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Earlier this month, I posted a review of Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, in which I commended the book for its substance and critiqued it for its style. The review ignited a conversation in the comments section, on Twitter, and via email. Most of the responders agreed with me. We are often good at articulating biblical doctrine, but we don’t give much thought to the role of beauty in communicating truth.

Jared Wilson has written some challenging things about this subject:

We need prose that sings. We need writers who aren’t merely authorities in their areas and can relay information to us in competent ways. Or we need readers who will not settle for that kind of writer. We need writers who receive on literary frequencies, writers who feel what they write, who convey poetry or beauty or some ecstatic sense in their writing. We need writers whose work emanates off the page the hum and buzz of adoration.

Some have asked me to cite some examples of the kind of writing we should see more of, and the kind of writing that we authors should aspire to. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books quickly come to mind, of course. But there are other theologians and authors who also succeed at this well. Here are some examples:

G.K. Chesterton

I love the way Chesterton describes Easter morning:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.”

Here is Chesterton again, making the case for humility as childlike wonder:

Humility is the thing which is for ever renewing the earth and the stars. It is humility, and not duty, which preserves the stars from wrong, from the unpardonable wrong of casual resignation; it is through humility that the most ancient heavens for us are fresh and strong. The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, “the light of common day.” We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things.

Timothy Stoner

In The God Who Smokes, Timothy Stoner creates a portrait of God that exposes Rob Bell’s passive, sentimentalized vision of God as woefully reductionistic. Tim makes the case that believing God gets angry is part of what it means to believe that God loves:

“We are not only invited guests but the blushing Bride. And our Groom is a heroic King, a mighty warrior who is good and just and stunning in his beauty. He is so full of passion and blazing emotion that he burns – and yes, smokes in the ferocity of his infinite, holy love that compelled him to give it all away for his Bride. And he who gave it all for us is worth giving ourselves completely to.”

And check out this Piper-esque description of God in His glory:

“God really believes that he is the most worthy, most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. And he is fixated on the certainty that only he deserves worship – that to him alone belong honor, glory, and praise forever and forever. With red-rimmed, stinging eyes and burning hair, all we can say is – he is right. He is astonishingly beautiful, utterly majestic and perfect in the symmetries of justice and righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom. He is as hypnotically compelling as a surging forest fire and ten times as dangerous. He is out of control – ours, not his.” (83)

Responding to the idea that “love wins,” Stoner reminds us that, biblically speaking, holy love wins:

The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness. It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as he does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as he loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for himself above all things. He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End. He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that is blinding. He rules, he reigns, he rages and roars, then bends down to whisper love songs to his creatures. His love is vast and irresistible. It is also terrifying, and it will spare no expense to give everything away in order to free us from the bondage of sin, purifying for himself a people who are devoted to his glory, a people who have “no ambition except to do good”. So he crushes his precious Son in order to rescue and restore mankind along with his entire creation. He unleashes perfect judgment on the perfectly obedient sacrifice and then pulls him up out of the grave in a smashing and utter victory. He is a God who triumphs… He is a burning cyclone of passionate love. Holy love wins.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore’s description of Easter morning sends chills up my spine:

That corpse of Jesus just lay there in the silences of that cave. By all appearances it had been tested and tried, and found wanting. If you’d been there to pull open his bruised eyelids, matted together with mottled blood, you would have looked into blank holes. If you’d lifted his arm, you would have felt no resistance. You would have heard only the thud as it hit the table when you let it go. You might have walked away from that morbid scene muttering to yourself, “The wages of sin is death.”

But sometime before dawn on a Sunday morning, a spike-torn hand twitched. A blood-crusted eyelid opened. The breath of God came blowing into that cave, and a new creation flashed into reality….

Michael Kelley

The Soldier with Tears in his Eyes: This is only a blog post, but I love how Michael Kelley uses his imagination to draw us into the life of the early church and experience the glory of salvation within community.

John Calvin

Who says theology has to be dry? Justin Taylor recently posted this beautiful section from Calvin’s Institutes, where Calvin explains that “We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else.”

If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.”
If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing.

If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion;
if purity, in his conception;
if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain.
If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion;
if acquittal, in his condemnation;
if remission of the curse, in his cross;
if satisfaction, in his sacrifice;
if purification, in his blood;
if reconciliation, in his descent into hell;
if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb;
if newness of life, in his resurrection;
if immortality, in the same;
if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven;
if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom;
if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge.

In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.

Augustine

His dense commentaries aside, Augustine could also write beautifully. Here is one of my all-time favorite quotes from the church father:

Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.

N.T. Wright

D.A. Carson has commented many times that it’s nearly impossible for N.T. Wright to compose a boring sentence. The quote below is not even from a book, but a Christmas sermon:

The wonder of Christmas morning is that today we are summoned to look at the baby in the manger and recognise whose stamp, whose imprint, he bears. On Christmas morning we find ourselves gazing at God inside out. This baby is what you get when the stamp of divine nature leaves its exact imprint in the soft metal of a human being. Jesus is the coin that tells you whose country you are living in. Jesus is the seal that tells us whose authority the document carries. Jesus is the alphabet, Alpha and Omega, beginning and ending, Chi and Rho, the Christ, Sigma for Soter, Saviour, Tau for the cross – the letters that speak of his identity, his vocation, his victory.

When the living God wants to become human, this is how he spells his name, spells it in the character, the exact imprint, of his own nature, writes it in flesh and blood, soft, vulnerable human tissue, stamps it into the innermost being of the foetus in Mary’s womb, the light of the world who blinked and cried as his eyes opened to this world’s light, the source of life who eagerly drank his own mother’s milk. This is God inside out; O come, let us adore him.

This truth is so dazzling, so nourishing, that we ourselves blink at its brightness even as we come to feed on its richness.

That’s what we’re looking for. Ways to capture the truth in dazzling, nourishing ways that cause us to blink at truth’s brightness and feed on its richness. May God raise up a generation of writers who not only know the truth, but beckon others to swim in the depths of grace!


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24 thoughts on “Proclaiming Truth Beautifully”

  1. Rhetoric is a lost art. I was reviewing Sam Harri’s newest book The Moral Landscape and I thoroughly enjoyed having his acerbic tongue on the side of moral objectivity.

    Other good Christian writers that address otherwise dry topics: Dallas Willard and Phillip E. Johnson come to mind. While I don’t agree with everything the man says, Brennan Manning has always had a fluent pen.

  2. John Moody says:

    N.D. Wilson is probably the best Christian writer I know of in terms of sheer beauty of prose. His “Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl” is a delight to read and reread – very Chestertonian.

  3. Matt says:

    Excellent, excellent point.

    I would add that Rob Bell is actually a good example of good style — of compellingly written, beautiful prose.

    Which highlights the problem: in his case, it is put in the service, often (especially in this last case), of bad doctrine.

    How great it would be if good style was put more and more in the service of _sound_ doctrine.

    One of the reasons Love Wins got the attention it did is because Bell is a good writer. Even the title (and sub-title) and cover of the book, as well as the writing itself, embody good style.

    Lots of secular thinkers also know how to write with style, create titles that engage, and organize their thoughts in a way that creates surprise and is compelling. We have much to learn from them, as well. Dan Pink is a good example here, as is Jim Collins. And, these guys, fortunately, _are_ teaching true and good things.

  4. I’m not trying to promote my blog, but I wrote a post touching on this issue and there is a small section from Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s “The Book of God” that shows how beautiful well written prose can be. Check it out:

    http://brucehennigan.com/2011/08/05/what-is-your-god-like/

  5. Brian Wasicki says:

    I agree with the premis, but that kind of writing does not grow on trees; it is formed in schools with great teaches and in homes with concerned parents.

    When schools are more concerned with educating (indoctrinating) our students with curriculum like, “Heather Has Two Moms” instead of reading writing. . . we will see very few who can create beauty with words from future generations, I’m afraid.

  6. James says:

    Two lesser-known authors who are doing just this:
    Dale Ralph Davis
    Douglas Sean O’Donnell
    If you haven’t read them yet, check them out.
    Also try Phillip Cary’s “Good News for Anxious Christians.”

  7. Jeremy says:

    Kevin Vanhoozer is a theologian whose prose is maybe the most beautiful I have ever read. He is a wordsmith and his theology is nearly poetic.

  8. That entire book by Dr. Moore is a masterpiece. I read it in almost one sitting, late into the night, and gasped out loud more than once at how vivid and piercing his prose was. I didn’t know Southern Baptists were allowed to write like that. :)

  9. Michaiah says:

    Mr. Wax, you have stated the problem quite clearly. What we need is a solution. What steps should writers take in order to learn to write in such a grand manner?

  10. Taylor says:

    I actually have theory developing on beautiful writing and necessary writing. Part of the reason we need great writers is to maintain a continuity of solid Christian literature for posterity. Part of the reason we don’t see them is because we look for them everywhere instead of waiting to find them. I imagine for every Augustine, Spenser, Ryle, and Lewis there were considerably more godly, aspiring writers who simply didn’t write beyond their times.

    I love lesser authors, in the best sense of the word. They are good and necessary; try recommending Edmund Spenser to someone who’s never read anything but To Kill a Mockngbird. A few modern, authors that are talented, but I doubt timeless are Jerry Bridges, Mark Driscoll, and Keving DeYoung. They write well and compellingly; they write what people need to read, but they write for this generation. Publishers know this. Most of today’s authors can’t be regularly bought in hardcover. I would suggest that is because they focus on the need of the moment. I believe this is their calling and their is absolutely nothing lesser about living out one’s calling.

    Still, we also need careful authors, devoted to literature and willing to write for writing’s sake. They ought to be called to writing in much the same way as men like Keith Green are called to music. It is simply the weapon in their arsenal that best serves their Maker. They will last, and when they do, our generation will join with them as a cloud of witnesses for those to come.

  11. Matt says:

    So glad you mentioned Russell Moore. His sermons, books, blog posts, even his systemic theology class lectures have a beauty and literary quality above the rest.

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  13. Dave Van Lant says:

    I’m still wondering what it was exactly about Love Wins that could be considered artistic.

  14. Jordan says:

    A Michaiah: T. David Gordon’s “Why Johnny Can’t Preach”: though the book deals with homiletics and not necessarily writing, its point is largely valid for writers as well.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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