Simple Is Good; Oversimple Is Bad

I happen to chair the committee that coordinates the major lectureship at Regent College, the Laing Lectures. Roger Laing, our patron, is a very smart businessman with theological degrees who reads more theology than most pastors or professors and wants Christians to enjoy thinking as much as he does.

This lectureship has brought some extraordinarily thoughtful people to campus: Neil Postman, Charles Taylor, Margaret Visser, Peter Berger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Miroslav Volf, and Walter Brueggemann, to date.

Recently someone suggested we bring Malcolm Gladwell to campus, author of bestsellers such as The Tipping Point and Blink. I read both of those books and found them mildly entertaining but almost entirely insubstantial: cotton candy for the mind. I take notes assiduously on books I read and I frankly found almost nothing noteworthy in either of them. They seemed either to take a while to state the obvious or to raise contentious possibilities without cogent argument. A British journal has decided to go after Gladwell and has done so pretty seriously here and here. They seem right to me in their criticism and I can’t imagine us bringing him to campus–not that we could afford him, even nowadays, given how popular he is.

It reminds me of the dictum ascribed to Einstein: “Simplify as far as possible, but no farther.” One of the key intellectual disciplines to learn is when you just can’t make it any plainer or simpler without misleading yourself or your audience. Sometimes you really do have to say five things, not one thing, and use four paragraphs or even four chapters instead of twelve words.

I recently guested on a TV show hosted by a notorious critic of the Christian faith. As we worked through his Top Ten List of Things He Doesn’t Like about Christianity (not actually what he called them, but that’s what they were), he chided Christians for “all that theology that complicated things.” Why not, he challenged, just say, “Love your neighbour”?

Since he had been both a lawyer and a politician, I countered with this observation: “Law seems awfully complicated too, doesn’t it? I mean, why not just say, ‘Mind your own business. Don’t steal. Keep your word’–you know, stuff like that? Could it be that the adult world is a bit complicated and so adults need complicated laws?”

Lots of Christians seem to feel the way that host did, however. Listen to our sermons. Read our bestselling books (it won’t take you long). Consider our song lyrics (although no, I don’t want to get into that again just now, thank you very much!).

Isn’t our faith simple? Can’t a child understand it? Isn’t it enough that “Jesus loves me” and I love him?

Two words: The Bible.

If God had wanted to communicate something as simple as some Christians say the gospel is, God could have given us a pamphlet, not sixty-six books (or more, according to our Catholic friends!) of wildly varying genres written over hundreds of years that deal with dozens of topics. And you might have noticed that the Bible is not immediately intelligible to children, or even to most adults.

Two more words: Jesus Christ.

If God’s message to humanity were as simple as some preachers and parents tell us it is, we wouldn’t have needed a walking, talking Word of God to show and tell us what we needed to be shown and told.

Yes, praise God, the fundamental truth about God–God is light and God is love–and the fundamental truth about us–we need God and we must trust him to help us–is simple. But defining what all that means has required all the resources of the Christian Church over two thousand years and counting….

So let’s rejoice in teachers and preachers and writers and lyricists and poets and prophets who can help us understand difficult matters by putting them in appropriately simple terms.

But let’s remain on our guard against those who, however sincere their motives, oversimplify things, leaving out crucial truths without which we effectively end up believing what is false.

For in so many cases of misguided belief, including many of the heresies of the church, the problem has not been that people didn’t have correct theological ideas. It is that they didn’t have enough correct theological ideas. “Jesus is fully human” is true. But you’d better quickly add that “Jesus was also fully divine” or your view of Christ is simply wrong.

Simple is good. Oversimple can be heretical and dangerous.

That’s why God gave us a big Book, a live Revelation, and Christian teachers empowered by the Spirit to help us understand.

Let’s pay attention–even if it’s a bit complicated–because life, you’ll have noticed, is a bit complicated, too.

0 Responses to “Simple Is Good; Oversimple Is Bad”

  1. Tyler

    I am very glad to be able to agree with you on this. Well said, thanks.

  2. E.G.

    Um, could you summarize that in a sentence or two?

  3. Josh

    “Isn’t our faith simple? Can’t a child understand it? Isn’t it enough that “Jesus loves me” and I love him?”

    I actually do believe that a statement like this comes very close to the core of our faith. It’s not that life is more complicated than that and therefore simple statements don’t suffice. I think it has more to do with the inflationary nature of the meaning of word and their inherent inability to communicate truth in a short formulaic kind of way.

    The truth may be much simpler than what we’d expect it to be. The problem is: to just say “love” is not enough because it can mean a million different things to a million different people. It’s the bigger story that fleshes out the meaning of words like love, sacrice, atonemennt, redemption, freedom.

  4. Josh

    And I do apologize for not checking my spelling first – it’s been a long day!

  5. Teresa

    Josh makes a good point–I agree that the message of Jesus’s love comes close to capturing the core of the gospel, but even that simple statement requires explanation. It doesn’t capture the fact that Jesus is God, and that fact makes the statement more profound. And the word love means more than warm fuzzies or a desire for the others’ happiness in the moment. So, yeah, it’s a more complicated statement than it seems to be.

    We’ve been discussing Pseudo-Dionysus’s Mystical Theology in my Medieval Theology class, and I am finding it very helpful. The idea (grossly simplified) is that no matter how much we talk about God, our human langauge cannot capture the reality of who God is. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking, though, but we should recognize the limitations.

  6. Erik Leafblad

    I had a professor who used to say that theology can be simple, but it should never be simplistic. I think that resonates with what you’re saying.

    My exhibit A is Karl Barth. When pressed to summarize his theology, he notoriously began singing “Jesus Loves Me” and yet this simple summary spawned an amazing corpus of theological writings, profound in their simplicity: “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” That is the simple truth of Barth’s understanding of the gospel (okay, following Paul), but it opens into a vast expanse of profound and amazingly complex implications for life as we know it.

  7. taxes « square pegs

    […] and they sound moderately appealing.  However, my plea for greater simplicity reminds me of a post I read recently.  I guess it is necessarily […]

  8. smokey

    Wonderful post that many in the church need to hear today.

  9. SilverRefined

    Rehab–Though I believe there’s virtue in what you say above, it is too closely coupled with vice. Your thesis, “Simple means lazy,” is a reductionist view that lends itself too easily to misinterpretation, though I think you meant well. And although not all reductionism is bad (as I’ll demonstrate below), one should be careful when reducing with broad terms.

    For example, Jesus said the law can be reduced to two commands: love God and love neighbor as self. Looking at this through the lens of your thesis, Jesus is, here, lazy. And not only lazy but, to use your words, he’s “ignoring the facts” giving his audience “a prounced intermediate heremenutical interpretation [leaving] a wide range of greyness and doubts…” Yet, I don’t believe Jesus did that when he reduced the law to two commands. Instead of lazy and mediocre, I believe Jesus is poignant and wise for reducing the commands as such.

    With respect to Dr. Stackhouse’s point (which is appropriate), Jesus pronounced these commands for a purpose. Again using your words, there were many of his day who were concerned with “education….books…..and teachers who care enough to learn themselves…NOT simply, but through thoroughness, and aggression of mind to find truth for all its worth.” (Without the fluff, they were completely dedicated to Torah and the Law of Moses.) These were Pharisees. In one move Jesus removed the stranglehold the Pharisees had on the law and gave the people freedom and a fresh look at the law. (So, then, not all reductionism is bad.)

    With respect to you, Rehab, one should be careful to put so much worth in knowledge. 1 Corinthians 8:1 states, “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It took wisdom and experience for Paul to write this. And to took Jesus’ wisdom and spiritual insight to show how love can dismantle knowledge, leaving it helplessly pondering the questions “how?” or “why?”

    Today there is still great use for these two commands, which I won’t go into. Their simplicity lends them discernibly to the brain of a child and their complexity keeps even the most wise and elderly striving to complete them. It’s hard to say what it does to scholars who try to theologize around them or, for that matter, through them. But I digress…

    Let me be clear, though, so as not to appear one-sided, bent toward the spiritual to fault. I believe that if Christians were more studied as a whole, we would have less intellectual criticism coming our way. It is our responsibility to teach Christians to be knowledgeable–teaching that the intellectual and the Christian can indeed be one and the same without the blasphemous contradiction for which the intellectual Christian is accused by, ironically, both Secular and Christian sources. It is also our responsibility to teach Christians to pair their knowledge with radical love, as Jesus and Paul so well demonstrated in the gospels and in Paul’s letters.

    I openly invite your response, as well as others.

  10. eric

    John,

    You made a passing comment about taking notes while reading…would you do a post about how you take notes on your reading? Always interested in hearing how others take notes, you seem to take a lot of notes.

    Thanks,
    Eric

  11. John Stackhouse

    Eric,

    I do take a lot of notes. In fact, I rarely read a book without buying it, so that I can mark it up and thus make it much more useful in my work or other mode of life.

    Regent students know that each year I give an entire seminar on study skills, in which I discuss good note-taking. C’mon to Regent, Eric, and I’ll tell you everything I know! 😉

  12. eric

    John,

    I would love nothing more than to pursue another degree. But I don’t think my wife would endure another “adventure” at this point.

    In the words of a famous bibilical woman…”Even the dogs are allowed to feed on the scraps that fall from the table.” So maybe if you just threw us a few scraps sometime. 🙂

    Thanks for your quick response.

    Peace,
    Eric

  13. Sarah

    John,

    This is an interesting word to read after a very heated debate on a blog I participate with over the idea of a “Simple Gospel”. Walking away from that discussion and your thoughts here I am struck by two things.

    First, in order to present something simply, we have to first study and know our topic with depth. I can present to my children, hopefully in a way they understand, the amazing truth of the Gospel. What they are not aware of is the careful choice of words I use so that I do not over-emphasize God’s love or His judgment.

    I can only simplify once I understand the depths of the topic.

    Second, those who use many words (as I’m giving an example of 😉 ) often just like the sound of their words. If someone has to trot out everything thing they know on a topic, I tend to doubt they have worked through the material very well. Those who are able to talk on a subject simply and then stand up to scrutiny and questioning that show the depth of their study – that is who I turn to for learning.

    At any rate…good things to chew on mentally!

    Blessings,
    Sarah

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