Almost every time that one of my posts is widely shared on Facebook and Twitter, I can predict with some certainty that I will receive several remarks among the length and style of my writing. These remarks run the gamut from humorous digs from friends to harsh judgments upon my character from hostile critics. I find these more of an amusement than an irritation.
I happily admit that my posts are about as far from concise as one finds online. My five most read posts, each with several thousand hits, are 3,952, 3,427, 10,937 (the fourth part of a series), 5,436, and 5,194 words in length, in order of their popularity. I am halfway through a forty part blog series that already runs to 80,000 words and I am currently writing a blog post that already exceeds 20,000 words (watch this space). Such blogging habits make a startling contrast with the general norm, for which blog post length probably hovers somewhere between 500 and 1000 words. Reading through such lengthy posts is far outside the comfort level of most people’s attention span. I suspect that many, perhaps most, people read the first couple of thousand words and then move on.
While my prose is very accessible compared to the texts of academic theology and philosophy that I read, it is a great deal denser than the more journalistic or popular pieces that are more common in the blogosphere, and fairly atypical of pieces that are not explicitly written for an academic audience. I do not know of many blogs that are comparable in style and length, although Ribbonfarm, one of my very favourite blogs, isn’t too far off.
As people so often ask me why I don’t make the effort to write shorter posts and in simpler prose, I thought that it would be worthwhile to devote a post to the subject, so that I have a ready answer to which to direct anyone who asks me in the future.
One of the reasons for my style is my desire for my blog to serve as a place where I can think out loud. I want to take on big subjects and deal with them thoroughly, reasoning through them comprehensively and methodically, rather than merely tackling matters in a piecemeal fashion or articulating the conclusions of thought that occurred elsewhere. I think and learn by writing and my blog is primarily a tool for my own thought. I want to write as I am thinking through issues, rather than as a report declaring the conclusions arrived at by thought that occurred elsewhere. If I had to adopt the latter approach, my blog would cease to serve much of its original purpose, and I would be less inclined to use it.
I see this blog less as a means for publicizing my ideas than as a place where my thinking can find a home, in the company and community of a select group of interlocutors. This is the audience for whom I write. Although on occasions a post of mine will reach an audience of many thousands beyond this core community, it is not for that audience that I chiefly write and I will always prioritize my interests and those of my core readership over everyone else.
I also want my readers to leave, not merely with a set of answers or even stock arguments, but with some of the means with which to reason creatively through some of the matters under discussion for themselves, and with an understanding not merely of my position but also some grasp of the manner by which I arrived at it. A huge concern for me has always been to think about how everything fits together. Expressing this in my writing will usually require that I anticipate lots of objections, identify root dynamics, marshal a lot of evidence, and come at an issue from several angles. This means that my writing will be lengthier, more rambling, and often difficult to read, and will require patience, perseverance, determination, and commitment from the reader. However, I would like to believe that those who are prepared to take the effort to read in such a manner will be rewarded.
Not long after I started blogging, almost ten years ago, I realized that, if I were to retain my sanity, I would need to keep clear boundaries, blogging on my own terms, rather than those of my audience. If I were to allow others to set the terms of the style, frequency, and subject matter of my blogging, it would soon become a chore and a burden and I would abandon it. I would start to work for my blog, rather than my blog working for me.
My blogging here is appalling inconsistent. I will go for weeks without posting anything and then have a flurry of posts. I will start series and abandon them, or only return to them after a considerable delay. Many posts are occasioned by some online discussion (the dynamics of online theological discourse and communities being a particular interest of mine), while I tend to view the bread and butter of my posting as being posts on biblical theology.
My blog isn’t a public service from which you can expect consistency, predictability, and efficiency, but an inconsistent and random assortment of my ramblings on a wide range of subjects. Sometimes I will talk about one thing for months on end. Other times I will jump from subject to subject with some rapidity. Having the freedom to use my blog completely on my own terms makes it a pleasure, something to which I will always want to return. I regard my blog as somewhat akin to my front yard. When something is going on, I enjoy having friendly passers-by stopping and joining in or lingering to watch, provided that they are happy with things not operating on their terms.
However, perhaps the most important reason why I write with the style and length that I do is as an act of resistance to the prevailing forms of writing and discourse in many quarters of the Christian online world (for a very detailed discussion of this, read this series). I have argued in the past that this online world is often ruled by reactive cycles and by unhealthy emotional dynamics, such as those of outrage. Many people showing little capacity to extricate themselves from the polarizations that characterize it.
Everyone participates in these discourses and reactive cycles, encouraging a lowest common denominator form of communication. While discourses in the past would typically exclude most of the public from direct participation, with gifted and articulate representatives advocating for particular positions, now there are hardly any barriers to entry, no moderation, and few quality controls. The result is much as you would expect. Most people are incapable of keeping a cool head under such circumstances and few are truly knowledgeable concerning the subject matter of debates, so we are left with considerable heat and little light. Conversations move like firestorms of reaction through social media, making it very difficult for careful reflection to occur and saner voices to calm things down.
When most people have undertaken little detailed study of the issues under debate, do not have a deep grounding in a canon of sources (especially, in this case, the Bible) of which knowledge could previously be assumed, and have little relevant training, the quality of debate will typically plummet. I have argued in the past that a significant number of people in many Christian debates lack the necessary level of literacy or skills and virtues as a reader to process adequately what is being said.
The form of communication that has increasingly come to prevail in many contexts is one where the forms of advertising replace those of close theological or discursive reasoning. This form of discourse functions primarily in terms of impressions and emotional resonance, rather than in terms of logic, evidence, or careful demonstration. People raised by TV, advertising, and such forms of communication, for which persuasion occurs primarily through impressions rather than developed reasoning, often lack the capacity to process traditional reasoned arguments. Attempts to forge a productive conversation that includes such persons will seldom achieve any success.
Texts written for and by such persons tend to be written in very simple, universally accessible prose, with short and often incomplete sentences, paragraphs that frequently consist of a single sentence, and simple vocabulary and syntax. They are designed to create impressions, typically emotional ones, to which people can react by affirmation or opposition, rather than responding with counter-arguments.
Given the nature of our context, I have purposefully chosen to communicate in a manner designed to shape the discourse according to my principles. When the length of my writing alienates people with short attention spans and little self-discipline, this is as I intend. My writing is written for people who recognize that, when you read a text, you are the servant of it, rather than being written for people who see the author as someone who always has the duty to make their reading as effortless as possible as word consumers. I write as a way of selecting and producing readers who are attuned to my patterns of thought or prepared to become so, readers who approach reading as a discipline and seek to be attentive, sensitive, and responsible to the authors that they read. Readers accustomed to reading texts on their own ease of consumption driven terms are the most inclined to use texts against their authors’ intentions.
Lengthy and dense prose stifles the processes of reactivity. It temporarily removes people from reactive environments and challenges them to think and to control their impulses. It doesn’t lend itself in the same way to mere ‘like or dislike’ reactions, calling for processed response, rather than instant reaction.
Good thought writing should not merely give us content, but by its very form, it should train us in the art of thinking appropriately about its subject matter (this is one reason why philosophical writing can be some of the most difficult of all writing to read). This is especially important in the context of the Internet, where intelligent and reasonable discourse is beset by myriad threats. In such a context, good thought writing will often be difficult to read, as it must pressure us to develop habits of reading for which online media are seldom in themselves conducive. As such, writing is the imposition of a discipline upon the reader by the writer, a discipline designed to help him or her to develop the hermeneutical skills and virtues of a gifted and truly literate reader.
Wittgenstein, for instance, once remarked that he wrote to slow his readers down, preventing them from reading at the pace to which they were accustomed. Accustomed to a journalistic style, we have been trained to read texts rapidly and inattentively. The careful thinker must often learn how to read all over again. This is especially important for Christians.
In conversations filled with shrill but uninformed voices, without the more traditional means of policing the boundaries of discourse and restricting it to those who are competent to engage in it appropriately, we must develop other effective means of excluding people who lack the capacity or knowledge that must be a prerequisite for every participant in a conversation that hopes to yield genuine insight.
Wittgenstein once observed: “The book must automatically separate those who understand it from those who do not. … If you have a room which you do not want certain people to get into, put a lock on it for which they do not have the key.” Nietzsche wrote: “all the nobler spirits select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against the others.” My style is designed to press people to develop the skills of developed argument and sensitive reading, to resist the populism of consumer-driven ‘thought’ pieces, and to learn to operate with the machinery of thought themselves, rather than expecting to have its pre-packaged results handed to them. It helps to weed out most of the impatient, reactive, and illiterate early on. As such my length and style serves as the lock on the door of the discourse that I want to encourage here.
One thing that I forgot to make explicit in the post, which really should be stated, is that this is why I so value those who are in regular conversation with this blog, whether in comments, or in other contexts (e-mail discussion lists, other blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, etc.). I am acutely aware of the fact that my blog requires dedication and perseverance to read. I have always appreciated that most of the work that occurs on this blog is undertaken by my readers, rather than by me. This is one reason why, for instance, I have always sought to go to considerable effort to give detailed responses to comments, even though I know that they may only be read by one person. I am fortunate to have such determined and faithful company as I seek to sharpen my own thinking. The fact that many are prepared, time after time, to accord my writing such generosity, is not something that I take for granted. I write to select for patient, charitable, and careful readers and feel immensely blessed to have found many.
However, it is always important to remember that dense does not mean obscure, which I have never found your writing to be. A lot of philosophical writing is unnecessarily obscure.
Though, I think part of why is a lot of philosophical writing is read in translation.
Thanks. I definitely try not to write with a pointless obscurity.
simple vocabulary and syntax
Simplicity in writing can be a virtue, but extreme simplicity can be a problem. Some of the best writing combines simplicity and elaboration as appropriate, often in very close quarters. I think of the Authorized Version of the Bible.
It would be hard to improve upon the AV on that front. The AV is also one of few translations truly to appreciate the importance of the poetic form of the text for its meaning.
I read this to the end. I guess that proves your point 😉
It was either going to be that or ‘tl;dr’, wasn’t it! 😉
One thing that I forgot to make explicit in the post, which really should be stated, is that this is why I so value those who are in regular conversation with this blog, whether in comments, or in other contexts (e-mail discussion lists, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, etc.). I am acutely aware of the fact that my blog requires dedication and perseverance to read. I have always appreciated that most of the work that occurs on this blog is undertaken by my readers, rather than by me. This is one reason why I have always sought to go to considerable effort to give detailed responses to comments, even though I know that they may only be read by one person. I am fortunate to have such determined and faithful company as I seek to sharpen my own thinking. The fact that many are prepared, time after time, to accord my writing this generosity, is not something that I take for granted. I write to select for patient, generous, and careful readers and feel immensely blessed to have found many such individuals.
Actually, I think that I will append these remarks to the post itself.
Love this post and your writing style. Though I don’t deal with the weightier theoligical issues (I’ll leave that to the experts), I have a blog for many of the same reasons. I am one of the people that pop in and out, rarely having the time to read every post, but when I do get a block of time in which to sit and read, I always get something meaty out of it. I want to be transparent so that people who stumble upon mine can relate and maybe get encouragement from my journey and struggles, and not just trite Christianese regurgitated by every mom blog out there. I look forward to reading more as time allows.
I am really pleased to hear that you find value in what you read here, Nancy. It is always a great encouragement to hear from my readers. I also hope that it is clear that I am not saying that everyone ought to adopt the pattern of writing that I follow here. Different blogs have different vocations and those different vocations call for different styles and priorities. I will add your blog to my follows on feedly: I look forward to hearing from you!
I also don’t deal with weightier *theological* issues. Stupid tiny phone keyboard.
And I completely understand what you are saying. There are several great blogs I read on a regular basis that keep their posts short and sweet, yet are able to also impart great truths. I have become frustrated lately, however, with the number of copycats out there, and I think that fueled my criticism. For example, one blogger with a large following writes a great post on relationships that happens to generate so much traffic that it crashes her website, and the next day similar posts are popping up all over the place trying to jump on the bandwagon. And no one is giving credit to the originator of the idea. At least link back or something. I view thought theft as a form of plagarism and it drives me nuts.
*stepping down off of soapbox now*
I definitely agree. One of the things that I have enjoyed about blogs over the years is the context that they provided for distinct voices to emerge. In many other contexts online, given the density of the social environment and the bonds within it, herd dynamics tend to emerge with relative frequency. However, by being somewhat removed from these contexts, blogs could discourage reactive and imitative cycles, bandwagons and echo chambers. Unfortunately, blogs are increasingly embedded in more intensely social media (I have commented at length upon dangers of the increasingly social character of our reading here), which leads them to be more subject to their unhealthy dynamics. I have been dismayed to see the sort of dynamics of the under-aerated conversations of social media such as Facebook and Twitter start to become more prevalent in the blogosphere.
*basking with a sense of superiority at having read right to the end!!*
Oh Alistair, asking you to make your posts simpler and shorter is like asking the chef at the Ritz to rustle up some chicken nuggets and chips for your dinner. It misses the point entirely!
Mind you, as a personal fan of the pithy one-sentence paragraph, I must say that it can be its own form of craft, and does have its own place, although that place, as you rightly say, is probably not in the milieu of properly reasoned debate and discussion.
I was once told that when writing for the internet, no whole piece should be longer than 500 words, and no paragraph longer than three or four lines. I’m not sure whether that’s a sad indictment on the attention span (or at least, perceived attention span) of the average internet user, or a recognition of the fact that so many people are browsing the internet when they should actually be doing something else!
Lol! Great to have you commenting here again. I was meaning to comment on one of your recent blog posts lately, but didn’t get around to it. I enjoy your writing a lot, and keeping up with your news!
And, you are absolutely right: the pithy sentence can be its own craft. It can involve a highly developed skill of literate ‘condensation’ in the sense that this post discusses. It really isn’t appreciated enough, although Twitter might be bringing it back in.
Although judging from your latest multi-tweet extravaganza a few minutes ago, it’s perfectly possible to use Twitter without resorting to any serious attempt at conciseness 😀
I do pop into your blog from time to time, and even occasionally read to the end of the post! But I tend not to comment unless I feel pretty confident that I have understood what you are talking about, or can frame a reasonably intelligent-sounding question about it – no need to reveal my ignorance on a public forum 🙂 I got tired of Theogeeks though as so much of it was either obscure, blood-pressure inducing, or simply linking to people’s blogs – just don’t have time to keep going through it all these days.
I have always resisted the tyranny of Twitter’s character limits! 😉
Actually, I really appreciate comments from people I know, even if they didn’t follow everything. As the comment that I just left at the end of this thread should make clear, I like the communal thinking dynamic that blogging used to have and want to retain some of that. It isn’t about intellectual superiority or showing up ignorance, but about fellow travellers sharpening their minds together. I write to encourage such sharpening of minds (especially my own), but I would be very disappointed if people felt unable to share and participate on that account out of fear that they wouldn’t sound clever enough. If something isn’t clear enough in my post, please feel free to pester me to explain it in a different way, or press me for examples!
Yes, I seldom engage on Theogeeks now either. Most of my interaction nowadays is on private theological forums, on Twitter, or in blog comments.
I suppose one of the difficulties, and I think you’ve mentioned this yourself before, is just that the internet itself is a medium which specializes in the quick hit. Despite the fact that things like Project Gutenberg, etc., are accessible via the net, people are not in the habit of doing more lengthy reading online. Of course many people these days are not accustomed to lengthy reading of any kind, so perhaps it’s really a chicken-egg problem.
On a related note, I often find myself miffed at reviews of books which essentially say, “it’s just too long.” Possibly an author may have inserted extraneous material, or may have written something badly, but the fact that an author just had a lot to say shouldn’t be seen as a vice, should it?
I think that an additional issue is that there are just so many competing demands on our time at the moment, especially when it comes to reading: in such a context, people can regard lengthy writing as an unreasonable expectation, arising from an immodest and over-exalted notion of the importance of what one has to say (‘well, there’s ten minutes of my life I won’t get back…’). While I can understand this viewpoint to some extent, I think that careful thinking is necessarily costly in terms of time (in several senses, not least the time that you must wait before making up your mind) and, if we are not prepared to afford people such time, we will almost invariably lower the quality of the conversation. I also believe that pieces that slow down our thinking and dampen our reactivity are worth considerably more than many pieces that accommodate our bad habits.
For my part, I am not apologetic about the fact that I strongly believe that I have something to say that is worth hearing and engaging with and which can contribute something important to several current conversations. Practically everyone who writes believes this and we should be prepared to own it. I also believe that I have more helpful and important things to say than many and perhaps most others, which is a potentially dangerous, but not necessarily inappropriate view to hold. The fact that I advocate and practice a form of discourse that is more exclusive and restrictive, anti-populist, and which implies that I believe that my writing is more entitled to people’s attention than that of many others is one of the reasons for the resistance.
While some might regard this as an instinctive sense of entitlement based upon privilege, I trust that it is primarily founded upon a careful assessment, in dialogue with the judgment of older and wiser persons, of the value of my words, a value dependent upon my training, knowledge, level of insight, control of my self and emotional reactions, the degree to which I am providing a distinct viewpoint from others, etc. The impression that not all voices in a conversation are equal and that your own is more important than most takes not a little nerve and self-confidence to hold and is vulnerable to many, many dangers. However, I believe that it is very important that certain people hold this belief and I will encourage it in some others. While in the past the value of a person’s voice would be assessed by a third party prior to publication, nowadays we often find ourselves in a much more complex situation, where we often publish ourselves and assert the importance of our own voices.
I firmly believe that the contemporary popular assumption of the equality of all voices is a bankrupt one and that we should be championing conversations where gifted, well-trained, and self-controlled persons serve as the advocates of positions and less qualified or gifted voices for those positions yield the floor to them, with discourse being more representative than purely democratic in character. For those of us who speak, we must often be prepared implicitly to assert the authority of our voices before any authority will be recognized. However, we must do so in a manner that follows from a sober weighing up in communication with the judgment of others of the relative importance of what we have to say, avoiding the pitfalls of both immodesty or excessive modesty. A path fraught with peril on all sides, but one we must take.
I appreciate your lengthy writing, not for its length but for how well thought out your posts are. I don’t feel like the subjects you discuss can be fully covered in posts, but the way you address them is worthwhile, both for yourself and your readers.
It is an easy discipline for me to read through your posts and I think they have helped expand my understanding and capacity to understand. Thank you for that! I send people to your posts pretty regularly but only sometimes do they have the tenacity to not tl:dr. Their loss.
Finally, you didn’t mention in your post about simply liking language and words, but is that not also part of why you are willing to write as long as you do? I enjoy reading people who have a “joy of words” and your blog would be among those.
Thanks, Luke! The enjoyment of words is definitely a motivating factor for me. I have always enjoyed writing at length and find the practice rather cathartic. I probably write well over 20,000 words in the average week and up to three times that on some occasions. Most of the time I would far prefer to write a 5,000 word blog post than a 1,000 word one, because the former is far more directly related to the way that I think and work through an issue.
One thing that I have been wondering recently is whether the concept of why people blog has changed. When I first started blogging, back in 2003, it was an outgrowth of participation in theology forums. Most of the people that I was engaging with had blogs and I wanted to engage with them in that context too, to discuss important ideas, books, and interests at greater length. I didn’t perceive my blog as a means of publicization at all, or even as a means of getting my voice heard by some wider audience.
I was writing for myself and for a limited group of online acquaintances. I wanted to think out loud and to post ideas in a context where I could receive people’s feedback and interaction. There were several really smart people whose input I really valued and I wanted to expose my formative thinking to their judgment and guidance.
Over my years of blogging, however, the dynamic has changed. Those original communities I was part of soon thinned out and blogs became more isolated islands. Fewer people had active theology blogs and those who still did were less framed by a community of peers. A number of us were uneasy as we felt that the sort of conversation that we were engaged in was being radically redefined beneath our feet. Rather than seeing our blogs as speaking into a particular community (perhaps more akin to Tumblr today), they were being regarded by readers as platforms for the publicization of the bloggers’ viewpoints, which was not how most of us set out to write in the first place. Nowadays, I only know a small fraction of my readers personally (although I am thankful to have had longer term interactions with a few people in this comments thread). I suspect that the rise of Facebook and Twitter and certain e-mail discussion lists has a lot to do with this change, as much of the conversation moved to those places. Tim and Paul have been around in similar circles to me for years, and they probably have thoughts on this too.
I have reluctantly given some ground to this redefinition, taking on board the fact that what I am doing when I am blogging has been redefined. I do use my blog in a slightly more authoritative manner from time to time, recognizing that I will be read in this way by many of my readers, whether I like it or not. However, I don’t want to accept it entirely. I still want to be able to treat my blog as in some sense a sandbox for my thinking, a place where my peers can come and see what I am thinking and give their thoughts, rather than a platform for authoritative pronouncements.
On the matter of authorative writing, my original blog categories were actually something like, “Ideas I’m working through”, “Things I’m fairly sure about”, “What I’m certain of”, and so on. (I think they were better named than that, but perhaps not). That made it easier on me because, like you, often I was thinking out loud.
I can definitely relate to that way of mentally classifying one’s material. It is much harder to write about things that I am really uncertain of nowadays.
One thing that reading Proust has taught me is the joy of commitment. Yes, because of the way the Internet conditions us for the ephemeral, I understand and usually appreciate some parceling of thoughts so that I can be directed exactly where the author wants me to go. BUT overall, I think it’s a little detrimental. 1) It destroys the tried and true function of the paragraph. 2) It robs the reader of the joy of discovery. Most of my favorite Proust quotes are not the canned standards he is always associated with. They are quotes I have discovered myself in a sea (ok, Proust IS a little ridiculous) of words. This makes them more meaningful. 3) As you chronicle in this post, it fuels reaction, not reflection. This is inimical to the process of understanding and responding. I recently read Hans Kung’s “On Being a Christian.” I didn’t agree with a lot of it, though I found him eminently quotable and a genius. BUT I enjoyed reading it partly because it forced me to formulate my own thoughts and go through the process of separating the straw from the grain (Jer. 23:28). Thus, in the end I was fed.
Of course, not all bloggers blog for the same reasons. You may identify with Barth in his Preface to the 2nd Edition of the Epistle to the Romans: “In this second ‘preliminary investigation’ the co-operation of the serious reader is once again required, for the new edition also is concerned only with prolegomena… All human achievements are no more than prolegomena; and this is especially the case in the field of theology.”
Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Kyle. I can strongly identify with the reading experiences that you describe here.
So very much appreciate your blog. Happy to have found it.
Have you come across Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows? It gave me insight into why long form learning of all kinds is often undervalued or misunderstood.
Thank you, Mike! Yes, I have read Carr’s book (just a couple of months ago, in fact): it is very challenging and thought-provoking.
Carr’s book made me wonder how the church will, as a people of the Book, advance the Gospel and make disciples in a society that reads less and less.
Have you written on this…yet?
I’ve reflected upon the fate of reading in the contemporary world on various occasions. For me it isn’t just about the amount that we read, but our habits and contexts of reading and the nature of our texts. Here are a few examples of my posts that touch on various issues relating to our reading:
A Lament for Google Reader
Why It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Google Reader
In Defence of Inefficient Bible Reading
Very Rough and Rambling Jottings on the Church and Social Media
Information Addiction and the Church
On Triggering and the Triggered, Part 3
I also think that we need to be more aware of how our reading of the Bible has already changed dramatically, even before the Internet comes on the scene, on account of the mass-produced, privately-owned Bible, with chapters and verses, navigational apparatus such as cross-references, all books between two covers, primarily encountered through the private act of silent reading, etc. The way that this has changed our forms of engagement with and conceptions of the text is betrayed in the way that we habitually speak of ‘reading’ the Bible (presumably silent and private) in the places where the Scriptures themselves speak of hearing the word of God in a context that would be presumed to be public and communal and authoritative.
Thanks for the links…now I have some more reading to do.
I attend an Episcopal church and deeply value hearing the word of God read in a “public and communal and authoritative” setting. I am even asked to preach on occasion due to my seminary education. All to say, the public reading of the Scripture has come to be a powerful means of engagement quite different from private Bible readings.
Thanks again for the references!
I love the length, the style and the content of your posts. Small posts are fine (I’m a small post-er) but there’s something excellent about coming to a large, meatier post that feels like a chapter of a good and diverse book after scrolling through all the little, bitty posts on Feedly.
Thank you, Ruth. It is good to see you again in my comments!
“Wittgenstein, for instance, once remarked that he wrote to slow his readers down, preventing them from reading at the pace to which they were accustomed.”
Yes, but there are different ways of slowing people down, not all of which are to the good. I think wrapping every topic into a grand theory of everything isn’t necessarily the best way of dealing with increasing trivialisation/sound bite argumentation/emotional arguments/etc.
Similarly, an easy way of creating bad writing is to try and be Wittgensteinian, or Proustian or Joycian. There are popular organs that are serial offenders here (I think of the standard Vanity Fair article, which is usually set out like a Great American Novel).
Being pithy is the product of cultivated literacy – a point that ribbonfarm article made (I can only presume that the bloviation was ironic).
Yes, there are different ways of slowing things down and different forms of writing designed to encourage and form different sorts of readers and conversations.
I am not trying to be Wittgensteinian, Proustian, or anything else of that nature. I merely use Wittgenstein and Nietzsche as examples of writers who appreciated the importance of writing in a manner designed to discourage certain types of readers and engagement.
Pithiness per se is no proof of cultivated literacy and by itself it is hardly sufficient. Concision and forcefulness of expression are not always deployed in the service of genuine insight. There are some authors who spring to mind as examples of profoundly gifted ‘condensers’ whose brilliance in this regard blinds people to the great deficiencies of their thought when it is forced to exposit itself or when it is subjected to close scrutiny and cross-examination.
Also, as the article observes, condensation and exposition go together. Exposition is necessary in order to unpack and structure concepts, to test and examine them, and to bring them into dialogue with other ideas and contexts. As this is much of what I attempt to do in my posts, I make no apologies for the fact that they aren’t highly condensed. Condensation is a literary skill that answers to the needs of different contexts and purposes.
My posts are hardly ‘grand theories of everything’. However, they do seek to combat the piecemeal manner in which people so typically think about subjects online. While I invite people to engage critical with particular dimensions of my position, what I am really looking for are serious attempts to move beyond selective engagement with evidence and reality towards something more comprehensive. I am wanting to see people present something more than isolated criticisms of bigger picture accounts and selective appeals to evidence in favour of their preferences. I want detailed alternatives. Ideally, I want to see people present carefully delineated and articulated positions that we can expose to close interrogation and examination. It is easy to pick holes in bigger pictures: it is much harder to try to take all of the evidence seriously oneself.
There are multiple characteristics of careful thinking and cultured literacy, none of which are sufficient to mark either. For the record, I find Wittgenstein remarkably clear, as he largely eschews long run on sentences and technical jargon.
“what I am really looking for are serious attempts to move beyond selective engagement with evidence”
Your most recent article drew the conclusion that there was a paucity of progressive churches with real spiritual formation. The evidence given *in the article* were two anecdotes, one of which was from someone who lives in the middle of one of the most conservative parts of the US. Now your claim may well be correct, but this sort of use of evidence owes less to Wittgenstein and more to Gladwell.
Thanks for the comment, Chris. Yes, Wittgenstein is rather clear. For that matter, my writing is hardly difficult reading. It isn’t filled with run-on sentences or technical jargon either.
What contrary evidence should I be attending to? My comments were based upon the observations of two well known progressive evangelicals, the sort of people who should know their own movement fairly well, not just in their own areas, but well beyond that locality too.
The experience of a disconnect with existing church contexts—a central theme of Rachel Held Evans’ recent piece—obviously resonates with a huge number of people, in a manner that is very important for the progressive evangelical movement’s self-understanding and account of itself. Surely some account needs to be given of this fact?
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I really like your blogging philosophy, Alastair. John Owen definitely had a similar writing philosophy and said so in at least one introduction to one of his books. I agree that we desperately need to be better reader and thinkers, especially when it comes to the bible, theology, and whatever other topics we are passionate about. We all want and need to be heard, but must acknowledge that our opinions are valuable only to the extent that they are informed.