Stylish Academic Writing 4: A Cup of Cold Water

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;

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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.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Stylish Academic Writing 4: A Cup of Cold Water”

  1. Thanks for this good example, Andy. I have to think that confidence has something to do with how well or poorly academics write. I, for example, am sometimes tempted to use formal-sounding prose in academic writing because I imagine that it will make my colleagues think I know what I’m talking about—as if “so-and-so’s contribution regarding the economics of the chattel system” is categorically smarter than “so-and-so’s work on slavery.”

    Dr. Vanhoozer, and Bishop Wright, and Doug Sweeney and a host of other great scholars who are also great writers write as if they don’t have anything to prove. That means we all win.

  2. Right you are, Brandon. Academics are human, just like the rest of us. It’s better, therefore, if they sound human when they write. I do understand, however, that in a good way many academics are trying to get themselves out of the way so the content come to the fore. It’s recognizing that you can go too far one way or the other. Finding the balance that is true to you as a writer, well, I suppose that’s the holy grail.

  3. I have been reading academic theology since 1975. FYI… I graduated Gordon-Conwell in 1980 and did further study many years later in Durham England, Catholic Theological Union (Chicago) and The Lutheran School of Theology (Chicago).

    OK…….. you can only have 5 books of theology to take on that long journey and they have to be well written.
    Here are the ones for me!

    1. Gordon Kauffman’s
    Systematic Theology, A Historist Perspective.
    2. Richard McBrian’s Catholicism
    3. Anything by Roland Bainton (Luther, Reformation, Church History…it’s all pure gold!)
    4. Dan Migliore’s masterpiece: Faith seeking Understanding
    5. Moby Dick, Herman Melville….it’s more theological than any theology book I’ve ever read

    Thats my list and I’m sticking to it!!!!!


  4. Let me be a naysayer.

    I find that too many informational books today suffer from three problems:

    1. Setup fixation
    2. USA Today Syndrome
    3. Self-referential, wisecracking cleverness

    The real problem comes when all three combine. What you get are books with a lot of insider humor, written in a terse style, that endlessly sets up an idea yet never explore the depths of it.

    What the reader gets is a laugh or two in a simple read that has an appearance of profundity yet didn’t answer the question it sought to address.

    Fact is, I’m tired of reading books like this. They are all simpleminded fluff devoid of answers. It’s as if the authors find that the journey is the only point, even if the sojourner ends up back at his starting point scratching his head at what he experienced.

    Reading your example does nothing to relieve my first impression that this is yet another book in that style.

  5. I guess I agree in part and disagree in part. Can this sort of writing and the example of Vanhoozer be overdone? Absolutely. If Vanhoozer’s entire essay were like this, it would be way too much. It would become very tiresome indeed. And in fact, as his piece progresses, he settles into a very substantive mode and some very profound thinking about the doctrine of adoption. But along the way he continues to show his skills as a writer and a thinker.

    I offered the example because it was very compact. I couldn’t quote the whole chapter, as good as it is. And it showed a lot of excellent writing features in a small space–conducive to a blog. What writers should aim for is the happy marriage of style and content. Excellent content written in a deadly style is going to be just as dead as fluff written with a lot of pyrotechnics.

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