Avoiding Sludge

One of the reasons why I love certain books is because of how they’re written—because the author knows how to write in a pleasing way, whether that way happens to tend towards the witty or the poetic or something else.

Content is certainly important. A beautifully-written book that’s communicating something bad, or that isn’t communicating much of anything, is like a gorgeously decorated cupcake that’s made of sawdust. But a book with a good message that is written in a flat, boring way, or a stilted, clichéd way is like eating food that, while nourishing, is tasteless sludge. I may eat it for the sake of the vitamins and minerals, but I’m unlikely to enjoy the process.

Enjoyment is important.

So is something else….

John Piper has a very bold quote:

“The other reason I say that imagination is a Christian duty is that when a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin.”

Whoa. That’s strong!

He goes on to say why:

“The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, and communicated boringly.”

And what’s the solution?

“Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world – all of it – rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”

So, good writing is not desirably simply because it’s aesthetically pleasing for the reader, but because it’s honouring to the Lord, and because talking about amazing truths in boring ways goes against the very heart of what we’re trying to say.

I know that people are talented in different ways, and I certainly wouldn’t say that your average Christian is sinning if the way in which he communicates truth is often, unintentionally, far short of spectacular. Not everyone is brilliant with words, although it’s still a good area for all of us to aim to get a little more skilled in. But for those who are amateur or professional communicators (speakers, writers, or whatever), it is vital to strive to communicate in memorable ways.

So what does that sort of communication look like? What coat might it wear?

Let me give some examples of truth well told.

N D Wilson (In an interview with Martin Olansky at Patrick Henry College. I’m quoting from memory, but I think I’ve got it right. No doubt he will forgive me if I haven’t.)

What he said: “Stories are catechisms with flesh on.”

What he could have said: “Stories teach important truths.”

C S Lewis 

What he said: “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

What he could have said: “Success follows failure.”

G K Chesterton

What he said: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

What he could have said: “God’s complicated messages are better than man’s simple answers.”

Elisabeth Elliot

What she said: “Think of the self that God has given as an acorn. It is a marvelous little thing, a perfect shape, perfectly designed for its purpose, perfectly functional. Think of the grand glory of an oak tree. God’s intention when He made the acorn was the oak tree. His intention for us is ‘… the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ Many deaths must go into our reaching that measure, many letting-goes. When you look at the oak tree, you don’t feel that the ‘loss’ of the acorn is a very great loss. The more you perceive God’s purpose in your life, the less terrible the losses seem.”

What she could have said: “In order to grow spiritually, we must die to self.”

Not only are all of these quotes pleasing to read, but they bring home their truths powerfully, in memorable ways, and in ways that can aid our understanding. All of them are to be preferred to my trite “translations”.

Good writing is an art, that’s for sure. It’s an art I’m trying to become more skilled at, but which I certainly have not mastered.

However, I don’t need to have mastered the art to be able to appreciate the skill of those who can wield words well, and neither do you. And reading good writing will not only help attune our literary taste buds to what’s sludge and what’s not, but the goodness might just spill over into our own writing too.

(Tiny note: of course, good writing is also important in fiction and in non-Christian writing, but these weren’t my primary focus here.)


Thank you for commenting! Please note that I moderate all comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s