It’s a letter I’m writing.
You will think I’m simply stating the obvious – and, of course, I am: but I’m also making a point, because I mean to air an issue which has weighed upon my heart for long enough. The demise in our day of the written letter.
There are reasons behind such a patent and rapid demise, reasons which themselves are symptomatic of a spiritual malaise within society today: and there are consequences, too, of this demise, whose fruit, I want to suggest, is already becoming apparent.
Let me start, though, with a disclaimer, and then with something of a confession.
The disclaimer, first of all. I am not decrying for a moment the ways in which technology has almost overnight transformed the ways we now communicate. I’m not down-playing the many varied positives there are in e-mail correspondence, nor the benefits which Twitter can afford (I use e-mail all the time, of necessity: Twitter, though, I’ve managed to live without). Nor do I mean in any way to denigrate the use of ‘social media’ – Instagram and Facebook and the like, they all can be so helpful in ensuring friends, acquaintances, family can keep themselves in touch with one another.
Then, too, a confession. I confess to a personal interest in this letter-writing theme. In much the same way as a compass needle has a bias to the north (and we’re grateful for the direction it thus gives), so too I am biased. I have known for myself the enduring and powerful impact on a person’s life which a hand-crafted letter can have.
For years (until it got so frayed it simply fell apart) I carried in my wallet a letter which my Gran had written to me as she marked my 18th birthday: a letter in which she referred me to Micah 6.8 – “what does the Lord require of you but that you act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”: she explained how the challenge and instruction of that verse had served her well throughout her 80 years, and then – as only perhaps a grandparent really can do (and get away with it!) – she gently but firmly impressed on me the call of the Lord to live my life in walking thus with Him.
Years later, almost 40 years later in fact, when my mother died, to her children’s surprise, we discovered she’d kept one letter through the previous 70 years: a letter from her aged grandfather, written to her when she was 13 years old, in which he’d carefully set before this young and impressionable girl the choice she had to make between, as he put it, a life of leisure and a life of service, between a life of self-indulgence or one in which she recognized always the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He ended by letting her know he prayed for her always, and was asking the Lord that she would live a rich and beautiful life.
She did. And the fact that this letter was kept safe by my Mum on her person from the day of receipt to the day that she died is itself an unarguable proof of the hugely significant impact a letter can have in thus shaping a person’s whole living and inspiring the course of her life.
So I confess to a definite bias!
Letter-writing matters insofar as letters are a primary means God uses in the careful, patient sculpting of an individual’s living to the glory of His Name – as important, perhaps, or perhaps (dare I say it!) even more important still than even any Spirit-powered preaching of the Word. After all, the larger part of the New Testament is comprised of just such letters. May that not have been precisely the reason why the Lord in His sovereign providence saw fit to have Paul arrested and stuck in a prison for all that time? How else would He ever have got that compulsive preaching-machine of a man to pause long enough to get all of those letters composed – and that way ensure that the benefit of his apostolic teaching would be permanently bequeathed to each succeeding generation of His church?
And how does the Bible end if not in those seven, so comprehensive letters from our risen Lord, delivered in the packaging of Revelation’s truth?
We do well to give some thought as to why it should be that this letter-writing medium is given such substantial space within the sacred bounds of God’s own holy Word. Is it not precisely because the rich and enriching truth of the gospel is both set out clearly with a great doctrinal clarity, and also, through this medium, applied so very fully with a gracious, pastoral authority?
And is there not a lesson to be learned, too, from our noting that in case after case it’s the letters of the preachers and the pastors of the past which are their most enriching and their most enduring legacy?
It’s the letters, for instance, of John Newton (far more than his sermons or songs) which remain, to this day, so hugely insightful and helpful, so warmly instructive and wise, so pertinent still to the times in which we are living. You could think of the letters which were penned by George Whitefield as well: a great and wonderful preacher, for sure – but, oh, take a read of his letters!
Or nearer to home (at least for those of us here in the north) there are all of those pastoral letters from the pen of Samuel Rutherford: like Paul the apostle himself in some ways, the man was removed from his pastoral charge (in Anwoth) – and for a spell he was confined up here in this ancient granite city. Away from his people, removed from his pulpit, his writing desk became (in the words of an old biographer) “perhaps the most effective and widely resounding pulpit then in Christendom”, and his letters (hundreds of them written from here in Aberdeen) became the means by which his Jesus-centred ministry reached so very far and wide, and (long centuries later on) still speaks with all its eloquence and grace into our lives today.
Letters. Letters addressed to individual people with a range of pastoral needs. Letters addressed to churches facing all sorts of troubles and trials. But letters. Hand-written and carefully crafted letters; what Goethe described as ‘the most significant memorial a person can leave’. Not a hastily-written, typo-filled e-mail.
The demise of the letter is a cause of no little concern. Partly because, as I said at the start, this demise of the written letter is a deeply-worrying symptom of the sickness and malaise within society today: and partly, too, because this demise has repercussions which do not augur well for coming days.
Here, then, are the reasons why we should be troubled and disturbed by this departure from a letter-writing culture in our day.
Number one. We live too fast. We’ve got ourselves trapped in a fast-food, countdown-culture where the clock is always ticking and we need our fixes now. We can’t afford, and (as often as not now) we don’t know how, to wait. Electronic, press-the-button mailing fits that bill. It’s quick, immediate, instant: and we look for an answer straight back. We’re a people who live by the ‘ping’. We mail on-line and we post on-line and we order on-line – and for some we almost live on-line.
But living on-line has seen us go wholly off-track. We’ve lost the grace of waiting. And with that too – maybe as the reason for, or perhaps as the result of – with that too we’ve lost the perspective of eternity. If the here and now is all there is the instant becomes imperative. Writing a letter takes time – and time is at a premium for a here-and-now society.
Number two. We disdain the Word. Grammar and spelling go out of the window with e-mails and tweets and the like. Words become cheap, and we scorn all the ‘rules’ which determine the way words are meant to be cherished and used.
We have forgotten that very basic truth, that “In the beginning was the Word”. Our careless, slovenly handling of the words we choose to use betrays a fundamental faultline in society today. We’re a people who now demean the sacred Scriptures and dismiss, disdain and dishonour the Word Himself.
Number three. We abhor discomfort. Our self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking culture has no truck for that component of hard work in all true art. Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ tells you everything about our culture’s take on art: it’s the very reverse of the great, artistic handiwork of God (and the Scriptures insist it was ‘work’) we call creation. ‘My Bed’: the dark, disheveled chaos of an empty, sordid life of night-time wantonness is left untouched: and that, we’re told, is ‘art’. Not so.
Art involves hard work. Any creativity that is worthy of the name is modeled on and mirrors what the great Creator does. And because there’s an element of art, a low-key creativity, involved in the writing of a letter, just so, along with the craft, there is always hard graft in writing any letter – just try getting a child to write a Christmas ‘thank you’ letter!
A ‘tweet’ is not the same. A hastily scribbled e-mail as we spill out what is at that instant foremost on our hearts – that’s not the same. It’s the counterfeit craft without all the graft: the gospel without any cross.
Number four. We do not think. At least not as much as once we did. Today we feel instead. Listen to the way that people speak. “It didn’t feel right.” “I just felt I should do this.” The culture of the instant goes in tandem with a feeling-driven outlook in the way that we express ourselves. We don’t have the time now to think.
The story goes that Michaelangelo spent three whole months just looking at the solid block of marble from which, in time, he’d sculpt his famous ‘David’. ‘What are you doing?’ he was asked more than once through those early months. ‘I’m working,’ he replied. Thinking, pondering, reflecting.
That’s the primary ‘work’ involved in writing any letter. We reflect on what we want to say: we write it down: we read it through: we reflect on what we’ve said and sometimes then re-write the thing from scratch. Thought has gone in to the writing of any such letter.
And that’s what we’re rapidly losing: both the readiness, and then in consequence the very capacity, to think. We don’t have the time. It’s far too hard work. E-mails, ‘tweets’ and social media posting are all of them far quicker, easier, simpler. And so we don’t write letters any more – because we will not, do not, cannot really think.
Number five. We live in the shallows. We don’t do deep at all. We snack all the time on soundbites.
I’m speaking of society at large: and, of course, I’m generalizing too. But this spreading characteristic of our culture, this reluctance and refusal to dig down deep beneath the surface of a thing, this superficiality is very much the atmosphere we all of us are breathing day by day. And thus we run the risk, within a generation, of becoming now a church comprised of superficial saints: a message without substance and a people without roots. Restless, rootless and unwittingly reckless as well.
Number six. We’ve become less personal. A letter is highly personal, especially a hand-written one. The hand of the writer has moved across the page which we now hold: the pen with which the writer wrote has been but the extension of her hand, as if the writer, through the very ink upon the page, was reaching out her hand and pouring out her heart to the recipient.
Think back to the letter my grandmother wrote: it was her, as much as her letter, I think, whom I was holding to myself through all those years.
And the gospel is ultimately personal. Not virtual. Writing letters signals that – as this one, I hope, makes clear!
Yours in Christ’s service