Writing–is less always more?

The volume of material competing for readers’ attention today is overwhelming.  While reading an e-mail, you might notice scrolling across the top of the computer screen a headline for a news story you decide is a must-read.  While reading that news story, you are reminded of your friend who would appreciate the story… a friend who has a blog that you have not checked out in a while.  This reminds you of all the other blogs you are trying to keep up with, which reminds you that you need a vacation soon, so you click on a travel site to dream a bit.  But you feel guilty for spending so much time reading online when you have those pricy books sitting on the shelf at home.  So much to read….

And thus the idea among contemporary writers that less is more

I appreciate this idea.  I admire the power of a single line that communicates the same depth of a wordy, clumsily written paragraph (like the opening paragraph of this post). 

However, I am reading Les Misérables, and I am quite certain that Victor Hugo did not believe that less is more. 

Sure, he penned certain poignant scenes that communicate the meaning of the Gospel more richly than any lengthy, erudite sermon.  But I should point out that the first 100 pages or so of his masterpiece describes a character with whom the main character (Jean Valjean) spends merely hours.  That’s right: roughly 100 pages to describe that bishops who gets 4 minutes or so of stage time in the musical. 

I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner last year.  It is a beautiful story, but I could not help but wonder if an extra 100 pages would have done the novel well.  The cyclic patterns so famous among 18th- & 19th-century novels–those surprise reappearances of former characters and repititive actions–are surprising largely because the author has filled in enough space between the reappearances and actions that the reader begins to overlook and dismiss the previous hints and clues.  My disappointment with The Kiterunner was with its predictability–I saw the cycles coming ’round the bend. 

In contrast, dead guys like Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Hugo had no problem cramming in hundreds of extra pages in which the narrative surprises could be embedded all the more deeply. 

I’m the kind of guy who steers clear of abridged versions.  I admit that I do get bogged down in those long novels.  I admit that had I actually purchased the abridged version of Les Misérables that I would have been able to have read several more novels this past year.  And I also admit that printing a Khaled Hosseini book contributes much less to deforestation than reprinting The Brothers Karamazov. 

With all this said, however, I think the most powerful documents ever written were produced out of a ‘less is more’ approach.  I am referring to the Gospels.  Practical matters placed rather strict limits on ancient authors–no type presses, the time consuming nature of scribal reproduction, the length of scrolls, the costs of “paper” products, etc.  Also contributing to the brevity would have been the goal of producing a document that could be read in one or two hearings before (a mostly illiterate) congregation.  Even if the Evangelists had considerable time on their hands and a patron who would foot the bill, they were still restrained from producing a lengthy  tome by the ancient genre in which they probably wrote (involving a report of Jesus’ vocational life) and by the goal of producing a work that could be read in one or two sittings. 

These limits forced an editing process just as inspired as the initial act of writing.  The subtleties and the cyclic patterns are presented with tremendous literary skill, arguably developed in painstaking editorial work.  So in the case of the Gospels, I would say that less is indeed more.  The author of John seems to bemoan the lack of space to write of all Jesus did (see 21:25).  But what that author has bequeathed to us is a theological narrative so gripping, so mystifying that we are still plumbing its depths. 

So is less more when it comes to writing?  I suppose the purpose and the setting determine the answer.  But I will say that when you are preaching to a small Baptist congregation that expects to eat lunch at noon, then less is indeed more.  When the sermon is done, though, and the time for Sunday afternoon fiction arrives, then there’s nothing wrong with a few extra details from Victor Hugo….

The Internet as Oracle: Wanting God’s will more than God Himself


When you needed divine instruction in the ancient world, you went to an oracle.  If you waited in line long enough and paid a priest the right fee, then you would be granted access into some inner chamber or subterranean recess.  And just maybe, the god of local sponsorship would give you a word (whether you understood it or not would be a different story, of course).

            Approaching the one, true God of Christian faith, however, requires less fanfare.  His accessibility is less regulated.  His presence is not localized within some isolated temple to which we must make pilgrimage each time we need to interact with Him.  And, of course, we have the internet….


            Over the past several months of my life, I had been awaiting news from three graduate schools in both the UK and the US.  I had submitted book proposals to a couple of publishers.  And in case the grad schools didn’t work out, I had my application in to a couple of really exciting ministry jobs.  So my life was acutely transitional—our third child was due in June and we didn’t even know what country we would be living in come August. 

            Desperate for news, I found myself frenetically clicking on my e-mail server’s Inbox icon—today could be the day when my future unfolds and I hear about that scholarship!  Today could be the day when dreams come true and I hear that an editor loves my manuscript!  Today could be the day when that job opportunity becomes a reality! …and in feverish excitement I watched as the webpage opened regularly to reveal “No New Messages.” 


            This little exercise of checking my e-mail so regularly and desperately for news of my immediate future had become an exercise in oracular consultation.  I seemed to have been treating the Internet as an oracle through which God would reveal His plans for me.

            But consulting an oracle in the ancient world was usually a self-centered act.  Most of the clientele came seeking the god’s insight or instruction over the gods or goddesses themselves.  And I am noticing that this is similar to how I was treating God.

            Was I more concerned with unfolding news about my life, or with Jesus?  Was I more desperate for God, or for the plans I expected Him to reveal through some e-mail?  My internet surfing had taken on the eerie feel of rubbing an Arabian lamb or peering into a crystal ball.  But I wasn’t interested in the genie or the fortune-teller, I just wanted to know the next step. 

            We can find ourselves rather neurotic about knowing the future.  There is a passage that always pierces me when I find myself becoming more interested in God’s future plans than in God Himself; when I am more interested in having Him rush the future than in enjoying Him in the present:

 “Woe to those… who say: ‘Let Him be quick, let Him speed His work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it” (Isaiah 5:18-19, ESV).

             It is a good idea to avoid anything that is preceded in Scripture by “woe to those who…”!


            Finally, through a series of e-mails, phone calls, and face-to-face encounters, plans did unfold for me.  No scholarships, but one of those exciting ministry jobs was graciously extended to me.  The greatest Treasure, however, never changed.  I may now have the sense of peace that comes from knowing (or thinking I know!) the plan, but the greatest Treasure was already mine.  Though we are quite often deprived of knowing what God has in store for us down the road, we are not deprived of God Himself in the present.  I wished I had spent more praying and enjoying God in the present than with clicking that mouse in search of my future.  I wished I had been more engrossed with Jesus than with His plans for me. 

When Galadriel allowed those hobbits to look in her Mirror, they did not get to see the future per se, but strange visions of what could be that locked them more solidly in their commitment to the quest, no matter the eventual (and likely dreadful) outcome.  This blog makes no claims to be oracular.  But maybe the conversations will spur us on to think more accurately and savor more passionately our Lord. 

So forget divining the self-oriented future.  God’s (often silent) presence is better.



Leaving a small rural church for a large suburban church

            I pastor a small Baptist church outside of Durham, NC.  A weathered sign at the corner of US HWY 70 and Old NC 10 points passersby our way.  It simply reads in faded Old English font:

Mount Hermon Baptist Church

Est., 1848


            When I came to Mount Hermon in September of 2006, it was after four years of campus ministry.  I went from the sound of drums and acoustic guitars to the sound of an organ… and the occasional hiss of Mr. J____’s oxygen tank.  The smell of coffee and burning candles at the college services was replaced with the scent of the perfume preferred by older ladies.  The reasons people missed worship services went from viewing American Idol to suffering with arthritis. 

            I fell in love this little church. 

            I came to Durham for a degree program, not for a pastorate.  But God divinely cornered me and I found myself under the employ of Mount Hermon.  For the past two years I have struggled to be somewhat decent as a shepherd. 

            Then I heard about this job in Birmingham.  The dream job.  Now, I was actually hoping to enroll in a doctoral program, but I had to take seriously this job opening.  A suburban church with which my wife and I had worked during my seminary years was looking for a College Pastor who would head up a large, vibrant campus ministry.  I knew the guy whose place I would be taking—he is one of my closest friends.    

            But I really love this little country church in Durham.  

            Weeks and months passed by.  I actually removed my name from the candidacy for that campus ministry position.  But when I was having doubts, they called back and asked if I would at least show up for an interview. 

            A week later, after long bouts of the kind of miserable prayer that precedes major decisions, we decided to move to Birmingham.

            So I had to tell the little country church that I was leaving. 

            The Lord’s Supper had been scheduled for that Sunday (it was that time in the quarter, you know).  I chose as the text John 13-17, Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to His disciples (for John, the Passover meal is decidedly placed in the backdrop of this scene).  I told the congregation that the first Lord’s Supper was occasioned with the sadness of a departure, and that our morning of sharing in the same meal would be similar.  I did not view myself as Jesus and the parishioners as my disciples, but the situation was that of a minor shepherd leaving a precious little flock. 

            I carefully conveyed my story to them.  And since the disciples posed a number of questions in John’s Farewell Discourse, I gave them the chance to ask questions of me.  No one asked a question at first, but the sanctuary was not silent.  The sounds that accompany the use of a tissue sporadically echoed throughout the pews.

            A few people made comments, and that was all I could take.  I broke down behind the pulpit.  I wept, tried to calm down and speak, only to make those terrible sounds one makes when they think they have calmed from weeping but haven’t (and the pulpit mic seemed to catch all those awkward sounds). 

            I finally escaped to play the piano during Communion.  But afterwards, friend after friend approached me with hugs.  These were people whose spouses, cousins, and even children, I had buried.  I knew where their bodies were scarred from recent surgeries.  I could not gather myself.  I was wrecked. 


            There is a lot of glitz and glamour attached to certain churches and certain positions in ministry.  I do think I am following God’s guidance in moving to the large suburban church with multiple services and video projection screens.  It is a wonderful church.  But I hope I never fail to forget what I told the little country church that day before we took the Lord’s Supper: “I am not moving on to bigger and better things.  They may be bigger… but they are not better.”