Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Up with Mediaeval Impracticality

My day job is as an editor for a publisher of nonfiction books, and as such I try to help people frame and structure their ideas so that their reader won't nod off. Often, that's not an easy task. There are many shapes that a nonfiction book could take that readers will tolerate, but my favorite is something along the lines of this:

1. Articulate the problem.
2. Trace the history of the problem.
3. Identify the core principles that pertain to the problem.
4. Tease out the implications of the core principles.
5. Reorganize the world around those core principles and their implications.

(Of course this presumes some prior identification with the problem and some hope of a solution on the part of the reader. And so the book is packaged around the promise--an introduction and a conclusion (perhaps better thought of as a benediction) assure the reader that the ennui that led them to the book can be confronted and contended with--and sold by its solutions with a catchy, memorable, hope-filled title. Instant classic. Or something like that.)

This structure is, incidentally, how practical theologians tend to think. Practical theologians emphasize the feedback loop between the abstract work that historically has characterized theology and the world-made-by-and-sustained-by-God that inspires such abstractions. They ask questions like "Why are so many people getting tattoos? Why is the Bible seemingly so opposed to tattoos? Are the tattoos of the twenty-first centuries A.D. and B.C. the same? If not, how ought we to think about contemporary body art?"

My utter lack of body art aside, I suppose my enthusiasm for such grounded theological reflection may make me an armchair practical theologian. My patron saint in this vocation is G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the following as an introduction to his Heretics, a collection of essays playfully challenging the prevailing post-Christian minds of his day.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

I've referred several new authors to this parable lately, a reminder that they have in a sense embraced the call of this monk, and while they thus may be occasionally and even "somewhat excusably knocked down," clear and cogent books are their gift to a world that too often doesn't know what it wants or even needs. I daresay their books are their ministry, their mission.

3 comments:

cas said...

See, this is why I need you to be my editor if and when I write a book. As discussed on the IVP blog (can't remember which one), my muse is "problem child."

Not only that, but I philosophized in print about getting a tattoo this year and what modern tattoos might mean! I'm a practical theologian too and didn't know it. I needed an editor to tell me that!

And then, of course, there is the fact that you make humorous comments in the margines when you're editing a book. A really good editor has a winning sense of humor!

David A. Zimmerman said...

Send me your proposal whenever you're ready.

cas said...

My goal is to write the proposal & one chapter in September. Then a good chunk of a first draft in November while hubby and I are in Florida. Thanks.