Ah, the one-liner. The joke that makes you chuckle. The meme that features talking cats. The historical quotation that makes you go “hmmm.” The quasi-spiritual saying that clutters up our Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses. We all post them from time to time.
Short sayings are simple but memorable. The best of them grab you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let you go. Yet as out brave new world of social media has elevated these to an art form, there are often a lot of trite sentences attempting to pass for profundity. Comments in this vein mistake style for content and neglect to remember that the best brief quotations only you to something deeper, reminding you in their few words that a simple sentence cannot exhaust reality.
In his introductory comments to his Commentary on Romans, theologian Karl Barth both revels in the one-liner while using them to undermine the idea that they as simple statements can ever be enough. In the following few sentences (each one worthy of Facebook status), he makes the following claim:
“The simplicity which proceeds from the apprehension of God in the Bible and elsewhere, the simplicity with which God Himself speaks, stands not at the beginning of our journey but at its end. Thirty years hence we may perhaps speak of simplicity, but now let us speak of truth. For us neither the Epistle to the Romans, nor the present theological position, nor the present state of the world, nor the relation between God and the world, is simple. And he who is now concerned with truth must boldly acknowledge that he cannot be simple. In every direction human life is difficult and complicated.” (p. 5)
I’m no Barth scholar, but I’m beginning to see why this work in particular became so influential. In a few words in each of these sentences, he reminds us that truth cannot be exhausted in these same sentences.
Life, my friends, is a lot more complicated than that.