A word for preachers: on complexification and simplification

I learned a new word yesterday. Maybe you already knew it and people in your field of work/study use it all the time. If so, please bear with my ignorance. My education has been helped along.

The word is complexify.

Heard of it? (My spell checker doesn’t recognise it, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you never heard it before.)

The book where I found it says that ‘to complexify something is to take that which at first glance appears normal and uncomplicated and through a process of critical reflection at various levels, reveal that it is in fact complex and polyvalent.’ They illustrate it by talking about football.

At one level, football is a very simple thing. 22 people kick a ball around for 90 minutes: one team has to get the ball in their opponents’ net more often than the other team.

That’s it. Simple.

(Good job they didn’t pick cricket).

But is it really that simple? What about all the rules? How did they come about? What about finance? How come a few teams have most of the money? What about the way teams keep coming out with a new kit that they sell to the fans? What does that communicate about how they view their fans?

See? There is more to it than meets the eye once you start to complexify it.

Here is a theological example. The love of God. Simple. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ Children can sing that; they can learn it by heart. Many have. It’s a wonderful truth. Bible 101.

But is it as simple as that? Don Carson thinks not. He has written a book on ‘The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God’: he traces five different ways the Bible talks about the love of God.

There is a story about the theologian Karl Barth who is alleged to have been asked  to summarise his multi-volume Church Dynamics (by the time he finished it, it came to about 6 million words). His answer (if the story is true)? ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’

The difference between a child singing those words in Sunday School and a theologian using the same words to summarise millions of words of theology is that the theologian is engaging in simplification after he has done the work of complexification.

Therein lies the challenge for preachers and teachers. We need to communicate simply, but that’s not the same as being simplistic. Simplistic is on the near side of complexity and simple is on the far side. You do not need to be a Barth or a Carson and you will never manage to get to the definitive, universally agreed, explanation of all truth – 2000 years on and we still don’t have it all ironed out – but aim to complexify before you simplify.

Aim for the simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity, that comes because you have some understanding of what you are teaching, and not because you don’t.

Simple, really. Isn’t it?

Or not?

 

 

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