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Simple Is Good; Oversimple Is Bad

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

I happen to chair the committee that coordinates the major lectureship at Regent College, the Laing Lectures. Roger Laing, our patron, is a very smart businessman with theological degrees who reads more theology than most pastors or professors and wants Christians to enjoy thinking as much as he does.

This lectureship has brought some extraordinarily thoughtful people to campus: Neil Postman, Charles Taylor, Margaret Visser, Peter Berger, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Miroslav Volf, and Walter Brueggemann, to date.

Recently someone suggested we bring Malcolm Gladwell to campus, author of bestsellers such as The Tipping Point and Blink. I read both of those books and found them mildly entertaining but almost entirely insubstantial: cotton candy for the mind. I take notes assiduously on books I read and I frankly found almost nothing noteworthy in either of them. They seemed either to take a while to state the obvious or to raise contentious possibilities without cogent argument. A British journal has decided to go after Gladwell and has done so pretty seriously here and here. They seem right to me in their criticism and I can’t imagine us bringing him to campus–not that we could afford him, even nowadays, given how popular he is.

It reminds me of the dictum ascribed to Einstein: “Simplify as far as possible, but no farther.” One of the key intellectual disciplines to learn is when you just can’t make it any plainer or simpler without misleading yourself or your audience. Sometimes you really do have to say five things, not one thing, and use four paragraphs or even four chapters instead of twelve words.

I recently guested on a TV show hosted by a notorious critic of the Christian faith. As we worked through his Top Ten List of Things He Doesn’t Like about Christianity (not actually what he called them, but that’s what they were), he chided Christians for “all that theology that complicated things.” Why not, he challenged, just say, “Love your neighbour”?

Since he had been both a lawyer and a politician, I countered with this observation: “Law seems awfully complicated too, doesn’t it? I mean, why not just say, ‘Mind your own business. Don’t steal. Keep your word’–you know, stuff like that? Could it be that the adult world is a bit complicated and so adults need complicated laws?”

Lots of Christians seem to feel the way that host did, however. Listen to our sermons. Read our bestselling books (it won’t take you long). Consider our song lyrics (although no, I don’t want to get into that again just now, thank you very much!).

Isn’t our faith simple? Can’t a child understand it? Isn’t it enough that “Jesus loves me” and I love him?

Two words: The Bible.

If God had wanted to communicate something as simple as some Christians say the gospel is, God could have given us a pamphlet, not sixty-six books (or more, according to our Catholic friends!) of wildly varying genres written over hundreds of years that deal with dozens of topics. And you might have noticed that the Bible is not immediately intelligible to children, or even to most adults.

Two more words: Jesus Christ.

If God’s message to humanity were as simple as some preachers and parents tell us it is, we wouldn’t have needed a walking, talking Word of God to show and tell us what we needed to be shown and told.

Yes, praise God, the fundamental truth about God–God is light and God is love–and the fundamental truth about us–we need God and we must trust him to help us–is simple. But defining what all that means has required all the resources of the Christian Church over two thousand years and counting….

So let’s rejoice in teachers and preachers and writers and lyricists and poets and prophets who can help us understand difficult matters by putting them in appropriately simple terms.

But let’s remain on our guard against those who, however sincere their motives, oversimplify things, leaving out crucial truths without which we effectively end up believing what is false.

For in so many cases of misguided belief, including many of the heresies of the church, the problem has not been that people didn’t have correct theological ideas. It is that they didn’t have enough correct theological ideas. “Jesus is fully human” is true. But you’d better quickly add that “Jesus was also fully divine” or your view of Christ is simply wrong.

Simple is good. Oversimple can be heretical and dangerous.

That’s why God gave us a big Book, a live Revelation, and Christian teachers empowered by the Spirit to help us understand.

Let’s pay attention–even if it’s a bit complicated–because life, you’ll have noticed, is a bit complicated, too.


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