Twitter would have tightened up St. Paul’s writing

Probably_Valentin_de_Boulogne_-_Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles_-_Google_Art_Project

Is it blasphemous to criticize St. Paul’s writing? Probably not. It might seem a bit disrespectful to some, though, and I’m sensitive to that.

I hope those folks, and more importantly God, will forgive me if I confess something: His writing has long bugged me.

Sure, there are some nice, even beautifully poetic, passages — such as that one that is read so often at weddings. And I’ll even admit that there are brushstrokes of majesty in the verses I’m about to criticize specifically.

But I still find him on the whole rather tedious, and over-wordy. Especially some of those greetings in his epistles, which read to me sort of like “I, Paul, who will now insert multiple clauses setting out complex theological concepts adding up to an incredible number of words and making you despair of ever reaching the end of the sentence, in some cases describing myself and my own holiness, which you should emulate, but at other times describing a detailed scheme of thought for this new religion that I’m the first to write about, bring you greetings.”

I know there are a lot of important theological concepts in these passages, but when you try to cram all that into your lede, you’re going to lose your reader. I realize that as a journalist, I’m prejudiced on this score, but I don’t know another way to be. Forgive me, but sometimes I feel like maybe Paul was overthinking it, that perhaps Jesus’ teachings were more simple and direct than Paul made them out to be. I’ve always been partial to the way an atheist, Douglas Adams, described Christ’s message. To him, Jesus talked about “how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”

Anyway, all this came back to me this past Sunday as I sat through this reading, Romans 5:12-19:

Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.
For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation;
but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act,
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.

And as I followed along, reading the text as I listened, I thought, I could say this in a Tweet. And I was right. Here it is:

Through the fault of one man, Adam, sin came into the world for all. And through the goodness of one man, Jesus, abundant life came to all.

And I have one character to spare. I’m not bragging. Any reasonably competent modern editor could do it.

Sure, many modern editors have been guilty of slashing, indiscriminate violence against the language in their zeal for brevity. And I’m leaving out some important theological concepts, such as “Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come.” But I’ve communicated the main concepts, right?

No, I’m not saying we’d be better off if the Bible were just a series of Tweets. I’m too much the traditionalist for that. And I love most of the Bible. But I find Paul wearing, and I’m just saying that had he had a fairly active Twitter feed, it might have tightened up his prose some. He wouldn’t have written his epistles in 140-character bites (one hopes), but at least the practice would have gotten him into the habit of getting to the point.

Of course, the fact that he didn’t is no fault of his.

3 thoughts on “Twitter would have tightened up St. Paul’s writing

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Then again, in defense of wordiness, I’ll cite an authority much beloved of journalists, not just because he was one of us, but because he used the language as beautifully yet economically as anyone ever has: Mark Twain, of course.

    If you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, you should have. As you’ll recall if you have, he does his best to modernize the sixth century to the level of the late 19th. I love his description of one of the first newspapers edited by his loyal assistant Clarence:

    Of course it was good enough journalism for a beginning; I knew that quite well, and yet it was somehow disappointing. The “Court Circular” pleased me better; indeed, its simple and dignified respectfulness was a distinct refreshment to me after all those disgraceful familiarities. But even it could have been improved. Do what one may, there is no getting an air of variety into a court circular, I acknowledge that. There is a profound monotonousness about its facts that baffles and defeats one’s sincerest efforts to make them sparkle and enthuse. The best way to manage — in fact, the only sensible way — is to disguise repetitiousness of fact under variety of form: skin your fact each time and lay on a new cuticle of words. It deceives the eye; you think it is a new fact; it gives you the idea that the court is carrying on like everything; this excites you, and you drain the whole column, with a good appetite, and perhaps never notice that it’s a barrel of soup made out of a single bean. Clarence’s way was good, it was simple, it was dignified, it was direct and business-like; all I say is, it was not the best way:

    COURT CIRCULAR.
    On Monday, the king rode in the park.
    ” Tuesday, ” ” ”
    ” Wednesday ” ” ”
    ” Thursday ” ” ”
    ” Friday, ” ” ”
    ” Saturday ” ” ”
    ” Sunday, ” ” “

    All of that to admit again that had St. Paul written entirely in Tweets, it might have been good, simple, dignified, direct and businesslike, but it would not have been “the best way.”

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  2. David L Carlton

    Er, actually, Brad, Paul himself beat you to the punch. I Cor. 15:22 (KJV): “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (It’s not obscure; it’s one of the most famous choruses in *Messiah*). He was perfectly capable of this; he just had more expansive things to say here.

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