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April 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 1 · pp. 162–66 

Direction Is Ponderously Dull

Wally Kroeker

(Editor’s note: After hearing a chance remark that Direction was dull, an editor prevailed upon Mr. Kroeker to comment from a journalist’s point of view. Somewhat reluctantly, he has done so. “Probably one of the dumbest things I’ve done this year was to criticize Direction within grapevine-shot of one of its editors.”)


I wasn’t kidding when I said Direction bored me to tears. Yet I hesitate to criticize it publicly. Its editors and contributors are people I respect and admire. I ask myself: What right do I have to criticize the academic journal of the Mennonite Brethren schools? After all, it’s really none of my business. Direction is not my paper. It is not written for me; its subscribers aren’t like me. I have never been and don’t expect ever to be in its league. Direction is presumably intended for the scholars, theologians and intellectuals in the MB church. I don’t qualify under any of those headings. I wish I did, but I have to face facts.

I am a journalist. Or, less elegantly put, a newspaper and magazine writer. We in the fourth estate are often criticized for being intellectually lean and lacking analytical insights. The criticism may be valid, but if I had my druthers I’d still prefer to be on the lean side rather than be scholarly along the lines of Direction. Why? Because for all its high scholarship, I think Direction fails to resonate with people, not even those people who are supposed to be its readers, the so-called intellectuals of the MB conference.

For several days I carried a copy of Direction with me wherever I went, randomly asking students and faculty at Pacific College and the Seminary if they consistently read and enjoyed it. I was hard-pressed to find a Direction fan, even among faculty. Here are some of the responses:

A seminary student: “It doesn’t speak to me. It seems like all the profs are just writing to each other.”

A faculty member: (yawning) “Yeah, I see it in my mailbox every few months, but I don’t pay much attention to it. It’s dull.”

A faculty member: “It’s not relevant to me.”

A faculty member: “What do I think of Direction? It’s not worth thinking about.”

One Pacific student adamantly supported Direction in its present form: “It’s an island of academe in a sea of Mennonite Brethren provincialism,” he said. I appreciated his comment, though I couldn’t help wondering if a drowning man would really be much farther ahead if he clung to a sand-covered island which was barren of life. {163}


What is the purpose of Direction? As an academic journal (which is what it has become) it faces a major disadvantage by virtue of the immense field it has to cover. Other journals restrict themselves to a smaller field. They usually deal with a single discipline. Not so with Direction. Direction’s field is not only theology, not only Mennonite Brethrenism, not only churchism. Its field is the entire interplay between Christianity, the mind, and society. An ambitious undertaking.

When Direction made its appearance, Delbert Wiens wrote that the new publication would speak to significant questions. “This magazine,” he cautioned, “is not for everyone. It is not always appropriate to invite the weak in faith to doubtful disputations. But, as the Apostle Paul took for granted, the church must not therefore avoid such disputations. The sponsoring schools offer this journal to those laymen and ministers who are willing to listen to each other and to think prayerfully. . . .” One of the questions he posed was: “What can this journal do to help our churches to understand themselves and their world?”

Glancing back over many of the titles in Direction over the past two years I am forced to wonder how many of the articles have really fulfilled their potential in helping the church to understand itself. I don’t question the scholarship of the articles in question; I just question their relevance to today’s laymen and ministers. After going through several of them I found myself asking: “So what?” Many of the articles were well done within their own frame of reference, but how many of them added significantly to the minister’s and layman’s capacity to grapple with current dilemmas?

The editor’s article in the inaugural edition suggested numerous areas in which the relationship of church and society could be explored. Some of these were music, architecture, ecumenism, politics, sociology, nationalism, internationalism, communism, etc. I realize the publication is only some eight or nine issues old, but so far it seems to have dealt with only eight or nine old issues. Mennonite Brethren scholars are pouring out of the continent’s universities and accumulating degrees in a broad range of disciplines. All of them surely face dilemmas of one sort or another as they venture out in society and meld their profession with their faith. Since Direction is, in a sense, the academic journal of the Mennonite Brethren, should it not be the thread that binds these professionals together in an atmosphere of mutual understanding? Does Direction have the pulse of its constituency? Are young people encouraged to write? Has anyone under thirty ever written for Direction? Why are not physicians, lawyers, biologists, bureaucrats, businessmen or chemists deluging the editor with articles on subjects such as the rights or nonrights of the unborn, the Christian’s participation in government, the legal process, welfare, capitalism, socialism, ecology, the ethics of genetics, and so on? Is it because they feel unwelcome? Do they regard Direction as a place where they are free to think reflectively about their condition and about their role in society? Or do they feel it is simply a place in the dark where MB conference bureaucrats and ministers carry on a bland monologue and that the lay and professional man is welcome only as a spectator?

I suspect many view Direction as primarily a wastebasket for articles that couldn’t make it into respectable journals or as a final resting place {164} for submissions that have nowhere else to go after having been orated at a regional or national conference. How many articles are original, written exclusively for Direction? Or do individual constituents not have enough respect for the publication to exert the effort to plot, research and compile an article that will appear nowhere else but between these two covers?


What’s the solution? Maybe one way is to start injecting more life into the journal. Make it a little more sprightly, less stultifying. Change the style of writing. Edit heavily. A magazine editor must be more than just an article selecter. He must occasionally perform minor (or even major) surgery to the articles he prints. No one writes so well that his material can’t be improved by an attentive editor with a blue pencil.

Academics by nature seem to be dull writers who have a tendency toward wordiness and rhetoric. They seem to think clean and lively writing is a sign of intellectual inferiority. I submit that the reverse is true. Wordiness and linguistic ponderosity are signs of sloppy writing. And sloppy writing is a sign of sloppy thinking.

Direction’s writing is often dull. It’s not alone, though. Most magazines today have lost the art of lively writing. Magazines like Time and Reader’s Digest haven’t, but they’ve lost other things that are just as important. Time, for example, has lost its sense of fairness, and the Digest has lost its sense of perspective.

Stodgy writing, wordiness, over-writing are all signs of laziness. Difficult writing is easy. Easy writing is often difficult. The mark of a good writer is that he can transform difficult concepts into readable prose. Let me quote a few lines from Rudolf Flesch, a great exponent of readable writing. In his book The Art of Plain Talk he deals at length with the tyranny of wordiness:

“I have a hunch that a writer, feeling defeat in advance, gets lengthy and vague in self-defense. If defeat comes, he can hide behind the big words and ascribe it to the ignorance of the people addressed. . . . Anyone who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable and in very few of them. Let’s write for the reader, not for ourselves.” Gustave Flaubert once said: “Whenever you can shorten a sentence, do. And one always can. The best sentence? The shortest.”

Matthew Arnold said: “Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”

Flesch even used Scripture (out of context, of course) to buttress his case against gobbledygook.

If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said? (1 Cor. 14:7-9)

Obviously I am generalizing and overstating my case. Not all articles in Direction are dull and ponderously written. Several articles have been excellent. Of course, not all scholars can be interesting writers. But that is what editors are for to edit and hone an article into presentable form, or in extreme cases to return the article to its author with suggestions for revision. {165}

Even minor touches can make a big difference in a magazine. Take headlines, for example. Scholars have a habit of attaching bland label headlines to their articles, and editors frequently let them pass. Actually, the author needn’t write any headline at all. It’s the job of the editor, not the writer, to come up with a catchy heading. Newspapers and magazines often have entire teams of editors who do little else than write headlines. A headline is chiefly a marketing tool, and by learning to use this tool Direction might increase its reader interest. Let me illustrate. A recent article bore the title “Cultural Relativism and Theological Absolutes.” A standard type of academic headline, yet hardly inspiring for any one other than a cultural relativist or a theological absolutist. I was about to turn to the next article when I glanced down at the byline and saw that the article was written by Paul Hiebert. Well, dull headline or not, most MBs know Prof. Hiebert’s fine reputation and know they can expect to find an excellent article beneath that bland title. But what if the article had been written by an up-and-coming genius who hadn’t yet developed a reputation? How many people might have missed an excellent article simply because the title failed to snag their interest?

The make-up editor who has charge of seemingly-minor details such as headlines, subtitles, etc. has a big responsibility. He must assemble the material in a visually-pleasing manner. Of course, scholars are supposed to be above the pedestrian trickery of visual aids. But even the well-disciplined mind has little control over what pleases or fatigues his eyes. Whether he likes it or not, his eye responds better to a 13-em column width than to a 27-em width, to 10-point rather than 8-point type. Whether he likes it or not, his eye is more comfortable if it is graphically attracted to the top left corner of the page and gently drawn down to the bottom right. There are rules of graphics that defy the will. Fail to observe some of these rules and even the most loyal reader will find his interest lagging.


In general, Direction gives the impression of not being a serious effort. It looks too much like a part-time publication. Which, of course, it is. How can it be anything else? The editors have full-time jobs elsewhere. How can they be expected to devote the many hours required to shape and whittle their magazine into top-notch form? How can they be expected to fiddle with mechanical details such as size of type, layout, and graphics?

The problem boils down to money. It takes money to print a good magazine. Every improvement costs money. It takes money to recruit skilled people to handle the mundane details of making a magazine readable. It takes money and long distance phone calls for the editors to pester and prod people into writing for the publication, and then to hound them to get the material in by deadline. It takes money to boost the type-size to make the articles easier to read.

Religious organizations seldom pay proper attention to publishing. Their journals usually are poor. Some of them are lucky if they achieve mediocrity. Every month hundreds of religious periodicals are cranked out on this continent. Maybe a dozen are worthy of respect. Most are rags—ineptly staffed, inadequately funded. They are not taken seriously by their sponsors. Too often churches have taken the view that “We {166} don’t have to do a professional job on our publication. As long as the message is true, our people will read it anyway.”

The fact is that our people don’t read it anyway.

Direction must provide material that is not provided elsewhere. It must not simply reprint papers that have already had their peak of glory at last summer’s conference. It must find material that is fresh, vibrant.

Direction has an unusual purpose. It is the child of a mixed marriage. It is not intended as a general-interest magazine of news and inspiration. Nor is it intended as purely an academic journal. It stands midway between the two, or at least it should. It is an attempt at a new genre, a forum where concerned ministers and laymen can think reflectively about their Christian condition. As an editor has said, the format should be that of the old-style familiar essay. Heavily-footnoted articles cluttered by italicized foreign words and roman numerals don’t come across as the “considered reflections” they are supposed to be.

Direction is a young publication, and perhaps that is why it has problems. Nevertheless, a young publication should have vitality, effervescence. It should be bursting with energy. But it isn’t. It needs attention on all sides. Due to financial limitations, it is a part-time effort. And, probably because it’s a part-time effort, its subscribers give it only part-time attention. A handful of overworked professors cannot bear the entire load for a publication with Direction’s heavy responsibility. Somehow, Direction must latch onto more human and financial resources. Somehow, it has to light a fire under its constituents so they become eager participators rather than passive readers. It cannot do this without involving people, and it can’t involve people as long as its aims and style remain aloof. If Direction allows itself to remain esoteric in style and focus, I can’t see it ever becoming anything more than a ho-hum journal.

Wally Kroeker, a former student at Pacific College, has been a copy editor of the Winnipeg Tribune and is now under appointment as Assistant Editor of Moody Monthly.

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