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Entries in Writing (16)


Let your ordinary bloom

In the book Expressing Theology the reader is encouraged to write engaged theology. Engaged theology is not detached from every day life, but gives feet to our faith. Even an unbeliever can know theology in her head, but the one who seeks for theology to shape her life and change it is putting theology to work.

The sources for engaged theology are Scripture, tradition, experience, and research. Now, before someone gets nervous, by tradition the authors do not mean embracing tradition as equal with Scripture. We all observe tradition in our religious lives. The fact that a child grows up in the tradition of going to a youth group is something that will influence him. After my conversion at the age of 20, my faith grew churches which while not Baptist in name, may as well have been. The traditions which were observed there contributed to my theology.

When we write about theology, we should give voice to the ordinary:

Experience as a source for theology encompasses both our personal experiences and our experiences of the wider culture. Ordinary acts like eating, shopping, cleaning, driving, and working become realities with which to grasp the ultimate principles if we reflect on them with the help of Scripture, tradition, and research. Everything is both ordinary and extraordinary. Write about the ordinary: the extraordinary often blooms from it.

Everyone lives an ordinary life, even those with exceptional circumstances. Everyone has regular, typical, routine days. How we bring theology to bear on our everyday life is important. Being an ordinary Christian is not something we should apologize for.

Part of my developing theology comes from the resources I utilizie. Right now, attending seminary at  Heritage College and Seminary is one those resources. As I learn principles of theology through my classes, they affect how I interpret and understand my ordinary circumstances. One of the lessons I have learned at seminary is the value of community. Being with a group of students every week over a number of months means we learn together, support one another, and care about one another. That principle has reminded me of the importance of my local church and the reality that we are all learning and growing together in our faith.

To avoid writing about the ordinary is a lost opportunity to not only practice writing, but a lost opportunity to understand how the ordinary and the theoretical work together. I will continue to write about the ordinary, here on this quiet little place on the internet. Who knows when something extraordinary may start blooming?


Impose limits on your writing

I am only just into the first chapters of Expressing Theology, and I'm already discovering lovely little nuggets that I want to remember. As a student and a blogger, learning how to write better, and write theology better is something I'm interested in. I am not familiar with the authors of this book, nor have I heard of many of the people they cite, but that means I will have a chance to learn about other resources.

One of the comments I read today was this:

Learning to write within a set of rules forces you to examine each and every element of your writing.

Blogging is one of those venues where you can do pretty much what you want unless you're being paid by an editor to write. I contributed to a post at Her.meneutics a few years ago, and while I wasn't exactly happy with how the final draft was presented, the task of having to adhere to a particular set of boundaries was a good experience. If we have to fit our words withint a particular set of guidelines, it slows us down to think about every word we use.

One of the things I had to do for my one of my first seminary classes was to participate in an on-line discussion forum. We were given a weekly question and were given about 300 words to answer the question. I am not one to flaunt the rules too much, so I worked hard to write accordingly. I was amazed at how many people went on for much longer; some approching 800 words. The reason for the brief limit was so that we would offer up our best thoughts. The professor said this on more than one occasion when he appealed for us to stay within the guidelines. A short word count means we have to be concise, and that is always a challenge. Concise writing often demands we use a particular word over another because it is more meaningful. It means offering less opinion and more analysis.

I had a professor in my undergradute studies who would not tolerate what he caused "nauseating jargon." Seeing that accusation (in the days when it wasn't offesive to use a red pen) on my paper made an impression on me, and I still try to avoid it. He was a professor who wanted more formal writing. He didn't even like it when we used contractions. I suppose we could simply ignore the rule and do what we want, but there is always something valuable about simply submitting to a guideline and putting our ego aside for the moment. Whatever the limitation is, I think limits can be helpful. I'll remind myself of this if in the next academic year, I'm expected to write something in a particular format, and I feel the temptation to complain.


Can blogging ruin your writing?

I started an interesting book called Expressing Theology: A Guide to Writing Theology Readers Want to Read. The authors begin by talking about how bad writing can make theology boring. The kind of bad writing they talk about comes from poor writing skills, shallow writing, and fear.

Poor writing skills are seen in bad mechanics. Shallow writing comes from writers who: "spew words on the page without purpose of direction." Those who write in fear are ones who are very good at citing and quoting every expert they know of, but don't take the plunge and express their own ideas. I know where my own weaknesses are.

Writing needs to be purposeful. There needs to be a reason. Certainly, in the initial stages of a writing project, things are often at loose ends. But when we present them to an audience, or for myself, a professor, they need to be polished and reflect a plan fully carried out. The problem with blogging, however, is that there is no penalty for not having a plan other than no one reading. I write very differently for a professor in comparison to this blog. I'm not getting marked here, so unfortunately, I don't give my posts nearly the attention I do my papers. 

Furthermore, good writing needs to be clear and concise. It needs to be done thoughtfully and with attention to detail. It requires, first of call, clear thinking. I think blogging can make us impatient as writers. Personally, I read news sites for news, not blogs. If a blog sounds like it has been thrown together just because it wanted to be first with the information, it isn't nearly as enjoyable to read as one which has clearly thought through the issue. I read somewhere that Tony Reinke usually gives himself three years to do research for a book. That is someone who is thinking.

Blogging is a good venue for reacting to things. We read something and get excited about it and want to talk about it. That is a valid use of a blog. But writing is not always reacting. Writing is also initiating a discussion and crafting an argument. Blogging is such an instantaneous medium, it's tempting to not give it another thought after we click "publish." After all, we say, "it's just a blog."

Even if this is "just a blog," I want to feel as if I've done the best I can. Too often, I fall prey to hurried writing. Blogging does not have to ruin our writing. It can be a great way to practice. I had to write a weekly reflection for one of my classes, just under 1,000 words. Blogging was good preparation for that. 

Whether we do it for pleasure or do it because we're trying to develop a skill, I think our goal should be to write technically well, not in a shallow way, and with boldness. Especially if we are writing theology, it should be our best work. And that may mean thinking and taking our time. It may mean reacting less and developing more.


The influence of women writers

I love to see women writing books; especially theological books. I don't think theology is the sole domain of men. I love to write, and while I will not say that women writers have influenced me more, there are some great writers, both fiction and non-fiction who have left lasting impressions on me. Here are some writers over the years who have made me stop and think about my own writing. And not all of them are non-fiction writers.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

While I love her fiction, it is her annotated journals that have really made me stop and think. The content in her journals is not only highly personal, revealing her own mind and heart, but it is detailed. It is far beyond the "Today I went to the store . . ." kind of content. The way she describes her deepest joys and sorrows is honest and vivid.

Margaret Atwood

There are books by Atwood which I love and some I don't. I only read The Handmaid's Tale once, and I haven't even had an inkling of watching the television show. But she has a way of exposing things that is both disturbing and riveting. My favourite of her books is Cats Eye.

Marva Dawn

She was one of the first really smart female theologians I ever read. Even though doctrinally I am not of the same mind as she is, her knowledge and astute writing were a relief to me a number of years ago when I was becoming concerned about evangelical Christianity. She is a Lutheran, but her writing made me stop and re-evaluate my own views on what worship is. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down is the book I read first.

Karen Jobes

I really admire Jobes. She has facility in both Greek and Hebrew, is academic enough to be on the NIV translation committee, and still writes commentaries that the non-academic can read. She knows how to combine scholarship and practical application. She has commentaries on 1-3 John, I Peter, and Esther. I can't pick a favourite.

I have also been influenced by two of my blogging friends. Over the past number of years, I have read the writings of both Persis and Becky on a regular basis (you can buy Becky's book here). I have also met them both, and come to know them as people. Seeing how these two ladies incorporate their theological understanding to regular life has been an encouragement to me in my own writing. They both write honestly, with knowledge, and with humility. I am turned off by any writer who has the attitude that there is no possibility that they can ever be wrong, or has a condescending attitude toward those who don't agree with them.

Writing is something I don't get paid to do, so perhaps that doesn't make me a "real" writer. But the influence of these writers on my thinking and writing is real.


A note to Christian publishers: what if I don't like flowers?

I'm reading Andy Naselli's book How to Study and Apply the New Testament. There are no flowers on the cover. That means one thing: it was not directed specifically to women. I have read a few books on Bible study written by women, and none of them go into the depth this one does. In the introduction to the book, Naselli says his book is for thoughtful men and women.

When I see a book by a woman, and the cover is decorated with soft colours and flowers, I know it is directed to women. And there is a good chance it is softened somehow for women. I read a book about Bible study a couple of years ago written by a woman, and it was full of "womany" type illustrations. I don't like such illustrations, and when the book opened up with one, I knew what to expect.

Friends with the author?

I have a friend who confessed to me that she was less likely to read a book by a Puritan author than she was one written by a populalr female author, because she liked to feel that she could possibly be friends with that contemporary author. There is no hope for being friends with John Owen other than figuratively. However, because some Christian authors generate the whole "fan girl" phenonenon, there is a possibility, even if all it is through is Twitter, to feel like we're friends. We may even get a few minutes to speak with her at a conference, and take a selfie. Voilá! My friend!

Is this what drives a lot of women in choosing the books they read? And are publishing companies promoting that feeling? Are publishers going to market a woman writer because she is the type who seems like she'd be your best friend if you knew her? I can tell you right now that I'm halfway through Naselli's book, and I don't know if we could be friends nor do I care; I'm just enjoying his expertise. I don't choose to read books because the woman seems appealing. I want to see what she knows, how she thinks, and what wisdom she can give. Are Christian publishing companies selling an image when they promote various female authors? When they determine what the cover will look like or who will recommend the book?

What do publishers advertise?

I recently had a routine dental check, and when I expressed to my dentist that I had some tooth sensitivity, and I told him which toothpaste I used (Arm and Hammer Whitening, for the curious) he told me not to use it anymore. He said it isn't good for my teeth, because it's too harsh. I had no idea; clearly, I had bought into advertising and purchased what I was told I needed. What is the Christian publishing industry advertising when it consistently publishes books by women with flowery covers, more practical content over the more theoretical, and "soft," womany illustrations. What is it telling women they need? Or worse, what they can handle?

One thing I think women should be encouraged to do is stop thinking that they must be taught by women alone; that men can't possibly have anything to say to them. There are issues for which I would seek a woman's view first, but theology isn't one of them. I want the best person for the job, whether he's a man or a woman. I think this division between men's books and women's books is a larger issue of division within the local church, but that's a separate topic. And ultimately, women as book consumers need to read beyond their comfort zones.

All of that ranting to say this: publishers, if you put out a book with pretty flowers and it's supposed to be about a deep theological matter, I won't buy it. Some women may buy it, but I won't. I prefer my flowers on my kitchen table, the patio, or my back yard.