Pompous Bombast


VOICES | Issue: "2012 Cities Issue" March 10, 2012

Words you understand

'Pompous bombast' is a poor substitute for clear teaching | Andrée Seu


My brother thought it logical to bring the gospel to Caribbean islands in an orderly fashion, by which he meant you start with apologetics. Last time, he packed off to St. Martin bristling with notes on Christology. As he put it in his newsletter:

"This involved a historical development of the subject with particular consideration for the elaboration of the Lord's true divine nature as taught throughout the Scriptures and articulated by the church councils, especially Nicaea in 325 A.D. and Chalcedon in 451 ... in opposition to the various heresies (especially Arianism) which have always plagued the church. Homoiousios or homoousios?"

My brother's wife thought differently. She is the half of the missionary package that mingles with the wives and gets the real deal. They both remembered the time when an Anillean man showed up to class with two women, and attempted to allay the teacher's shock by explaining that it wasn't what it appeared—he didn't have a mistress, just a concubine.

So this time my dear brother consecrated a couple of nights of his precious pedagogical real estate to a discussion of marriage and a showing of the film Fireproof (with French subtitles). It was the highlight of the trip; it drew applause. No deflating questions following a meticulously crafted survey of the early church: "Teacher, what's the Holy Roman Empire?"

You will notice that the letters of the evangelists are simple. There are "some things in them that are hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16), but not in an intellectual kind of way. John's vocabulary is a repetitive layering of light and life and truth and love.

Paul makes a determined point of being clear and simple in his teaching: "We are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand" (2 Corinthians 1:13). Certain kinds of church teaching may as well be tongues in a room without an interpreter, if your audience has more basic problems: "If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air" (1 Corinthians 14:9).

It is a matter of conscience for Paul to speak in spiritual words, not eloquence: "For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity ... and supremely so toward you" (2 Corinthians 1:12). He would have no peace on his deathbed if he had squandered that chance: "In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:19).

A pastor once told me, with a chuckle, that when he started out in ministry, he always included at least one word in his sermon that no one would understand. He was cured of that at a seminary faculty meeting when the president interrupted a remark of one of his colleagues to ask what "unconscionable" meant.

My Dad tells me he has to read my columns twice. I'm working on that. You start off wanting to show off, and then someone hands you William Zinsser's On Writing Well: "Writers must constantly ask: What am I trying to say? Quite often they don't know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask, 'Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?'"

I read on: "What point do I want to make? Think small. Decide what corner of your subject you're going to bite off." (That means we have to know that spiritual "corner" like the back of our own hand, between us and God, by actually living into it.)

More from Zinsser: "There is a deep yearning for human contact and a resentment of pompous bombast." (That means we give the message that saved us, in all its folly, and not eloquence, which leaves the eater hungry—1 Corinthians 1:18; 2:4-5.)

One more: "Fondness for material you've gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn't a good enough reason to include it if it's not central to the story you've chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required." That means sometimes to ditch the lesson on homoiousios until your student understands more how to love his wife.

You may never get to some of the subjects you had on your agenda.

Email aseu@worldmag.com