Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so

For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr


Albert Einstein has been credited with decreeing that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so. Sadly, we live in a time when the “more so” is too prevalent. Everything, it seems, has to be oversimplified beyond all sense and purpose.

The President mocks the idea of climate change on snowy days, because climate science has been abridged to some nonspecific belief about things getting warmer.

Black Lives Matter, whose guiding principles include advocating on behalf of black victims who died at the hands of white police officers, as well as being concerned with black-on-black crime, is met with the dismissive and oversimplified “All lives matter!”

Ethical questions regarding reproductive health, indigenous people’s rights, racial reconciliation or social welfare, are reduced to slogans and catch-cries. People demand that we answer complex questions with a simple yes or no.  Radio announcers and news commentators mock those who want to describe the complexity of an issue and offer multifaceted solutions to tough issues. They decry such answers as convoluted and disingenuous.

As Rev Byron Williams says, “Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, trade agreements, illegal immigration, the economy or something else, we crave oversimplification for a recipe that requires nuance. We seek the simplistic answer when only the difficult response will suffice.”

That’s because life is complex. It is richly, beautifully, magnificently baffling at times. All the most splendid things in this world – coral reefs, child-raising, social justice, the raging sea, reconciliation, staying married, Antarctica, South Australian cabernet, extended family meals – these things are not simple to describe, nor to sustain.

The dumbing down of our society is crushing the life out of us, flattening everything into two dimensions, dicing it all into bite-sized pieces. And the church is just as guilty of this reductionism. We want to shrink-wrap our truth claims too.


So, the big, wide, expansive understanding of the reign of God that Christ taught us has been reduced to merely information about how to go to heaven when you die. The mission of God’s people is downgraded to an ecclesial recruitment strategy. All the recent talk about a missional church is condensed into discussions about style and venue, as if all there is to being missional is to meet in a bar and have a pastor with a hipster beard and tattoos.

As Walter Brueggemann says, “The gospel is… a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.”

We want to take a truth that’s as big as an ox and turn it into a bouillon cube.


We want to talk before we listen; argue before we converse; assume before we know; reject before we honor.

I recently read a new book by Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson called Reframation, in which they each describe formative experiences that brought this home to them. For Alan it happened at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, while Mark was confronted by it while walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. They each discovered their fellow pilgrims weren’t the least interested in the simplistic, two-dimensional Christianity they’d encountered before.

Mark describes the way his fellow travellers, normally hungry to discuss spirituality, history or philosophy, would show complete disinterest, even disdain, when he introduced himself as an American pastor. His religion wasn’t considered as sophisticated or interesting as some of the half-baked self-curated beliefs of other pilgrims.

They wanted to be re-enchanted. That’s why they were walking the Camino. But conventional Protestant Christianity is considered far from enchanting.

Likewise, Alan has experienced this yearning for reenchantment at Burning Man, a phenomenal outdoor festival in a dry lake in the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is rooted in ten core principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leave no trace, and culminates with the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“The Man”).

Fifteen years ago, when Alan Hirsch and I wrote The Shaping of Things to Come, we began the book by describing Burning Man this way: “It dares to offer acceptance, community, an experience of god, redemption, and atonement. in short, it resembles everything the church is supposed to offer.but many people are finding the transformational power of burning man to be far and away more effective than anything they experience in church.”

Those who attend (“Burners”) could never be satisfied by simplistic religion. That’s why I find Alan and Mark’s book is so refreshing. It throws open all the doors and flings open every window on the gospel, to broaden our vision and deepen our responsibility as God’s people. It is invigorating to have truth reframed this way. Perhaps as you read it, you’ll feel a frisson of recognition. Like me, maybe Alan and Mark will speak to your yearning for something richer in your faith than mere Sunday attendance and plastic nativity scenes and the latest outreach program?

I believe they have opened our eyes to the stunning, complicated, beautiful truth of Christ.

Incidentally, the great G. K. Chesterton once contrasted how Christian saints are depicted in art as opposed to Buddhist saints: “…perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with frantic intentness outwards.”

Not so these days. As I’ve mentioned, we seem to prefer our eyes closed to complexity. That is until a book like this one shakes us from our slumber and demands we look again. And having seen it, we cannot look away. We cannot un-see what has been revealed to us.

It’s the elegant simplicity that can only be found on the other side of complexity.


Alan and Mark begin their book by saying that they held a deep conviction “that there is a great need for a reframation that allows us to see God, people, and mission through reenchanted frames.” Once you read it you are left with the incredible commission to tell and live the full story of God in your town or village or suburb or on the Camino or at Burning Man or wherever God may send you in this world.




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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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5 thoughts on “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so

  1. Great post Mike – as always! I really value the nuance that you bring to much of the other material on Facebook. This is well timed with the way the gospel has been exploding for me so the book sounds very timely!

  2. Thanks for the plug of the book Mike. For any interested, the launch is at the end of August (after the summer vacation period)

    1. Ah so we have to wait til the end of August to get a copy of your book Alan?

    2. So that’s why I couldn’t find it!

  3. Hey Mike,

    I found the first section about the general over-simplification that seems to be everywhere exciting to read, and I was a little disappointed that you moved to focus on the church and Reframation (clever title).
    It’s your blog, so you can take a piece wherever you like 🙂 and I think the book sounds fantastic.
    I was just hoping for a bit more reflection on the wider point, as I see this as very destructive of life in general. I even wondered if in some cases the dumbing-down of the Gospel is an attempt to be “culturally relevant” – not that I think that it’s a good idea!


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