The Scourge of Cleverness

One of the greatest maladies of the blogworld is the disease of clever-seeking.  I’ve seen it in myself and I’ve seen it in others, but it’s unhealthy no matter where it’s found.  What I’m talking about is the insatiable drive to say something witty and clever, something that catches people’s attention whether it’s balanced and helpful or one-sided and harmful, something that pricks people’s minds whether the syringe is full of medicine or poison.  There’s a lot of substance-less rhetoric out there, and those who produce such rhetoric seem to have the bottomless gift of making clever posts seem insightful and true even though they are often neither.  Or maybe they’re both, and the post (or comment) is still suffocated by its own wit.

It’s just hard to resist the urge to be clever.

What’s worse, the more passion you put into trying to be clever, the more you’ll find yourself in bondage to the miserable pressure to produce more of it — more over-the-top profundity, more caricatured arguments, more sentences that are more memorable than they are rational.  You find yourself unsatisfied with anything that you say or write if it’s not witty and biting.  You become a slave to sarcasm and satire (and these are not merciful masters.)  You become like a comedian who is enslaved to humor because he’s worshiped at its altar for so long that he doesn’t sense the freedom (even if he had the inclination) to stand up and walk away.  Down the road, you realize that you’ve learned to look condescendingly at the simple truths of Scripture because they don’t seem as fresh and attention-grabbing as the cutting statements and flamboyant rhetoric that you’ve come to love.  And I would submit that those who go down this path unchecked will find at the end that they have built a monument to cleverness on the grave of truth.

I’m not talking about “a word aptly spoken,” because the wise man was clear that such words are “like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  The ability and the prudence to speak the right word at the right time to the right person is a precious and hard-earned gift.  This is what was said about one who had that gift in great measure: “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.  The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.  The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11).  There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to say things that stick.  When your motivations are pure and your methods are clean, it’s actually noble.

I’m also not castigating the healthy use of a broad vocabulary or the proper use of metaphor or the godly employment of sarcasm.  I don’t condemn negativity or advocate that we sell our souls to the cultural gods of tolerance and political correctness.  I realize that genre and context play a significant role in how we say what we say.  In short, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to write well.  I think we should search the library of language for the literary tools that are appropriate for making our respective points.

But I think we have to be very careful.  Dictionary.com tells me that one definition of “wit” is “the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure.”  I think that the awakening of amusement and pleasure (or other affections, whether positive or negative) is often exactly what we’re aiming for when we try to be clever.  We want people to be stirred and provoked and moved and, when proper, agitated and stung and poked.  We want to induce thought, not reduce it (and we all know that one way to reduce it is to be boring).  This penchant for stirring others’ affections is fine, if used rightly, because it’s true that when living in a erring world, truth will always carry some bite.  You cannot domesticate God, nor can you tame His Son who always manifested that wonderful combination of kindness and candor.  He was tender towards sinners but jagged along the edges because He embodied the truth which both wounds and heals.

But just because truth can pierce doesn’t mean that everything that pierces is true.  Some things that pierce just pierce.  Some things that sting do nothing but cause pain.  Some things that stick in the mind aren’t actually worth being remembered.  It’s true that remedies can be unsavory and that healing can follow harm, but this doesn’t mean that everything that makes an impact or leaves an impression is a blessing in disguise.

All of us want our words and our writing and our blogging to have an impact (by “all of us” I mean serious Christian bloggers).  This means that most of us probably put at least some effort into our writing, whether that means trying to be profound or penetrating or eye-opening or informative or memorable or edgy or persuasive or funny or just clear (which is hard enough).

But we have to be very careful.  In the past I’ve sometimes realized that I’m writing paragraphs that are more flowery than they are true, sentences that are more clever than they are humble, and words that resonate with the flesh but erode true godly affections.  I’m not going to stop trying to encourage whoever comes here to read.  I know that my life is a vapor and that Christ is all, so I want to do the best I can to spur my brothers and sisters on to love and good deeds.  For me, one of the things this means is writing, and writing for a verdict.  But I always want the aim and the effect of my words (whether spoken or written) to be encouragement and exhortation instead of a worthless reputation for being clever.

So many Christians throughout the world have insight and knowledge and experience, and blogging allows us to learn the truth and learn from their wisdom.  But insight without grace is not just worthless, it’s actually harmful.  The hammer of wit was not meant to construct intellectual facades but to drive home precious words of truth and wisdom.  May it be said of us that we used it wisely.


5 thoughts on “The Scourge of Cleverness

  1. Gunner,

    Like you have been considering the centrality of the gospel in the Christian life, so I have been considering this subject of ‘clever’ blogging as well. I am grieved by some of the past things I have written and the spirit in which they were written. Thank you for this article.

    Derek

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