On Not Dumbing Down

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Within the first few pages of her classic children’s tale Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter describes the effects of eating lettuce as “soporific.” Take that same book to a publisher today, and they would whip that word out quicker than Clint Eastwood can draw his gun. When I was a child, I would love finding new words to investigate, and of course it still happens now. Some of my favourite words are “galumphing” “gobbledegook” and “lollygagging.”  And the reason Potter used this unfamiliar word? It was the perfect one to say what she meant. She was not being elitist, or showing off, just being a good writer. And that, for me, is the reason I will never “dumb down” any of my own writing.

Everything meaningful has layers. Every good book has characters who are flawed, complicated, surprising, just like real people are. Everything well-written contains nuances of meaning, subtexts and even references that are not all seen by every reader. That is one of the things that makes a piece of writing sumptuous or deep. It is also one of the things that make it most accessible, though that might at first seem contradictory.  But I feel that  the more there is to something, the more likely it is that each person will find something in it for them.  And I think that we can apply that to Scripture as well.

We get into enormous trouble when we decide that Scripture is simple, or has only one level of meaning. This is why prooftexting (using one piece of the Bible out of context to show something is true) can be very dangerous. Because the oral traditions of storytelling on which a great deal of the books that make up our Bible are based, are rich in meaning. They are often metaphorical as well as literal, full of analogy, poetic wisdom, and the depths of story and even myth, that most modern spiritual texts lack.  Our theology has become, in places, very one dimensional and exact, and this is not good for us or our Church.

Jesus understood this well, which is one of the reasons he mostly taught in parables. Even when he did preach a kind of sermon, he did not make things terribly clear. His words are mysteries full of depth, waiting for us to dive in and discover the pearls of wisdom and meaning.  He also doubtless understood that human beings are wired for story. It is how we pass on everything we have learned about life. Or at least it used to be.

Most of you know I am a writer and although I write what can be called “theology,” I also write a lot of stories, parables and fables. Because in these, I can express things that clarity and simple clinical meaning just cannot contain.  Even in my more scholarly moments (which are thankfully few and far between) I cannot help but use metaphor. Because this is the only possible way to approach the wonders of the Christ mystery. I also never hesitate to use a long word, if it is the right word.

I love the accessibility of Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrased Bible, because it helps bring people into the Word of God, but I should be rather sad if those people did not then go on to explore the wonderful translations we have. But I’m not for style over substance. I’m not a fan of the King James Version really, because although musical and elegant in many places, it was translated from the Latin and a lot of the original sense has inevitably been misplaced here and there. I would rather read the ESV or the NIV, given the balance of good scholarship and attention to literary language. I think that beauty has its own meaning and adds something unfathomable to the mix.

Pretty much everything I write flows out of prayer, whether that is contemplation, or meditating on texts, or the gifts of story or seeing that I receive. And so, finding the apposite words or expressions to communicate all of that can be quite a task. And the words don’t need to be long, and simplicity can be an elegant part of that too. Being pretentious is a terrible thing, that is not our aim! But what we will not be doing here at Lakelight, or indeed in our writing or poetry, is purposely making things shallow or transparent, or indeed, soporific, when they cry out to be deep, difficult or multi-faceted.  We believe in the richness of words to bring people into holy encounter, and will let them speak for themselves.

Text © Keren Dibbens-Wyatt  Picture from Pixabay

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