The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.
Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. [...]
The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. [...]
Now let me do some fingerpointing: Don’t complain about what the ordinary evangelical knows and believes until you are willing to speak to them, in their words, and in ways that compel belief and memory.
Scot is entirely right, and I followed up with the following comment and question. As much as I want to be that kind of theologian, nothing in my professional training has equipped me for it – in fact, much of my training in how to write academic prose actually works against my ability to connect and inspire the average, non-specialist reader! So where do young theologians go to be equipped for this kind of work? How do we unlearn our bad habits and develop the writing skills that will enable us to flourish in the engaging prose McKnight calls us to inhabit? McKnight’s answer was straightforward: read good writers.
The issue is compounded by promotional tracks in most educational institutions that work against Scot’s call for theologians to broaden their writing beyond the guild. Getting tenure at Huntington has nothing to do with writing for the average laymen; I am evaluated by my scholarship within the academy, and this is entirely the norm within higher education.
Do you know where I would be this summer if I didn’t have two academic manuscripts in the works (crying for my attention!)? I would be in Marylinne Robinson’s writing seminar for young theologians at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Check it out here if you don’t have summer plans.