When I first started attending a United Methodist church, and the leadership figured out what my background was, I was soon invited to teach various classes around the church. I was fairly pleased with this, as I love to
talkteach, and it gave me plenty of opportunities.
My approach was to search for ever newer things to talk about. I wanted to work from my most recent reading and find something that nobody had ever heard of before. Above all, I didn’t want people to feel bored because I was covering topics that were too simple or basic.
I would note here that due to my detour from the church following graduate school, this was my first extensive experience teaching the folks in the pews, and not dealing with folks in the halls of academia. In academic circles, one often brings up a topic only to be informed that the listener has read an article in some scholarly journal on that topic, or to be asked if one has read something even more recent. That’s all well and good in scholarly circles. It saves time. If you’ve both read the same article you can go on with the discussion on that basis.
A very nice education director called me aside one day and pointed out that I was really missing telling people the things that they needed to know. I thought I was keeping their interest. They were impressed with my intelligence and breadth of knowledge, she told me, but they weren’t really getting what I was trying to teach. Her suggestion was that I keep things basic—from my point of view—and they would be at about the right level from hers, and that of the listeners.
I don’t know that I always follow that advice. I occasionally find myself rambling off into strange territory, and I’ll suddenly ask a class if I’m saying anything of interest. Some honest soul will tell me that I’ve gone off the deep end.
I’ve noticed this with some scholars of my acquaintance. First, there are many more scholars who believe they speak clearly to common people than actually do. By common people here I don’t mean stupid people or ignorant people; I mean people who are not scholars in the area of a particular scholar’s expertise.
Second, there’s the “we’ve already covered this” syndrome. This covers hundreds of topics. I’ve recently heard it with regard to a range of controversies. The method here is to refer one to a prior magazine or journal article, or a book written a few years ago and then shrug and say that nothing more needs to be said on that topic.
It doesn’t look that way where I live. I don’t live in academia. Yes, I have an MA degree, but that was my last academic experience. The rest of my life has been outside of academia. Nonetheless, both through my reading, and now through my publishing, I encounter scholars on a regular basis. I also encounter the comments of intelligent and informed readers who are not scholars. They often tell me that the scholars aren’t being nearly as clear as they think they are.
There are many fields of study where it is appropriate for one to spend a lifetime communicating only with other scholars. One can think of various scientific fields, or even of some of the more technical branches of biblical studies, such as textual criticism. But ultimately when dealing with faith, what doesn’t get out to the broader community is, in my view, largely wasted.
We need more scholars who will spend their time learning to communicate their views to the public. In order to learn to do this, they will need to listen to what people are saying with regard to their writing and speaking. Are people hearing, or are they not.
I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to single out people of my acquaintance, but I’d like to give an example. One speaker of my acquaintance was invited to speak at a church for the weekend. This was not a church in the same religious tradition as his. At a Friday night meeting he felt he had not communicated. He listened to what people said after the meeting. He talked to me. He talked to the pastor. He spent much of the night in prayer. When he returned to speak Saturday morning, things were completely different. He had listened to the people and to the Holy Spirit. By the time he preached his Sunday morning message there was a bond between him and the congregation.
We need more scholars and experts who can follow that example.