Christian Intellectuals and Being Lost in Translation

August 25, 2016 — 2 Comments


It all started when Alan Jacobs wrote an article for September’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. I had heard of the piece, but didn’t read it until I read Owen Strachan’s response to it, as well as Jacob’s response to Strachan’s response (which has a response by Strachan and final word by Jacobs). Then I saw Jake Meador’s response that brought Francis Schaeffer into the mix (which Jacob mentions later). To cap it off, Al Mohler responded, and now here we are.

I think it’s fair to say with all that responding going on, Jacobs struck a nerve that started a much needed discussion. His original article’s subtitle, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?” tells you what this conversation is about. Jacobs brings up two examples from mid 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis. As already mentioned, Jake Meador throws Schaeffer into the mix. Mohler raises the question of whether we really want another Niebuhr given his actual take on Christianity. In closing his response to Jacobs, he says,

I join in Professor Jacobs’s lament over the failure of Christian intellectuals, for surely there is failure to be found. But we must be careful lest a quest for Christian intellectual influence meets its end in an intellect that is neither Christian nor influential.

The Christian intellectual influence we should seek is the influence of an intellect saturated in Christian truth, keenly applied to the questions of our times. Whether the secular world will listen to us, much less thank us for the effort, is another question altogether.

Taking the last point Mohler made, I think the reason Christian intellectual influence has waned can be explain via two issues: translation and publishing.

Now, when I say “translation,” I don’t necessarily mean from one language to another, but I kind of do. A general problem I see in the articulation of Christian thought is that the people with thoughts worth thinking don’t always express them in a way a general audience can grasp. The flipside is that those who connect with general audiences don’t always have thoughts worth thinking (or words worth saying).

Tim Keller provides a counterpoint to this, and is a good illustration of what I’m getting at with translation. If you’ve ever read any of his bigger books (or listened to a sermon or two), you’re probably aware that he is able to take philosophical, sociological, and theological concepts and explain them to a general audience really well. The audience needs to be fairly educated, but he started his pastorate in a rural Virginia church, so he can speak the language of common (i.e. normal) people. That’s what I mean by translation. You are able to understand academic conversations, but you can express them to normal people in a way that is illuminating for them.

N. T. Wright is another example of someone who does this well. He is able to navigate between the two worlds if you will, of the academy and the local church. Even more, I think he is able to navigate the local pub as well. That last part is more key than you think. It is one thing for a theologian or biblical scholar to be able to take the fruits of the academy and offer them to lay Christians. It is another for him to be able to explain the relevance of those fruits to his atheist neighbor over pints.

Contra Keller and Wright, it seems that man Christian intellectuals who could be influential are predominantly writing books to other Christian intellectuals. I’m certainly generalizing here a bit, but try to think of anyone else who has a Ph.D, deals with academic material, but also has a New York Times Best-Selling book or two. Authors tend to be in one or the other category. Certainly there are exceptions, but many fields only have one or two representative scholars who take the insights of the academy to the street.

Some of this is because of the other issue, which is publishing. I’d say by and large, the publishing opportunities available to Christian intellectuals gain them an audience of other like minded people. It’s a great time if you’re already on board with the Christian intellectual tradition, but you’re not really speaking to the larger society. Publishers that could have the reach aren’t going to publish you unless you’re a good writer (and/or have a good agent to facilitate the connection). And as grateful as I am to the many fine Christian publishers out there producing quality biblical and theological works, those books aren’t making the New York Times Best-Seller list anytime soon.

One reason for that is that these books can very often be boring, even to people like me. Boring might not be quite right. What I mean is that the subject matter is interesting, but the reading of it is rarely riveting. They are almost never as page turning as the book I read last Saturday, and I’m saying that as the target audience for many of these books. If I think they’re boring, they certainly aren’t going to be read by anyone who isn’t disciplined enough to force their way through for an assignment, review, or just to be able to say you’ve read that “important” book everyone is talking about.

This was actually a point that Jacobs somewhat made, that Strachan pushed back on. Jacobs suggested that Christian intellectuals are not getting published like they could because their writing isn’t that good. Strachan thinks it has more to do with the content and bias against it. The bias is certainly there, but if we go back to Keller, he wouldn’t have a contract with Penguin if he wasn’t a good communicator. If we had more people who could translate and communicate like Keller, I think we’d see more people getting published like he does, bias against Christianity or not.

But I think one reason we don’t is that people that could be translators like Keller don’t develop the skill because they mostly read books that aren’t well written. Keller is as good as he is, I think, and he has probably said, because he has absorbed so much C. S. Lewis. Whatever you think of Lewis’ theology, dude could write. And if you become a student of his writing, you’ll start down the road of perhaps starting to write like him (but hopefully in your own voice and not his).

However, I think unless you try otherwise, you mainly write and speak like what you read. And if you nerd out about the latest theology books and exclusively read them, that’s what you’ll sound like when you try to write, and will only really appeal to others who already share your interest and worldview. I would say we have a cycle of Christian intellectuals doing an excellent job of developing future Christian intellectuals, but by and large neither generation is developing the skills to speak to non intellectual, non Christian audiences well.

While I’m sure my analysis is open to scrutiny on many points, my main plea is hopefully not, and that is this. If you want to be an influential Christian intellectual, you need to understand the Christian intellectual tradition, as well as the world around you. A big part of that is understanding how people think, and what is important to the average person. Knowing that, you need to be able to communicate clearly and winsomely. You probably need to be a good story teller, and it helps if you have a sense of humor. Honestly, getting the Christian tradition down is the easy part. The rest of the intangibles take time and wisdom to develop, and our culture just doesn’t cater to doing that now does it?


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Christian Intellectuals and Being Lost in Translation

  1. Would a bridge between your perspective and Strachan’s be that Lewis and Keller are not just good at communicating clearly but also at drawing out the appeal of the Christian message?

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