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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: Habakkuk says to you: “Keep it simple, stupid” (Habakkuk 2:2)

Habakkuk 2:2—“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.” (NIV)

“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” (ESV)

The Greek Septuagint is very close: “Write the vision, and that plainly on a tablet, that he that reads it may run.”

To repeat, the verb phrase “make it plain” (boair) is used only three times in the Old Testament in this way: here and in Deut. 27:8 and Deut. 1:5 (“Moses began to expound this law”) where boair means “to make clear by explaining.”

In the Habakkuk instance, the last phrase about “running” is difficult to understand in the Hebrew. It could mean that the writing is to be so plain that a messenger (“herald”) can take it to others without forgetting or confusing the message. So the exhortation to be concise refers to an individual being able to comprehend and pass on the information. Or it could be the same as the two previous passages, the writing is to be so plain that it can be understood at a glance (by someone “running” by it). This would be akin to a small billboard, easy to read. The point doesn’t change: Make the writing so simple and easy that all can understand it.

This exhortation would be the kind given today by an editor to a newspaper reporter: Write so that readers on the move early in the morning can digest the contents of the newspaper as they begin their day.

Note that this exhortation is made to the genuine believer in God.

What does this biblical teaching mean for the Christian journalist?

The Christian journalist must always take into account the audience to which she is communicating. Sensitivity to audience is a Biblical principle. Good words succeed, bad words fail. A word written for every person may have no individual significance. That is, when one foolishly states, “I love everybody,” that means either that the person doesn’t understand “love” or doesn’t love anybody. Badly written words sweep away the prospect of good and leave an unfortunate impression. One can say that the lovely medium of well-chosen words enhances the truth of a situation. Unseemly language makes wholesome truth unpalatable. Well-chosen words depend not only on the words themselves but on the occasion in which they are written. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes that Christians should “know the proper times and procedure because there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,” including writing (8:5-6), to “find just the right words” (12:10), and that good words are “like rain upon the mown grass” (Ps. 72:6). We tend to read this primarily in a counseling situation, but it has also a journalistic application.

William Ockham, the English 14th century philosopher and Churchman, had his philosophic “razor,” which stated that that which can be explained in fewer statements is needlessly explained by more statements. While Ockham had other things in mind when he formulated his thoughts, his focus on simplicity has wonderful application 700 years later in the newsroom.

Good journalism teachers, experienced editors and professional colleagues will teach the Christian journalist to “write tight” (William Brohaugh and his Write Tight books). It is a simple and coy phrase but it works: The ABCs of journalism: Accurate, Brief and Concise.

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