Charitable Writing, Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Foreword by Anne Ruggles Gere, Afterword by Alan Jacobs. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: Two writing professors explore how Christian faith ought shape both how one writes and how one teaches students to write, shaped by the virtues of humility, love, and hope.
When many of us think of writing in our present time, we think of contentious writing, angry writing, divisive writing. Whether in academic discourse of a scroll through your social media feed, one doesn’t have to go far to find examples of a “scorched earth” approach to writing. Charitable writing? Not so much.
Actually, the authors of this work only have this indirectly in mind. As writing professors at a Christian college, they realized that their approach to writing wasn’t any different than when they had taught in secular settings. If as Christians your aspiration is “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), then what might this look like in both the practice of writing, and the teaching of students to write? It is a question about which I think. This is the question out of which this book arose.
The authors propose that virtuous actions manifesting charity ought to shape our writing. They organize the book around three threshold virtues or concepts: humble listening, loving argument and hopeful time keeping. They devote several chapters to each of these ideas. One of the striking features of this book is that they explore these ideas through visual art as well as their own writing.
Humility begins in humbling oneself before God in prayer as one enters one’s study or workspace to write. Humility is the openness to God and denial of self of Mary at the annunciation. Other images point toward humility as an abiding virtue of writing. The authors go on to discuss humility in writing communities, including writing classes, and in discourse communities, where humility means careful listening to the community and attentive use of that community’s language as one communicates.
They turn to loving argument, beginning with a painting of Augustine symbolizing the triangle of head, heart, and tradition or logos, pathos, and ethos in writing. They explore our metaphors for argument, mostly warlike, explaining both our aversion to argument and why they often end badly. They propose different metaphors. One metaphor is the table, a place of hospitality, a feast together. We can share the meal with generous care for each other or we can feast in a “beastly” fashion, where we seek to get ours at the expense of others. Do we make space for the writing of others at our table?
Finally Gibson and Beitler talk about keeping time hopefully. One aspect of this is writing slowly. As others have observed, there is no good writing, only good re-writing. They walk us through pre-writing, drafting, and revising. Writing is an exercise in hope as one engages the slow, patient work involved. Slow writing allows others to join in, helping with revisions and edits, making our ideas better. But writing in hope also incorporates “liturgies” that invite God in, to inform our writing and to point it toward his telos for life.
As they draw to conclusion, we are reminded that these virtues are social virtues. Writing is social and not solitary. Charitable writing reaches out, it converses and disputes, it holds, embraces and releases. Writing in this way reminds us of our call as disciples to love God and each other, even when we argue. As bonuses this book offers an afterword by Alan Jacobs, a guide to discussion with writing prompts, an essay on teaching charitable writing, and one on the spiritual discipline of writing.
I deeply appreciated this book. For someone who never thought of himself as a writer, I’ve done quite a bit of it in the past decade. It can be hard and humbling and drive you to prayer as you look for the words to get past a block. To send one’s ideas out to others invites both community and criticism. Most of the time I’ve written with great love, and sometimes unlovingly. One writes with hope that your words will connect with others, that long deliberated ideas will give encouragement and light to others. If nothing else, writing changes us, and hopefully for the better. Gibson and Beitler show us how that may be so, to the end of loving God and others.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.