Add an ‘S’ as a test

I started doing this several years ago. It is surprising how often it reveals something that significantly alters the perception of the topic. When a complex topic is overly simplified it actually makes it more confusing and becomes less helpful. Topics that are appropriately complex and multifaceted are not served by being pressed down or made mono.

Two historic examples and then some contemporary ones:

The Industrial Revolution, according to historians like John Merriman, was actually three industrial revolutions.

  • The first was an agricultural revolution which allowed people to grow more, which encouraged a bigger population and thus all the surplus labor that would be needed.
  • The second was inventions that impacted small groups of workers, like the cotton gin.
  • Then came the big one that generally gets all the headlines with big industry and coal burning factories.

The name ‘the industrial revolution’ is a bit of a misnomer that lumps these three together. They actually happened progressively over quite a long period of time.

The same happens with the ‘Protestant Reformation’. Most people don’t know that Luther and Zwingli were kind of up to two different things and that later Calvin came in (initially as a Lutheran) and then there were at least three little reformations. Then there was England’s Anglican movement that was doing its own thing, and the Anabaptists. That is 5 reformation movements.

When it comes to religions, it is often appropriate to add an ‘s’.

When we lump together the Jewish religion or the Jewish perspective, we may be overlooking the fact that there are three huge branches within Judaism, as well as many other splinters. There is a Reformed Judaism, a Conservative, and an Orthodox. They are very different from each other. You also have secular expressions of Judaism (cultural or ethnic).

Islam is the same way – there are over 80 ‘denominations’ of Islam. So when we say “Muslims _____” we may want to be careful and be more specific by adding a plural mentality and saying “some types of Muslims ______”.

Even within Christianity there are God knows how many different kinds of Christianity. So to say that “Christians believe ______” is more than challenging. It may be misleading.

There are several Judaisms, several types of Islams, and multiple Christian perspectives.

Sometimes people say things like “the Biblical Worldview” as if there is only one. There are actually many worldviews that informed Scripture. Certainly the view of those who wandered in the desert in the Exodus story had a different view of the world than Paul the cosmopolitan Roman citizen of Jewish descent. And one can clearly see that what Paul wrote in Romans 13 to submit to governments because they do God’s work was a different worldview than the person who wrote Revelation and called Rome ‘Babylon’ and a ‘whore who is drunk on the blood of that nations’. There are many examples that I could use but the important thing to note is that there are many worldviews in the Bible.

You also see this misnomer in the phrase “the early church”.  Books like The Emergence of the Early Church and The Churches the Apostles Left Behind help expose just how many  competing/complimentary groups were in the mix. What most people mean by use of the phase ‘the early church’ is the proto-orthodox notion of those whose views eventually won out.

It also helps out pastorally. It is so tempting to be prescriptive and formulaic in ministry – whether it is the advice we give or the way that we conceptualize the world and its workings. Let me give just 3 examples from the past month:

  • People have kids for all sorts of reasons. Starting a family can be motivated by several different impulses. Some parents view is as ‘legacy’ issue, for others it is an obligation. For some it is duty, for some it is a ‘gift’. Some parents didn’t know that it was an option not to procreate. For some there is a fascination with making something from your own body (I am quoting here) or seeing what a being that was half-them and half-their spouse would look like.

Dealing with family dynamics and expectations, then, is not a one-size-fits-all matter.

  • The same can be said for abortion. Women terminate pregnancies for so many different reasons. I get upset when I hear opponents of abortion painting with a brush that is so broad that a supremely complex issue gets boiled down to a single point and then used as a battering ram.

Motivations and factors both need to be addressed in the plural.

  • Missions is another topic that requires complexity. It is inaccurate to talk about ‘missions’ and mean one thing.  It is astounding how many different reasons people have for becoming missionaries. It is also significant to clarify the type or kind of missions one is engaged in. At minimum there are 3: compassion motivated missions, colonial type missions, and salvation (anti-hell) driven missions.

There is much more to said on this one (especially historically) but at minimum we need to be clear when we are talking about missionaries that both their drive and their tactics can vary widely. complexity

SO many examples could be used: ‘black’ voters, the female perspective, sexuality/celibacy, American ____, etc. Once you start adding an ‘s’ you will see more and more areas where it is applicable.

When you put this all together you see that just adding an ‘s’ as a test can help address the inherent complexity within an issue by more accurately reflecting its intrinsic multiplicity. We will also discover important themes where it is not appropriate and that will allow us to appreciate those unique topics even more.

I’m interested in your thoughts, questions, and concerns.


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What about political/neoliberal subversive missionaries?  You forgot that in your triad.  Just kidding, kind of.  I mean I don't think there are really many out there doing that but I just wanted to say the tagline is catchy "Add 'S' for a test" so I think it has the ability to catch on, or at least be a serviceable hashtag.


I started using "theologies" after Wentzyl van Huyssteen gave me a solid argument why we need to do that. I recently had a college friend of mine refer to "historical Adam" in response to my disfavorable view of Ken Ham's "science." My response was, "Which one? Genesis 1 or 2?" Good example with the early church. For many that means "pre-Constantine" or earlier with the assumption that Constantine screwed the whole thing up and it was only at the Reformation(s) that things were set right again. I have heard "bible believing Christian" as opposed to "Jesus Christ Son of God" believing Christian. I'm a pragmatist. There are different readings based on the slice of history we choose to follow. We have a responsibility to be open and willing to hear out different versions, but that does not mean these versions will work for us in our spiritual journeys or in our theologies. Nor does it mean that the facts are straight no matter how much a reading appeals to our sense of tradition and wisdom. A great example of this is the hub-bub over Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History."


Bo, thanks for the good read. I was pondering if the 's' test is a kin to truly recognizing our own "sitz in leben". Our contexts are more complex than we are willing to admit, personally I think fear drives this denial. Does the use of this biblical critical term help the case you are making or only muddy the waters?


Good thoughts all around, Bo.  Certainly I spend my fair share of time disabusing my English majors of the notion that there was a singular, monolithic, "THE medieval mindset" that gave way to a plurality of views in the Renaissance. I do the same, of course, when teaching Biblical texts in college courses and in churches--recognizing the spectrum is a necessary step before trying to make sense of how the elements relate.

BoSanders moderator

@MattCumings  OK we will add them to the list !  I don't know enough of 'em to say they constitute a critical number within the field but ... why not?   -Bo  

(it is already a plural category with those I have named so we can slip it is :)  it's not like the plural is resting on this addition)   

BoSanders moderator

@drew_psu  GOOD stuff.  I was with ya all the way to 'I'm a pragmatist'.  Then is started to stray a little bit.  I will have to check out the article ... maybe that brings it all around.  

BoSanders moderator

@jaacarson  you are sharp :)  I was actually reading an article last week about postmodern hermeneutics and that is what made me think of all of these examples -Bo 

BoSanders moderator

@ngilmour  I really like your saying that it is important to get all the elements (spectrum) before trying to make sense out of how they relate.  I will use that the next time I talk about this topic 

Since posting this I have been thinking about the allure of simplifying as a sort of 'short hand'. It makes it easier to carry around  (putting a handle on something) ... but that is only ultimately helpful if it is accurate. Convenience is one thing but only if it is appropriately complex.  


  1. […] The second occasion was a little less contentious and I loved the feedback I got from the suggestion to Add An ‘S’ As A Test. ?It turns our that simple making something plural can be a great way to get away from the certitude or dogmatic cul de sac that conversation can get caught up in. You can read more about Adding An ‘S’ here. […]