I will let my words be few

London, N19
20/11/2011  •  775 words

One of the great merits of Twitter is the brevity of communication it demands. When you only have 140 characters at your disposal, you have little option but to consider your choice of words wisely. Twitter forces you to write just what you need in order to get your message across, no more, no less.

“It is sentences that change my life, not books”

This kind of communication is surprisingly similar in style to the biblical wisdom literature. The Proverbs and Psalms contain countless pithy epithets which are memorable for saying much in few words. Jesus’ sayings, the letter of James, the prophets – the Bible is full of snappy one-liners as well as longer narrative sections. Short sayings can strike a chord and reach us with a particular edge, as anyone who has learned “memory verses” will testify! John Piper aptly describes this phenomenon:

What I have learned from about twenty-years of serious reading is this. It is sentences that change my life, not books… I do not remember 99% of what I read, but if the 1% of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99%.

This kind of attitude informs Piper’s view of Twitter:

Tweets for me are a kind of poetry. I make no claim to be good at it. But that’s the way I think about it. I want it to sound and look good. I will never use 2 for to. Or Shd for should. Why? It’s not a telegram. It’s a poem.

Tweeting forces you to compress you thoughts into sharp, insightful, piercing phrases which will more readily resonate with the reader. I certainly wouldn’t condone Piper’s infamous “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet; I would simply note, however, that he said more in three words than most of the reviews and rebuttals of Love Wins combined.

An example from Jesus

I am often struck by how few words Jesus says. At about 500 words in English, the parable of the prodigal son is easily the richest short story in literature. The parable of the hidden treasure has just 35 words. His sayings are equally as pithy: the Sermon on the Mount reads more like a quick-fire list headlines, and Mark’s Gospel essentially forms a narrative exposition of Mark 1:15. Even the Lord’s Prayer is disarmingly brief by our standards. I have never heard a shorter prayer which covers any more ground!

Two examples from politics

Our culture increasingly values such clarity and tidiness in communication. We digest our news so quickly that politicians now speak almost exclusively in sound-bites. As Christians who are engaged in the contemporary world of quick-fix journalism and social sharing, we have to adapt our style of communication according to the medium we are using. That means writing at length in books and with economy on Twitter.

Of course, Christians will gain nothing by simply barking out rehearsed lines in the hope of catching someone’s imagination. Ed Miliband recently discovered the folly of this approach when he relentlessly repeated a single sound-bite throughout an entire interview, regardless of the questions asked.

That clip is so embarrassing because it betrays Miliband’s desire to be heard but total failure to listen. We have a wonderful message to share, but we must always communicate with integrity. As Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

There are examples of excellent communication in politics, however. Take the winner of last week’s Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Award for Best Speech. In what is one of the shortest ever speeches in the House of Commons, during the recent EU referendum debate, Charles Walker MP stood up simply to ask, “If not now, when?” His four-word speech cut to the heart of the issue unlike many much longer offerings. Imagine if Christians could be as succinct in the pulpit!

Cutting through the noise

Sometimes it seems as if Twitter is 90 % Justin Bieber, 9% movie title memes and 1% photos of acquaintances’ dinner. Sometimes it seems as if you are fighting against an overwhelming Twitterfall of mindless trivia. Sometimes it seems as if your words of comfort, love, friendship or challenge are one auto-refresh away from losing all relevance. Don’t lose heart, though. In the one-line, Twitter-friendly, take-home message I have been spent 750 words getting to: “Never underestimate the power of truth spoken in a single sentence.” (John Piper)

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.