With so much bad academic writing, we cry, “Paragraphs, paragraphs everywhere, and not a word to read.” Yet much academic writing is refreshing and worth savoring. Take Kevin Vanhoozer in Jesus, Paul and the People of God:
At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in autumn 2009 I had just led a pep rally for the integration of biblical studies and systematics when Dennis Hollinger asked about the elephant in the room: [N. T.] Wright’s approach to justification. At the time I was still in my dogmatic slumbers;
all I could do was stammer in reply, “I think it’s in another room.” Well, the elephant–not the good bishop but the problem of biblical studies overturning received theological views–is indeed in the room. In fact, it is stampeding through our big evangelical tent, kicking up sawdust and overturning the tables of the doctrine changers.
I’m in no position as a systematic theologian to offer ex cathedra pronouncements about the true shape and substance of Second Temple Judaism. As one New Testament scholar kindly put it to me: “You might be right, but you won’t be convincing.” I therefore feel like a school-crossing guard–what the British call a lollipop man–charged with helping people navigate their way across the Berlin Wall separating biblical studies and dogmatics. My aim in what follows is to encourage peace talks between New Perspectives and old Protestants. (pp. 235-36)
Here’s reading that’s fun and informative. Vanhoozer puts himself (self-deprecatingly) into the picture and decorates it with similes and metaphors of elephants and crossing guards. Scriptural and historical allusions romp through these paragraphs. We travel from the concrete terrain of Massachusetts to Jerusalem to England to Germany in a few sentences, yet never lose our way in the wilds of abstraction.
We are not just entertained by this. We learn through vivid contrasts of old and new, biblical studies and theology, war and peace. Active verbs stammer, stampede, overturn, navigate and kick their way through our own slumbers, waking us up to the drama of ideas (and yes, Kevin, of doctrine).
Vanhoozer doesn’t merely write well. He communicates well. He uses a variety of artful skills to hold our attention, make sure we understand and help us remember. He is an academic who offers a cup of clear, cold water to thirsty minds.