See that book on the table over there, the one with the word “theology” in the title? Without even picking it up, I bet I can tell you a lot about it. At the very least, I’m sure it will use a lot of impressively multi-syallbic words, amazingly complex sentences, surprisingly few paragraph breaks, and no pictures. In short, it will be properly academic.
And, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible to write good, academic prose. Granted, it will never be the kind of easily digested fare that one finds toward the front of your local Barnes and Noble – nor should it be. But, good academic prose can use language clearly and powerfully to construct an argument both captivating and compelling, regardless of whether you find it ultimately unconvincing.
And, as James K. A. Smith has recently argued, good writing and good theology should go together.
For a discipline indebted (one hopes) to the Word become flesh, theologians seem rather docetic about publishing–didactically focused on concepts and ideas and argument with little attention to the “flesh” of writing. Fixated on “content,” they are remarkably unconcerned about form. The result is a strange paradox: by basically not thinking about language, form, and writing, the theologian treats language as if it were transparent; yet it is precisely when language and form are invisible in the writing process that we get the most obfuscating prose.
Now, having said that, I do have a warning to offer as well. “Good” writing and “creative” writing are not necessarily the same thing. At times I find that students who are concerned about the overly “academic” nature of theological writing swing to the opposite extreme of focusing entirely on creative writing. The two are very different beasts. A donkey may not be as pretty as a peacock, but if I need to carry a bunch of packages to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, guess which animal I’m choosing. Writing works the same way. Pick the genre that works best for the purpose you have in mind. And, many times, the academic style of writing is the best beast in the barn.
So, this isn’t necessarily a call for more creative writing in the theological task, though we could certainly use more of that as well. Rather, it’s an appeal for theology students, teachers, and writers to take language seriously as the medium that both conveys and shapes the ideas we seek to communicate.
Update: By the way, there’s nothing like writing a post on the importance of writing well to make you immediately paranoid that you wrote something wrong in the aforementioned writing. Please know that I deeply regret and retract anything I’ve written wrongly.