It always struck me as something of a mystery when I was reading Mere Christianity, how often C. S. Lewis would prefix his thoughts on a theological subject with the disclaimer that he wasn’t a theologian or a pastor, so he couldn’t be precisely sure if his take on a topic was exactly right. On the one hand, I would think, “how humble.” On the other hand, I would think that there was something slightly disingenuous. Here’s an awfully smart guy, well versed in literature and theology, writing about theology. He has a PHD. What prevents him from going that little extra step and getting that theological certification? The fact that he kept stressing how unqualified he was both inspired me with how important it must be to get that training, and it daunted me to think that, if C.S. Lewis isn’t good enough, who then is qualified to teach?
Well, I think I’ve made a discovery. We’re in our new apartment, and I finally have access to all my old books again. What’s more, for the first time in over two years, I have the opportunity to actually read them. So I decided to go through some of my old stuff from seminary and try to read (or finish reading) all the stuff I didn’t get to while I was in school. And I know now why C.S. Lewis didn’t pursue a PHD in theology: To study theology means that a person must spend the fundamental majority of their time reading books by theologians, and theologians, by and large, are very bad writers. C.S. Lewis took his degrees in classical literature, which means he was forced to spend the majority of his time reading and talking about the best written and most uplifting literature known to man.
When you study the classics, most of the bad stuff has been lost or forgotten. But a pastor or a theologian has to spend his time sifting through the current issues of the day, where the unreadable is still somehow being read. So it’s with joy when you come upon a Augistine or a Luther or a Spurgeon, and you cling to those.
I really wanted to make some connection between bad writing and bad doctrine, but I really can’t. George Orwell talked about the tendency to use passive voice in political writing because it allows you to hide the agent doing the action, and of course there was a whole movement in French philosophy, directly after World War II, to work deliberately to undermine clear and powerful writing because of an express desire to destroy the Logos. But the truth is that we’re dealing with a 100-year plus problem, particularly in academia. So I think it has to do more with incentives.
Academic writing used to be read by everybody, and a bad writer could be sniffed by anybody. There was a definite advantage for writing well, and a definite disadvantage to writing poorly. But for 100 years or more, that’s been disconnected. Popular writers still must write well, even if they don’t bother to say anything worth reading, or even anything of substance at all. But an academic writer, though he may be very concerned with his content, he has no apparent motivation to write in a way that is easy or even pleasant to read. So each one presents his ideas with the clarity and precision of a theridiid.
My best hope for academic theology is that we appear to be at the beginning of something like another Great Awakening. And unlike former Awakenings, which seemed to pass from platinum to gold to silver, this movement seems to be an awakening, not merely of piety and religious feeling, but a general groundswell in theology. It may be only in my little niche, but it looks like the layman, in no little thanks to the Internet, is learning to read. He wants doctrine and systematics, not little topical epigrams. Increasingly our superstars are theologians, rather than televangelists. And if that is the case, then for the first time in a long time, a theologian has an incentive to write well.
Because if he doesn’t, even if what he has to say is good and true and Important, on the basis of his bad rhetoric alone, he’ll be thrashed in public.