I’ve long been interested in thinking about how to make boring subjects interesting. I’ve become especially attuned to the issue recently as I’ve begun to read a lot more scholarship in fields completely unrelated to mine. Some scholars have a gift in being able to reach low level mortals like me. My own field is not nearly as complicated as the hard sciences (always hard for me, at least!) but every field has its technicalities and jargon and wide range of not-widely-shared assumptions, perspectives, and history of investigation.
And so I was struck when I ran across this post from some years ago, and realized that it’s still the sort of thing I think about roughly every day.
The difficulty in presenting serious scholarship to a lay audience is how to make something that can be very dry and technical and detailed and, well, boring to most human beings actually interesting and lively and thought provoking. It is obviously quite easy to make something interesting dull. University professors are unusually skilled at doing that. So too, even more oddly, are authors of college-level textbooks. But frankly, I’ve never understood why. My guess is that most people have never put any thought into how to make something interesting, probably because they think that if *they* find it inherently interesting, it must be inherently interesting – so why go to the bother of trying to *make* it interesting.
That, in my view, is a big mistake. And I’m extremely lucky that I realized it was a mistake already when I was a nineteen-year-old.
At that time I was a third-year student at Moody Bible Institute, and my roommate and I had decided that we wanted to work as youth pastors in a church. Moody set us up with a great church (I still have very fond memories) in Oak Lawn – a southern suburb of Chicago. We would go there on Wednesday evenings, and then on Saturday evenings, spend the night, and spend all of Sunday there. We led prayer meetings, Bible studies, retreats, social gatherings – all the sorts of things that youth pastors do. It was a lively and active group of high school and college-age young people; we got along great with them; and it was a kind of golden age for both the church and us.
But it was in that context that I realized that nothing is, in fact, inherently interesting. At the time I was completely passionate about the Bible. But as I started teaching Bible studies to 15-year olds, I realized that despite my own enthusiasm the material was decidedly not inherently interesting. It had to be *made* interesting. And that took a lot of doing.
Part of it involved showing how something from the Bible was of immediate and real importance to someone’s life – either how they behaved or how they thought about the world, themselves, God, or whatever. Studying the Bible, with these kids, could not simply involve history lessons about antiquity!
But communicating was more than simply trying to be relevant. My roommate, Bill, was unusually skilled at telling anecdotes about his past and making them relate to a spiritual insight or religious idea. It took me a long time, but I figured out how to do that myself. And that was the start of things for me. It is important to give people something to relate to, something interesting, something out of the ordinary, and help them see how it is significant in itself and how it can make something else interesting.
Years later I was an established scholar with three books under my belt, all of them technical studies of aspects of the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament. There was no need to make this kind of study interesting to anyone other than scholars. I was writing for scholars, and they already *knew* why these kinds of studies mattered.
But then my editor at Oxford University Press asked me if I would consider writing a textbook on the New Testament for college undergraduates. I had never ever planned to do something like that. Quite the contrary, my plan was to be a scholar who wrote for scholars till the day I died. So I said no. She asked again. I said no. She asked again. And by now I had been thinking about it. I absolutely loved lecturing to 19-20 year olds. Communication was one of my real pleasures, not at all like the hard, rigorous, blood-and-sweat work of producing a scholarly monograph. Maybe it would be fun to write a textbook incorporating my skills of communication in a different medium.
I agreed to do it, and it changed everything for me. After the textbook was a trade book. And then I was set for life. Now I write all three kinds of books: scholarly monographs, textbooks, trade books. Each has a different audience. And each one requires a different kind of communication skill. I learned already as a 19-year old youth pastor, myself, that the audience is everything, and to communicate does not simply mean to shovel out information. It means figuring out how to make that information interesting. Since it is – at least to me!
And tonight I get to try it again, with a lecture on how the New Testament appears to contain forgeries.