An artful letter (part 1)

In this day of communication by email, text, and tweet, I suspect that the art of letter writing has largely been forgotten, and other related things have vanished with it. For example, I can remember practicing my penmanship as a kid, using lined paper especially designed for that purpose. But schools no longer teach children to write in cursive. The argument is, “Why waste time writing things out when we have computers?”

Indeed, the software in our devices is making it seem less and less necessary to learn our own language, to program the software in our brains. Start typing, and our devices automatically correct our spelling and grammar. They’ll even helpfully suggest what they think we want to say next, just to save us the keystrokes.

I have to admit, sometimes it is helpful. At the same time, though, it can feel a little creepy: How did it know I was going to say that? And sometimes, it’s downright maddening: Stop correcting me! I know what I want to say, and I didn’t make a mistake!

It’s a little embarrassing when I catch myself shouting at inanimate objects.

Should anyone care if letter writing is becoming a lost art? I think so. And it’s not just because I’m a cranky old fogy. Good letter writing requires us to put our thoughts in order and to pay attention to social context; it teaches us to say enough, without saying too much. And it does it all in the safety of having the time to think carefully about how to say what we need to say before dropping the letter in the mail. (Side note: just imagine how much grief could be saved if people just spent a few minutes breathing deeply and calmly before hitting “send” on those emotion-laden emails.)

Think about it. Most of the “books” of the New Testament — by far — are letters written by particular people to particular audiences, often to address particular situations and difficulties. These letters, not the gospels that stand at the head of the New Testament, are the first official documents of the fledgling Christian church.

But unlike much written communication today, these letters were not random musings. They were not written off the top of someone’s head. They are, in essence, the written record of theology being done between real people in real time, with keen attention paid to the social context and the relationship between the sender and the receiver.

Try getting your software to do that.

It’s worth pausing, then, to appreciate the letter in Acts 15, sent by the Jerusalem council to the Gentiles in Antioch who were eagerly awaiting their decision on the matter of circumcision. As we’ve seen in previous posts, Peter has already argued strongly that circumcision not be imposed on Gentile converts, and James has agreed.

What remains is to write a letter that can be sent back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Two other men, leaders in the Jerusalem church, are chosen to go with them: Judas and Silas. The presence of the latter two men will deflect any suspicion that the letter is a fake, that Paul has just made the whole thing up to get his way.

There’s no way to be certain whether Luke is giving us the whole letter verbatim. But what’s there is instructive enough:

The apostles and the elders, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings! We’ve heard that some of our number have disturbed you with unsettling words we didn’t authorize. We reached a united decision to select some delegates and send them to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul. These people have devoted their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are sending Judas and Silas. They will confirm what we have written. The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid such things. Farewell.

Acts 15:23-29, CEB

Again, the believers in Antioch are waiting anxiously for the decision, and it would have been possible to send a letter that gave that information alone: We’ve decided that you don’t have to be circumcised, but you do have to observe the following requirements. Notice, however, that the crucial decision doesn’t come until the end of the letter.

Why? It’s not like the council needs to soften anyone up before delivering bad news; it’s good news. So why not just give them the good news up front and not keep everyone in suspense?

The answer is that James and the council know that the letter isn’t just about conveying information.

It’s about relationship, as many a well-written letter should be. More on that in part 2 of this post.