With the advent of text and email, it seems that writing a simple letter—as significant as that is—has become a lost art. Sure, modern conveniences make communication more efficient, but do they connect us as intimately as we’d hope? Last week’s article addressed the spiritual discipline of confession; this week, it’s the art of letter writing.
Sometimes efficiency and technology do not lead to a healthier, more spirit-tuned community. Letters still have the potential to connect people in ways that no hand-held device can, and they can meld relationships in a way that the writing trumps a pretentious “i luv u.”
Let’s learn from history: Letters have always played an important role in civilizations in general and the church in particular. In his benediction to churches in Thessalonica, Paul wrote, “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write” (3:16-17).
Like many priests, philosophers, and pedagogues in his time, Paul chose to write letters to spread and teach his way of thought. Those letters were read aloud in community and passed to other churches in the Roman Empire. They were so critical in faith formation, they instantly became a part of holy writ. No wonder a majority of books in the New Testament is made up of epistles.
Well into the first century, another generation of church leaders, like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, continued the tradition. Today, we see the power of letters in the form of Catholic cyclicals and open letters penned by denomination leaders. And, unlike texts and email, letters can become heirlooms for passing on traditions of a bygone era.
I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new biography on Thomas Jefferson, and I am awestruck by how much Meacham uses letters to explore the past. The writing of letters was such an important part of democracy—in fact, our modern notion of the separation of church and state evolved from a letter Jefferson wrote to a synagogue in New England. The earliest calls for Revolution against the British Empire came in the form of letters to friends and colonial parliaments.
The art of letter writing requires very little skill and only takes a little time and creativity, but it makes a lasting impact.
Time: People claim to have little of it; and, given more of it, people argue they would write more letters. Consider, however, how long people spend on the internet on any given day: Ever notice that time flies when you’re on the internet?
What about texting? You could have just called and spoke to me for two minutes instead of spending 10 minutes texting back and forth.
Letters still play an important role in the life of faith. I encourage grandparents to write grandchildren, spouses to write each other, friends to keep in touch beyond the computer screen. Pen pals, so ubiquitous when I was growing up, can be an important way for people, like-minded or not, to connect on a deeper level. It can keep family, separated by miles and even continents, knit together in a unique web of encouragement and care.
Imagine a religion in which the majority of its history or life-lessons was recorded in text or email. I presume we would not have had the lofty theology of Romans or the first-century cultural insights of a letter to the Corinthians. Without letters something is lost in faith; and it is a spiritual discipline to be reclaimed and cherished.