Less Is More

Michael Metzger

The less you speak, the better. God’s warning to teachers of His Word. But why this warning?

Last Monday, I described The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s what we experience when we approach the ineffable God. We see how in this life he is beyond adequate description. So it’s unwise to be wordy, to add layers and layers of words in an effort to be clear.

Older traditions recognize this. Most offer a short commentary, a homily, typically not more than 12 minutes, following a reading of scripture. Homilies heed God’s warning to preachers. “The less you speak, the better. Overtalk shows you up as a fool” (Eccl.5:1-3, The Message).

Recognizing overtalk requires contemplation, the way we enter The Cloud of Unknowing. Contemplation is passive, receptive, like a bride opening her body to receive her husband’s body in nuptial union. It’s “opening our eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling any effort or strain on our part.”[1]

This is language associated with lovemaking, which is how God first depicts knowing (“Adam knew Eve, and she conceived” Gen.4:1). When making love, the less said, the better.

The same goes for preaching, which might be why Ernest Jünger called observation an “act of aggression.” Observing scripture is the opposite of contemplating it. How so? Einstein, a contemporary of Jünger, suggested that an observer affects the observed reality.

Physicists are proving him right. They’ve discovered how an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. An unobserved particle (only mechanically monitored) will pass through multiple holes at the same time. Something mysterious is going on here.

It’s a mystery few preachers recognize. I’ve given my fair share of sermons (which are lectures and longer than homilies), so I’m not throwing stones. I was trained in the western model—observation, interpretation, application. From this, you develop a 30- to 45-minute sermon.

But no one asks why 30 minutes? If we did, we’d see observation leads to additive thinking. It works this way. An observed text passes through a single meaning. It can be conveyed in a few minutes (example: Lincoln’s two-and-a-half minute Gettysburg Address). But when preachers feel they must fill a 30-minute block, they often end up larding it with additional language that rarely makes the sermon more meaning-full. It instead makes it sub-par.

This occurs everywhere, not just in church. A recent article in The Economist, Why people often forget that less is more, notes how additive thinking results in sub-par results. Yet it’s preferred in business, education, and so. The writers ask: Why is less is more in short supply today?

One answer is observation. Immanuel Kant felt knowledge requires intense activity, observation. He contemptuously remarked that contemplation is passive. Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers expected nothing from “intellectual contemplation” because it’s effortless.

But the effort of observation narrows our focus. Observers miss multiple things happening simultaneously (c.f. the Invisible Gorilla). Since the left hemisphere of the brain is narrowly focused, observing scripture is a left-brain approach that results in seeing just one meaning.

Take the cross, for example. In older traditions, the cross is atonement, which has multiple meanings at the same time. The English word originally meant at-one-ment, to be “at one.” At-one-ment simultaneously conveys betrothal to Jesus—marriage—and payment for sin.

But this simultaneous view has given way to a single meaning of the cross—a judicial meaning called substitutionary atonement. This was first proposed by Anselm in the 11th century. At the cross, Jesus’s death satisfied God’s demand for justice. Betrothal? It disappeared from view.

And with it went the mystery of where the gospel takes us. “The end will be the one Christ,” Augustine wrote, “loving himself.”[2] He echoes Paul, who wrote how, in the end, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). That’s erotic language. It depicts all-consuming sexual consummation, the mystery of the gospel coming full circle in marital union that, on earth, is inexpressible.

An inexpressible mystery is inexhaustible. Yet older Christians (mostly intuitive types) report they rarely experience this in church. Alive to God, many say they’ve outgrown a narrowly focused unmysterious gospel.[3] As they age, as they mature into embracing the mystery of the gospel, many “age-out” of church. They leave.

It doesn’t have be this way. I recently led a group in Lectio Divina, a contemplative way of reading the Bible dating from the 3rd century. As we talked less and opened our bodies, the group experienced Romans 11:33 passing through multiple meanings at the same time. They experienced a meaning-full gospel.

And that’s because they experienced less is more.

 

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Ignatius, 1952), 26.

[2] Augustine, homily on 1 John 5:1–3, in Augustine: Later Works, ed. and trans. John Burnaby (Westminster Press: 1955), 341.

[3] Michelle Van Loon, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife (Moody Press, 2020)

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5 Comments

  1. Dear Readers: I used Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible (The Message), as I sense Peterson “aged-out” of church as he aged, or matured. For example, there was a Sunday morning when Peterson, then pastor of Bel Air (Maryland) Presbyterian Church, sat on the front pew before the service, praying in silent contemplation. When 10:00am rolled around, he didn’t move. No music. No sermon.

    Well. Within a few minutes, parishioners began approaching Peterson. “Time to get the service going.” He nodded, thanked them… and returned to prayer and silence. After a few more minutes, parishioners began to leave, some registering their disappointment. Didn’t get what they were paying for.

    Peterson felt God hadn’t said anything to him, and, more importantly, God hadn’t embedded anything in him that week so there was nothing to pass on to the congregation. Certainly not a sermon.

  2. Fascinating Story about Peterson. He certainly had the gravitas and the guts to pull that off.

    I find often this over-wordiness in Christian literature as well. It seems that the editor is prompting the author to fill more pages to enable them to fit market expectations regarding book length and value. So many times after putting the book down I think to myself, he could of said that in 50-60 percent of the pages he used. Great writers always seem to eliminate verbosity in their self-editing.

    If a pastor or writer or song-composer is truly in partnership with the Holy Spirit in their preparation for a sermon, song, or book, I believe their composition will incorporate a healthy amount of room for mystery, nuance, and other vantage points they had not even considered when they were writing their piece.

  3. Mike,
    Thanks for this! I love the way you think, and your insights nearly always give me pause to consider a different point of view. Thinking a lot about observation, contemplation and short sermons. Question – how do books fit into the picture? In a sense, a book is like a sermon in that it’s an instructive device yet requires hours to read. Is the difference that we read at our own pace? Does this imply we should read in short bursts? Other?

  4. Mark,
    Good questions. Before Gutenberg, books were read aloud (“give attention to the public reading of scripture” I Tim.4:13). Paul echoes Jesus: “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given–and you will receive even more” (Mk.4:24). So books were meant to be read aloud (usually by a seasoned reader, who was thus a seasoned speaker). Listeners paid attention at the pace of the seasoned speaker who recognized the limits of attention span. Think TED capping speakers at 18-minutes. That’s the top end of attention span today. And you generally have to be a top-end speaker.

    As for reading a book in private (I do this), I recommend “How To Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. He recommends reading imaginatively, selectively, and with the aim of retaining what ought to be retained (which I usually find to be a rather small part of the overall book). These three benchmarks (Adler has more) set the pace for how I read a book. But it seems to me a book club would also be beneficial. Read the book aloud, then ponder it. The challenge is finding seasoned readers these days.

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