Paul Prather: Less Scripture, more plain English, would help get point across

Writers have better ways to make points

Contributing columnistApril 14, 2012 

Paul Prather

I know you've read them. Maybe you've written one.

I'm talking about letters to the editor or opinion pieces consisting largely of the writer quoting Scriptures that "prove" his or her religious or political views.

The missives go like this: "No matter what you heathens might think, Christianity is the only path to God. 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.' — John 14:5-7."

The writer might toss in three or four additional passages for good measure.

My wife, who has taught high school and college English, says students employ this same tactic in their classroom assignments. A student arguing against abortion will turn in a paper comprised of strung-together Bible verses.

I understand this impulse. But mainly it's a terrible way to communicate. It leads to misunderstandings. It undermines a writer's credibility.

Actually, the practice of marshaling Bible verses to settle controversial issues has a long, and sometimes justifiable, history within the church itself. It can be traced, I think, to the Protestant Reformation, and possibly beyond that.

Early Protestants were rebels who rejected what they saw as Roman Catholicism's reliance on rituals and hierarchies. They believed (rightly or wrongly) this had led Christianity away from the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, and had opened the door to spiritual abuses.

They concluded that the Bible's authors had possessed a purer faith than did their own contemporary church leaders. Consequently, when a spiritual matter was in dispute, some protesters said, the Bible should serve as the last word.

I don't mean any offense to Catholics. I'm just trying to explain, in a few over simplified sentences, why writers of freshman compositions feel compelled to recite a list of Bible verses. They're been raised in Protestant — usually conservative evangelical — congregations that descended from this tradition.

They quote Scriptures for the same reason historians cite hallowed professors in footnotes or bibliographies, to buttress their statements.

In the Bible-believers' maxim: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

That still might work within the walls of an evangelical church. But elsewhere, verse slinging is unwise today, if the writer hopes to make a clear point, much less win people over.

For the majority of Americans, a matter isn't at all settled by what the Bible says. According to Gallup polls, 37 percent of Americans read the Bible at least weekly, 32 percent say it's the word of God and 30 percent interpret it literally.

That means about one in three people among, say, a newspaper's broad, general readership has the foggiest clue what you're talking about when you trot out a Bible verse. You're automatically omitting two-thirds of your audience.

I guess that's OK if all you intend to do is demonstrate that the populace is scripturally challenged or that you're God's mouthpiece. Congratulations.

If you hope to communicate something else, this doesn't work.

When I became the Herald-Leader's staff religion writer in 1990, I frequently started my newspaper stories with Bible verses. I used them as epigrams, to set up the tale that would follow.

Then a colleague complained.

"I don't know what that stuff means," he said. "It's off-putting. It sounds smug, and it doesn't tell me anything."

Similarly, I used Christianity 101 terms such as "Sermon on the Mount" or "the Beatitudes" without defining them.

I found myself having to explain to copy editors what those things were.

I was astounded. All these folks had college degrees.

"Really?" I thought. "You've never heard of the Beatitudes?"

Then one day while skimming the sports pages, I had an "ah-ha" moment.

I realized that sportswriters, God love them, often lost me in the first paragraph. They tended to assume everyone had followed every nuance of a player's career or knew by heart the box scores of the last 10 seasons.

Many times, I had no clue who or what they were talking about, because sports wasn't my life. I was a casual fan. Sportswriters assumed the references they made were self-evident.

It occurred to me I was doing the same thing. I thought every reader was as fascinated by religion as I was, that everyone had spent his childhood in a Sunday school competing in Bible drills, that everyone took the scriptures to be God's word.

Wrong.

Maybe God said it. Maybe I believed it. Maybe that settled it ... for me.

But for most of my readers, it was just gibberish unless I explained it in ways they could comprehend.

When we're writing (whether we're religion writers, sportswriters, letter-to-the-editor writers), in order to make an effective point, we first must put ourselves into our potential audience members' minds. We must anticipate how someone unlike us will perceive what we've said.

What if a reader has never read this particular Scripture before? What if he has no idea who St. James was? What if she has no reason to believe the Bible is God's word or doesn't care? If I were in his shoes, how would I respond to someone flinging a stack of Bible verses at me?

We religionists would do well to spout fewer Scriptures and instead simply talk to our readers as if we're all fellow travelers toward the hereafter, which we are. We should minimize the church-speak and write in plain English. Like Jesus, we could tell them stories about farming or something else they're familiar with.

We could show them the courtesy and respect we'd like to be shown.

Now there's a radical — and biblical — idea.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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