Thinking Out Loud

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

January 30, 2015

Getting the Gospel Right

Christianity in a single sentence

Four years ago I ran a piece here that began with Dane Ortland, a senior editor at Crossway Books, who asked some people in his Rolodex to summarize the gospel in a single sentence. (Does he still use a Rolodex?) At the time, I was reading all Christian bloggers somewhat equally, but today with the dominance of Calvinist/Reformed voices at Crossway, I probably would have tempered my introduction with a warning that many of the responses probably emanate from people in the same doctrinal stream.

To be fair, the question asked was to summarize The Bible in a single sentence. But it’s a re-hash of a familiar theme among certain blogs were repeating over and over and over and over and over and over and over again: What is the gospel?

I remain perplexed by this preoccupation, this obsession that certain people in the Reformed tradition have with trying to formulate the ultimate definition of the evangel; the good news. Without being flippant, I think that, like pornography, you know it when you see it; or in this case hear it or read it.

Mylon LeFevre, the musician from the early days of CCM put it this way, “If it didn’t sound like good news, you haven’t heard the gospel.”

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

That God loves us and cares for us enough to intervene — that incarnation should ever take place at all — is such a mystery. Why mess it up with over-analysis? Instead of reading about the gospel, and writing about the gospel, and — oh my goodness! — blogging endlessly about the gospel; would it not be better to get out into the streets and be living the gospel? I said at the time that my answer would simply be:

  • It’s the story of the history between God and humankind.

Is that not sufficient?  Maybe today I would add, ‘and God’s workings to repair that relationship where it has been broken.’ But already I’m making it longer where I think such a statement needs to be concise.

But why? Why? Why? Would someone from within the Reformed tradition be so kind as to give me a reasonable solution to this riddle: Why so much time, so much energy, so much angst over trying to answer a question that never seems to be answered to everyone’s satisfaction?

Nonetheless, here are few answers to Dane’s question:

  • God is in the process of recreating the universe which has been corrupted by sin and has made it possible for all those and only those who follow Jesus to be a part of the magnificent, eternal community that will result. (Craig Bloomberg)
  • The movement in history from creation to new creation through the redemptive work of Father, Son, and Spirit who saves and changes corrupted people and places for his glory and their good. (Paul House)
  • The message of the Bible is twofold: to show how people can be saved from their sins through faith in Christ’s atonement AND how to live all of life as a follower of God. (Leland Ryken)
  • God reigns over all things for his glory, but we will only enjoy his saving reign in the new heavens and the new earth if we repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord and who gave himself on the cross for our salvation. (Tom Schreiner)
  • God made it, we broke it, Jesus fixes it! (Jay Sklar attributed to Michael D. Williams)

Two of the authors merely paraphrased a familiar verse in John 3:

  • God created mankind in order to love them, but we all rejected his love, so God sent His Son to bear our sins on the cross in order that by believing in His sacrificial atonement, we might have life. (Grant Osborne)
  • God was so covenantally committed to the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life! (Dan Block)

I thought there was actually more life in the answers given in the comments section:

  • God chose one man (Abraham) in order to make of him one great nation (Israel) so that through it He might bring forth the one great Savior (Jesus) and through Him demonstrate God’s glory and extend God’s grace to all creation. (John Kitchen)
  • The good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that provides full and free deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone, plus nothing – all to the praise of His glorious name. (Seth from Lynchburg)
  • Jesus, God’s promised Rescuer and Ruler, lived our life, died our death and rose again in triumphant vindication as the first fruits of the new creation to bring forgiven sinners together under his gracious reign. (attributed to Steve Timmis)
  • Why try and better John the Baptist? He succintly summarizes the Bible: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29). It’s all there – epiphany, sin, sacrifice, salvation, redemption, justification, forgiveness, release, freedom and victory. (Michael Zarling)
  • The Triune God of Eternity restoring the demonstration of His glory in that which He has created by the redemption of creation through God-man, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rick from Dallas)

But at the end of the day — if you haven’t already spotted the pattern here — my favorite item in the comment section is this one:

  • Why didn’t you ask any women to contribute? (Gillian)

To read many of the other featured definitions; and dozens of other comments; click over to the original article at Strawberry Rhubarb

Looking back four years later… In an environment where so many churches spend so much time and energy trying to draft mission statements and tag lines to put under the church logo, it’s interesting that our perspectives vary enough that we don’t emerge with something more common to all.  However, we do have a common symbol, the cross

Maybe we should start there and work backwards to a core statement.

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