Thomas Edison and “the failure phase”
One of the goals (and challenges) of the work we are doing is to produce writing that is accurate to the teaching of Scripture, and simple to read at the same time – targeting an audience of new English readers with little previous exposure to the Bible. That, it turns out, is much harder than it sounds.
While in Vietnam, Lee and I were doing Bible studies with some people who wanted to be baptized. We sat down at our apartment or in a local coffee shop and worked through some questions and answers around very basic content of the Christian faith. The people were eager to learn and all were university educated and had been using English for years. We worked in short sentences, short paragraphs, and simple verb forms. We rarely used a vocabulary list larger than 2000 words and when we did, we used glossaries, internal definitions, synonyms, illustrations, and story to clarify.
Sounds like a formula for success – right?
I thought so too.
What we have discovered, as we “field test” some of the early drafts of material, is that it is almost impossible to be “too simple.” In fact, just when you think that you’ve made something so clear that it would be virtually impossible to misunderstand – you find yourself looking across the table into the eyes of someone who has no foggy idea what you’re trying to say. In short – if something can be misunderstood, there’s a better than 50/50 chance that it will be.
Remember, the people we were working with were keen, well educated and well-intentioned. All of them had previous experience in church or been under the influence of people who have been Christians for years. But we were finding that in spite of their previous exposure to Christians and church, they had never attempted to understand the content of the Bible.
Some of that is simply because they didn’t understand that those things were supposed to interest them. In their previous experience, they were influenced by traditions where the content of Scripture was for the church leaders to understand. The leaders would tell them what they needed to know. Their job was to do what they were told. Reading the Bible is something they did from time to time. They did so because they were told that is what good Christians do.
But understanding what they read was not on their radar. Additionally, there is a cultural complication. If they did not understand something, there were seldom opportunities to ask for an explanation in a way that was culturally “safe”. In Vietnam, when a teacher asks, “Do you understand?”, the appropriate answer is, “Yes” – especially if the teacher is a religious leader. To answer otherwise can show disrespect to the teacher or can cause the questioner to “lose face” before other students.
So, many people make their way through years of church services and classes unaware that what is being said should actually be understood. As one of our new friends said, “I never understood what they were saying, but I did learn how to pretend that I understood.”
(Good thing that only happens over there.)
So it’s “back to the drawing board” – again – and again. I have written three books thus far in this style. I am about to complete yet another. Yet, in spite of having written 200,000+ words with multiple rewrites and months of field-testing, I still feel like I am only taking Baby Steps. But this is the only way that I know. This is the routine, the practice-in-public, the repetition, the writing-to-learn-to-write that will get me (by God’s grace) to where I want to go.
Thomas Edison once called this “the failure phase”, taking the necessary steps to identify and eliminate things that do not work. Eventually, (after several thousand attempts I’m told) the light did come on for old Tom. I pray that it soon will for this Tom as well.