From the First Letter to the Corinthians:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 2:1 (NRSV) – March 12, 2014.)
I’m mentoring a study group in my parish, eight well-educated adults seeking to better understand their faith. We’re using some academic materials from a program well-known to Episcopalians. At our last meeting, nearly all of them commented on and complained about the “high falutin'” academic language used by some of our authors. I thought of that as I read Paul describing his missionary efforts as not proclaimed “in lofty words or wisdom.”
I’m amused that in this letter Paul claims to avoid “lofty words or wisdom” when he is often so long-winded and hard to follow! Reading this I couldn’t help but remember last Sunday’s epistle lesson from Romans in which, comparing Jesus to Adam, Paul went on and on about “the one man this” and “the one man that”. . . . (Rom. 5:12-19) Paul is really not one who eschews obfuscation!
I used to teach legal research and writing in a paralegal degree program at a community college. One of the things I would give my students was an essay by Kurt Vonnegut about simplicity in communications. (I have to admit that I no longer remember where I got it from.) In it he says (among other things):
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
This is good advice not only for writing but for all communication. I’m reminded of Jesus’ admonition about giving oaths, which could also be advice about writing and communication: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37)
There is a time for “lofty words and wisdom,” but more often (especially when trying to communicate the Gospel) it is time for simplicity.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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