Article, Quench not the Spirit: A Case for Brevity, by Julie Morgan and Rick Olsen

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Quench not the Spirit: A Case for Brevity

Julie Morgan, Eastern University

Rick Olsen, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Academics are known for many positive attributes. Brevity is rarely among them. The average length of a journal article has increased significantly over the years and we often coach our students to support their claims more fully.[1] We celebrate thoroughness, not brevity.

Yet the founders of two powerful media agencies, Politico and Axios, offer the following maxim to all their content creators: “Short is not shallow.” They also format their content such that the word count and estimated reading time are visible to the reader. Attention span is an increasingly precious commodity in a world of information overload. In response, we argue in this short application essay that similar attention to brevity is needed when sharing insights of faith and worldview in the classroom. We will offer a brief review of communication acts and genres known for their brevity and then explore the risks and benefits of brevity. We then look at the rhetorical and relational dimensions of such disclosures and finally offer what we hope are helpful illustrations of brevity in practice.

Genres of Brevity

There are many forms of communication characterized by brevity. A haiku poem is limited to 17 syllables in three lines (5, 7, 5). “Brevity and self-containment are perhaps the two most obvious characteristics of aphorisms” (Snider, 1988, p. 60).[2] Aphorisms also tend to focus on scientific or natural world truths. Proverbs are similar in their use of brevity to express wisdom about the human condition concisely. Parables move beyond declarative statements to short but insightful stories that illustrate a deeper truth. In sum, humans have always looked for ways to communicate insightfully through brevity.

These efforts emerged within oral cultures—see Walter J. Ong’s classic book Orality and Literacy—where brevity aided in retention. Listeners could remember aphorisms such as “red sky at night, sailors delight” or a proverb such as “A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28, NLT). We now have popular communication platforms such as Twitter (140 characters) and TikTok (15 seconds to 10 minutes) that also require brevity. These platform limitations may have their origin in technological limitations but also provide the notable benefit of requiring content creators to “get to the point!” in an age of content overload. Such is also the case for the more contemporary business document known as the “executive summary.” And of course, even in this article we were asked to provide the article summary as part of the introduction. Genres of brevity are all around us. And while it comes with some risk, the communicative and relational benefits of brevity make it a worthwhile pursuit.

Rhetorical Elements of Brevity

Brevity has the potential benefit of being memorable both in the moment and beyond. This same brevity runs the risk of not fully explaining and illustrating the author’s point. This could lead to misunderstandings and misapplications. However, in some cases a wider range of interpretations is an acceptable outcome. Aristotle noted that rhetoric is often aided by the enthymeme which we define here as “an incomplete syllogism that the audience completes based on common understandings” (Jasinski, 2001, pp. 205–208).[3] The ability for the audience to complete the argument relies on situation, context, culture, and common ground between the participants. The phrase “I’m not a camel” seems nonsensical outside of any specific context. That same phrase uttered after walking for a long time on a hot day likely means “I am offering an incomplete argument that we stop for a cold, refreshing drink.” Such forms of expression require participation by the audience and trust in that participation by the speaker. There is also need for trust in the Holy Spirit. “Quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) is itself a brief but powerful reminder we are not alone in our endeavor to foster the faith journey of our students in the classroom.

One of the rhetorical benefits of brevity and the enthymeme is the normalizing of connections with faith, Scripture, spirituality, and the like. They are not formal sidebars to the class focus but integrated in conversational and informal ways. The examples shared later in this essay are intentionally brief and incidental so that the faith journey and connections by the instructors are normalized. The enthymeme also offers implicit invitations to participate in the process of making meaning and therefore is inherently more relational than a thorough self-contained treatise.

Relational Dimensions of Brevity

As with rhetoric, establishing healthy interpersonal relationships means that we must honor the situation (i.e., classroom) and build trust. Brevity, in this sense, is a way of being more invitational. It can provide the catalyst for dialogue and connection.

Opposite of brevity is verbosity. “Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect” (Watzlawick, Beavin, Bavelas, and Jackson, 1967, p. 35).[4]  Verbosity is, therefore, not just about content but also indicates who we are to each other. In other words, the verbose person communicates that the other person is not important and should only listen.

What we really want is to establish a relationship through dialogue and connection. This relationship must be built on trust and respect. Students trust us to focus on the course materials and outcomes. Any deviation from that focus, however well intended, must be brief enough that they do not feel violated or captive.  Brevity is a way to honor the situation, build trust, and open the potential for meaningful connection and dialogue.

Examples of Brevity in the Classroom

While not every example can or should be brief, the examples of brevity that follow are drawn from actual classroom and workshop experiences of your authors.

  • In a workshop on emotional intelligence there is a concept called self-regulation. When explaining this concept, Rick will quickly note “this idea is not new, Proverbs 25:28 notes that a person without self-control is like a city without walls. So, we’ve been pursuing self-awareness and self-control for a long time!”
  • Julie often devotes the majority of the first day of her courses to connection. She guides students through activities that connect them to one another and with her as their instructor. This is framed within the larger idea that connection and community are essential to growth. This also sets the foundation for future conversations that require trust. It is important that this is done without any extended spiritual elaboration. The truth is enacted rather than professed in a verbose position statement.
  • In a research methods class, Rick will note “I know there are students of many faith traditions in this class. Faith is not the absence of critical thinking! In fact, in my faith tradition, we are reminded to focus our thoughts on whatever is true and noble, right, beautiful, excellent. But notice the first word is ‘true’ otherwise we are engaged in delusion rather than discernment.” There is no further elaboration. Rick then moves onto the larger point of the class session.
  • Julie teaches Martin Buber’s concept of I/Thou in an interpersonal communication class and notes we are created for community as illustrated in the Trinity and the ongoing calls throughout Scripture to love one another.


Jesus offers a stunning model of brevity in his teachings. His parables in the book of Mathew range from 31 to 411 words. The average word count is 155 words or about one minute. He addressed important issues with great brevity. For example, the parable commonly known as the Good Samaritan is 207 words and Jesus addresses systemic racism and the need for tangible expressions of love and compassion all in under two minutes. His account fosters dialogue and questions. Our goals should be similar. Be brief and offer accounts that are “short not shallow” and that help students see faith as a viable component and path for their maturity and formation.


[1] An analysis of top journal in economics revealed that the average length of current articles is three times longer than in the 1970s (Card, D., and DellaVigna, S., “Nine facts about top journals in economics. Journal of Economic Literature, 51:1 [2013], 145). Isaac Waisberg posted a similar analysis of the American Journal of Sociology and found articles have also tripled in length since the 1960s (

[2] Snider, A., “Francis Bacon and the authority of aphorism,” Prose Studies, 11:2 (1988), 60–71, DOI: 10.1080/01440358808586338

[3] Jasinski, J. (2001) Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Sage.

[4] Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J. B., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. WW Norton.


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