What is the place of creativity or innovation in theology? This question has nagged me for years. How can one innovate while both remaining inside of, and even bolstering the case for, orthodoxy? The idea seemed conceptually possible, but I had always lacked a metaphor to explain how. Though I didn’t realize it until recently, there happens to be an entire craft that illustrates this dilemma and suggests its solution: typography.
In his recent bestseller Just My Type, Simon Garfield introduces us to Matthew Carter, a man The New Yorker once profiled as the “most read man in the world.”
He is the creator, notably, of Verdana, whose adoption by Microsoft and Google has given it huge reach; of Georgia, the most legible and adaptable screen font of Bell Centennial, designed for the AT&T phonebook; of Tahoma, which is sometimes used by IKEA in place of its regular font . . . Verdana; and of over twenty more typefaces. . . . His work is on almost every computer in the world, and on perhaps half the western world’s advertising.
Carter’s work prompts a question that ought to interest innovation-minded theologians everywhere: what was this man able to do with an A, a B, and a C that no one else had done in the past 500 years? How did he create vehicles for presenting the exact same content in two dozen faithful but fresh ways?
Typographers labor under the challenge of developing something that freshly presents familiar forms, and this aptly summarizes the challenge to creative theologians as well. We are bent on preserving the essential forms of the kerygmatic alphabet but also on presenting them in a compelling way. One need only glance over the Periodic Table of the Typefaces to get a sense for the kind of solidarity the church’s doctors ought to feel with the printed page’s doctors.
There’s a potential trap in this whole metaphor, of course. In a recent discussion, an acquaintance mentioned in passing that he thought typography had essentially become an amateur’s game. His rationale: “Anyone can download a program with which to design their own fonts.” And here we notice the subtle fallacy that plagues both typographers and theologians alike: there’s a difference between making a single letter and making an entire typeface.
Christian publishing often thrives on books that make this mistake. Such books radically rework one aspect of the biblical narrative—one letter, if you will—without regard for the way their reworked version throws the rest of the story into disharmony. This problem highlights the challenge theologians and typographers share: we have to design small components that serve the greater whole, and that work seamlessly within an already established, delineated form. In one section of Just My Type, Garfield describes the way one typographer attempted to address this challenge in his discipline:
Like most designers, he had a way of relaxing his eyes so that he could concentrate on the white paper behind the letters, gauging the space between the characters, the space between lines of text and their “weight”—how light or bold they were, how much ink they used on a page, how many pixels they occupied on a screen.
The mistake of beginning typographers, we might say, is also the mistake of beginning theologians: they attempt to formulate individual letters without forethought for the way they will fit with other letters, in the individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of what already exists. The whole must be kept in mind as every letter’s counter, stem, and bowl are designed. And this hints at one possible final parallel between these two disciplines.
Beatrice Warde, a famous speaker in mid-20th century typographic circles, thought “the best type existed merely to communicate an idea. It was not there to be noticed, much less admired. The more a reader becomes aware of a typeface or a layout, the worse that typography is.” We may think this perspective is slightly too severe, but she makes a point every serious reader can appreciate. Theology, like typography, predisposes us to become connoisseurs of certain systems, to fixate on those systems, and to make debate about minutiae and our own personal syntheses a favorite past-time. But the greatest practitioners of both trades have not seen their roles in offering something noticeable. Rather, they offer something transparent, something that serves a greater end than itself.
We do not often think of transparency as the defining characteristic of great theology, and that might in fact underlie some of the church’s interpretive difficulties over the centuries. Our insider speak inclines us to seek meaning in the shapes of the letters, or the alignments of the paragraphs, and not in the meaning of the sentences.
Both great typographers and also great theologians strive to make their work an “invisible art.” They facilitate a process by which ideas are conveyed (in the case of typography) from one person to another or (in the case of theology) from God to his creations, without causing a distraction or drawing attention to themselves. No metaphor is perfect, but I believe the discipline of typography can serve as a great conversational partner for the discipline of creative theology. It offers many lessons learned in the way of “goals” and gives us a humbling perspective on what would make any theology great in the first place: its ability to facilitate worship while going unnoticed itself.