Review: Charitable Writing

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.

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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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Candy Butchers

Esther Hamilton

Imagine a variety show with nationally known performers. During the intermission the elite business leaders of the city donned butcher’s aprons (perhaps to collect money?) and went through the crowd selling small bags of candy for large prices with no change returned. They were the “candy butchers” (if you were wondering how candy could be butchered!). The money collected was used to make up Christmas baskets for the city’s poor.

The mover behind this unusual event was Esther Hamilton. She began this tradition in 1931 while she was still a reporter for the Youngstown Telegram before it merged with the Vindicator. Esther continued the tradition until 1965. It was called the Esther Hamilton Alias Santa Claus Show. My hunch was that Esther could be very persuasive in enlisting the area’s business leaders to don those aprons.

At one of the early gala’s in 1933, vaudeville star Rae Samuels, born in Youngstown, headlined before a crowd of 1,800 on a cold winter night. Apparently even the city mayor was a candy butcher that year.

I found accounts from 1943 and 1944, during the war years. In 1943 they raised $3287.34 and in 1944 $4249. During both years Charles B Cushwa, Jr., the president of Commercial Shearing, Inc., was the winning candy butcher. In 1943, Cushwa peddled Cracker Jacks because of a shortage of sugar during the war for making candy. Another year, Lucius B. McKelvey, president of McKelvey’s was champion candy butcher. McKelvey was known to help deliver the baskets. Isaly’s president and chairman Walter H. Paulo was another candy butcher. I suspect that the list of the candy butchers was a who’s who of Youngstown.

Proceeds continued to grow over the years. By 1962, the show raised $55,339. Every sector of Youngstown society participated. The Mahoning County Medical Society in their 1963 newsletter pitched its membership to contribute:

The Medical Society members have shown their concern for needy families very strongly in the past. For three years straight, the doctor representing the Medical Society has collected enough to break into the “Thousand Dollar Club” . . . .

Send in a contribution to the Medical Society office today. Help a needy family have a happy holiday. Help put the Medical Society over the $1,000 mark.

Long before telethons, the United Way, and online fundraisers, there were candy butchers, headline performers, and the Esther Hamilton Alias Santa Claus Show. I think that sounds like a lot more fun, bringing together the more fortunate of Youngstown for the benefit of the less fortunate. I suspect there are any number of ways to find fault with this, but the fact was that the town came together and the elite donned butcher aprons, and then delivered food baskets. It didn’t solve problems, but it was one small and personal way to say “we care.”

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Two Qualities for Public Conversations

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Let’s face it, many public conversations are about as pleasant as the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Often they are less real conversation than serial monologues where each person makes talking points and attempts to score rhetorical points against the other. Very few represent a serious attempt to hear one another that affirms what we hold in common, carefully makes distinctions where we differ, and argues both thoughtfully and graciously for those distinctions without personal animus. I would suggest that there are two essential qualities, or two “C’s” for good public conversations.

Perhaps before I discuss those “C’s” I should try to articulate what I mean about what is a “public conversation.” I see a public conversation as one that occurs in a public forum, whether that be a political debate, or a town hall meeting, or a university seminar, or a presentation in a community room at one’s local public library. It is a conversation about some public and social good, about what will benefit the flourishing of human beings and the social and physical environment in which they live. And it is inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the public attending. No one group controls or presumes to control the conversation.

I am indebted to an article titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale for the two “C’s. In answer to the question of how a Christian scholar might speak with a Christian voice into the public conversations at a university he writes:

“Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.”

The first of the two “C’s” is one he mentions by name. It is charity. No public conversation will be constructive if it tears down people. No conversation will be constructive if it assumes the worst in others. No public conversation will be constructive if begins without good will toward others and the effort to find common ground in our humanity and in at least being willing to give a fair hearing to the ideas of the other. I find it helpful to assume that another has been at least as thoughtful if not more than I about the matter we are discussing. All this is charity.

The other “C” summarizes the idea of a “voice that can be heard.” The idea here is cogency, “the quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.” It means speaking with a voice that is knowledgeable. It is a voice that speaks in terms that are shared and may be grasped by the listening public and the others in the conversation. It means a voice that makes its case with thoughtful argument and not simply provocative soundbites. If charity takes the dignity of others seriously, cogency takes the minds and thoughts of others seriously.

It seems to me that it is these two qualities, practiced together, that produce a third quality, a third “C” that is so wanting in much of our discourse, that of civility. I wonder if one of the criteria we ought to apply in considering candidates for any high office is whether they practice the qualities of charity and cogency resulting in civil public conversations. It seems to me that if they do not meet this criteria (and I think there are those who do not), then they should not be considered fit candidates. Civic leadership at any level should rest on the quality to engage with civility with the civitas, the whole body of citizens one aspires to serve and lead.

Equally, in the academic world, which is often known for its vicious politics, it seems that the qualities of charity and cogency also apply. Universities needn’t be places where people agree. In fact, it is the disagreements that make them interesting places! The rigorous clash of ideas sharpens thinking but it needn’t make enemies. And for those to whom Wolterstorff speaks, Christians, his challenge is one of choosing charity and the hard work of cogency, over pat answers and put downs.

I have no illusions that a magic wand can be waved as in a Disney movie that makes everything sweetness and light. But if enough of us practice these qualities in whatever public forum we engage, and prefer those for leadership who approximate to these virtues, we might at least give others the whiff of something better.

But will they follow their noses?