the page than a trained sermonizer. I’ve recently enjoyed works by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul, and Walter Brueggemann. These writers’ dense prose styles often make for slow reading, but their work never lags.

Smith is hardly the first Christian writer I’ve encountered whose message I applaud, but whose prose puts me off. Though I don’t want to name names, I have praised clumsy and inelegant books in this very blog, because I found the point worthwhile. I don’t know why Smith in particular elicits this reaction. I just know I can’t excuse clunky language any longer behind a solid point.

Let me repeat, I agree with Smith’s point. Many readers, both Christian and secular, could stand to learn from his message of boldness and purpose. My problem is his style, not his message. But in Christianity as in the rest of life, you cannot separate the spirit from the style.


  1. Well, Christian sermons may seem tedious, but you just have to...listen. Then it all just kind of clicks.

  2. No offense, Anonymous, but I think you missed the point.