Monday, November 16, 2015

Learning to Speak Human: Communicating Biblical Truth/Teaching for Everyone through Curriculum Writing

Over the last decade, I've written curriculum for David C. Cook, the United Methodist Publishing House and Seedbed. Teaching the deep truths of Scripture for church and the world is central to my sense of calling. As an academic, I've had to work hard to learn to communicate clearly for all audiences. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently detailed the struggles of academics to communicate to general readers. Here are some of the reminders that I use.

1) We are not writing to inform but to facilitate an engagement with the Bible to transform our readers. There is no other purpose. Write from your scholarly expertise but don’t show it off. Translate your knowledge into a pastoral tone that will help all of your readers to grow in holiness for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

(2) Think carefully and continuously about your audience. They are not scholars. They are not theologians. Many have not attended college. They are interested in the Bible, but they do not possess an introductory knowledge of its history, social context, theology, etc. We have to teach them from the ground up.

(3) Assume biblical illiteracy is the rule. It is my experience from almost 20 years of teaching that few students who attend seminary have read the Bible in its entirety. Even fewer lay people have completed one reading. This means that they do not know the stories of Israel and early church. At most they are acquainted with a few biblical psalms and then mostly through praise and worship music. They may know a few of the biblical narratives, but will not be able to connect them to a meaningful way. They do not know the historical background of the Bible. We must focus on the basics as a means of re-introducing the Scriptures to our generation.

(4) Assume theological illiteracy. All theological terms must be defined in simple terms. This does not mean dumbing down, but rather translating the message. It may also mean that we need to say less in each lesson. Focus on a couple of key theological elements rather than covering too many.

(5) Avoid using Greek or Hebrew words unless absolutely necessary. You can talk about the nuance of an English word or give a clearer translation without reference to the details of the original language. Completely avoid discussion of Greek/Hebrew syntax. Remember our audience may not understand English grammar  and syntax. They will be at a loss to follow original language discussions beyond word meanings.

(6) Avoid technical discussion of ancient rhetoric or IBS structures.
Few will understand chiasm, inclusio, etc. Explain. Explain. Explain

(7) Kill your darlings. Writers must learn to write for the audience and not for themselves or for non-audience members. Scholars are not writing for other scholars nor are other scholars looking over your shoulder. Eliminate your pet exegetical positions unless you can explain them clearly and concisely. Again we are not dumbing down; we are learning to communicate to non-specialist.

(8) Eliminate complex sentence structure.
Write short sentences. Cut out ALL unnecessary words. Say it simply. Go to, search for books by popular writers such as Rob Bell or Mark Batterson (I’m not criticizing or endorsing their thinking but only suggesting that they know how to communicate to a broad audience), and use the preview feature to read a few pages. Notice how simple the language is in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. There is a lesson for us. Rick Warren when he wrote the mega best seller The Purpose Driven Life limited himself to sentences of less than 10 words. This is not easy. But try to write simple sentences. we can still communicate complex ideas but we must learn to help all readers to follow our thinking. 

(9) Find substitutes for all GRE/SAT level words. Simple words are better. Do not assume our readers have a high IQ or college/graduate level vocabularies. If we do so, we will lose our audience.

(10) Do not overly nuance your arguments. Yes, the biblical text is complex. Yes, there are often competing options. We are introducing a generation to the Scripture anew. We do not have to offer multiple readings of texts. Go with the option with the most evidence. There will be a lifetime of opportunity for those interested to study and explore the full complexity of biblical interpretation.

(11) When in doubt, follow the advice of Wesley:
"I design plain truth for plain people: Therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and, as far as possible, from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scripture. I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life; and, in particular, those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in Bodies of Divinity; those modes of speaking which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but which to common people are an unknown tongue. Yet I am not assured, that I do not sometimes slide into them unawares: It is so extremely natural to imagine, that a word which is familiar to ourselves is so to all the world.” From preface to Wesley’s Standard Sermons

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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