Make Christian Nonfiction Beautiful Again

Yesterday, several people asked me what I was reading. When I replied, “Abraham Kuyper’s The Work of the Holy Spirit” and showed them this thick treasure-trove of a tome, there were two basic responses: 1) nodding and backing away as though Reformed theology is contagious and 2) an appreciative nod accompanied by some comment that this was probably a grueling read.

I was baffled by both responses. Although it isn’t “brain candy,” this book is deeply insightful and beautiful. As one person tried (unsuccessfully) to escape a conversation about this book, I declared that every syllable is like a pearl on a priceless necklace: meticulously chosen, perfectly polished, and masterfully strung together into a substantial, elegant whole.

Between sections of The Work of the Holy Spirit, I took a break and read a book by a contemporary author. It had good content and I finished it in a day, but I found myself annoyed. Whereas Kuyper wrote with great enthusiasm and depth—correctly presuming that his reader cares about the subject and is dedicated to its study—this contemporary author seems to assume that his reader is fundamentally uninterested and unable to sustain a thought for longer than a few moments.

Read the following passages and you’ll see what I mean. Both passages represent breaks from their respective author’s primary topic, small asides that are perhaps meant to build a sense of fellowship between reader and writer.

In this first passage, Kuyper pauses in his discussion of the Holy Spirit to praise the power of scripture. It is as if he is leaning across his desk, talking excitedly with a peer who shares his zeal:

Altho there is no subject [the work of the Holy Spirit] in whose treatment the soul inclines more to draw upon experience, there is none that demands more that our sole source of knowledge be the Word given us by the Holy Spirit…That wondrous Word of God as a mystery of mysteries lies still uncomprehended in the Church, seemingly dead as a stone, but a stone that strikes fire. Who has not seen its scintillating sparks? Where is the child of God whose heart has not been kindled by the fire of that Word?

Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit p. 4-5 (translated by Rev. Henri De Vries)

Next, read this paragraph from Preston Sprinkle’s book on transgender identities and the Church:

If you slept through high school biology, you might be dozing off right now. But please fight the urge. All this stuff…is important for our topic. Slap yourself if you need to.

Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible has to Say, p. 36

This passage is utterly unnecessary. It assumes that readers were and continue to be unenthusiastic students; they don’t care about the nuances of this subject and probably just want quick, quippy answers. Like an insecure teacher who wastes time trying to convince his students to pay attention, Sprinkle wastes words trying to persuade his readers to care about this subject.

My favorite teachers didn’t waste time on classroom management. They didn’t have to. They were so knowledgeable and passionate that we wanted to listen. Funny enough, the best example of this was my high school biology teacher.

A good teacher or writer, like Kuyper, respects his readers enough to assume that they are interested in and capable of understanding his subject matter—including its finer points.

This is why, although I will continue to read and benefit from new publications, older books remain foundational to my reading. I cannot abide these constant concessions to our sound-bite, Instagram reel culture. I prefer authors who take their readers seriously as people hungry for substance and able to digest it without “literary laxatives.” Dr. Sprinkle’s book, Embodied, is in many ways excellent. However, he could have included several more pages of insight and information if he edited out these unnecessary asides.

I’m not saying all Christian nonfiction must be dense, but it must be dignified.

I’m not saying all Christian nonfiction books must be dense; I want theology to be an accessible and enjoyable pursuit. However, theological writing must be dignified. We can (and should) distill deep concepts into simpler terms, but we should never dumb them down so as to insult our readers.

I know all too well that Christian publishers enforce word limits; authors may not be allowed to soar to the heights of expression employed by Kuyper. Why, then, do so many contemporary authors spend precious words trying desperately to attract and relate to their readers? Why don’t they assume that, if we bought their book and are several chapters in, we are already invested?

Again, I enjoyed Dr. Sprinkle’s book. It offers insight into a multifaceted topic. My main takeaway, though, is that I crave beautiful writing—writing that raises its readers to higher levels of apprehension and appreciation. I love looking up new words, rereading well-crafted sentences, and feeling that an author thinks highly enough of me as his reader to invite me to greater heights of exposition, expression, and—ultimately—enjoyment.

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