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    red and orange paint

    In Search of Charitable Writing

    Christian authors should not discard Christian virtues in their political writings

    Richard Hughes Gibson

    December 14, 2020
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    • charles schoendienst

      It's hard to love and hard not to hate the people I disagre with. This includes telemarketers, that other political party and relatives who are making foolish decisions. Its hard to love the unloveable. Gosh, but maybe they feel the same way about me. Thanks for this essay. I appreciated quote from Auden: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart."

    • Al Owski

      Charitable writing, charitable discourse for that matter, requires us to recognize the humanity of ourselves and others. For the believer this has a root: believing that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The toxic political invective that you speak of is dehumanizing language. Toxic rhetoric strips away our sacred created-ness and opens the door to all manner of evil. You spoke of Adam and Eve's “mutual accusation” which some would say was the unfolding of original sin in the Bible. You neglected to mention this country's original sin, chattel slavery. The fault lines in the church and the body politic all trace their origins to slavery. Otherwise, how would it be that a politician could use racist rhetoric to slice up the Church and the body politic like a hot knife through butter? You left me with take-away which leaves me hopeful: “Acknowledging the "ugly truths of the world" and yet not giving up on it? That’s been our charge since time immemorial. Not allowing another’s humanity to be defined by their worst beliefs? I too would call that a radical act of love.”

    • Doris Fraser

      So far America has not changed Trump, consequences have been missing. It is honest to "call a spade a spade." I call Tyrant Trump the Master Exploiter. Christians have not been given a spirit of fear. Trump has been cashing in, in a big way, via much fear. I feel the American people have been redeemed in their response to this election. Had it gone the other way, I would have considered it a total, national moral bankruptcy. Even without that, too much damage has been done by this person, via the many enablers who allowed it.

    • Jake

      AMAZING. WHAT A STUPENDOUS PIECE.

    Thus they in mutual accusation spent
    The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning,
    And of their vain contest appeared no end.

    Paradise Lost, IX.1187-1189

    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

    – Prayer of St. Francis

    In the fall of 2017, when my friend and colleague Jim Beitler and I set to work on a book titled Charitable Writing, the American political landscape was the last thing on my mind. The problem we were trying to solve was within Christian higher education, and more specifically within our own classrooms – the habit that we observed in our students and ourselves of compartmentalizing our studies and our spiritual lives. Sure, we prayed, and often before class. Sure, we were good churchgoers. Jim and I had even published books and essays on Christian topics. When we entered the room to write, though, we often unthinkingly checked our Christian convictions at the door. Microsoft Word had one ethics, the Word of God another.

    But we had found a promising model for integrating Christian commitment and academic practice in our friend Alan Jacobs’s book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Charitable Writing might be said to comprise our attempt to translate Jacobs’s insights about the priority of love in our reading lives into our writing lives. Jacobs’s starting point is a passage in St. Augustine’s manual for preachers, On Christian Teaching, in which the saint argues that building caritas – the forerunner of the English “charity” and a Latin vessel for the Greek agape love – ought to be the measure of one’s success in interpreting Scripture. “Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them,” Augustine writes, “but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” To put it in Pauline terms: if you read the Bible, but do not build love, you are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

    Jacobs discerned that Augustine’s argument about the double love commandment extended far beyond the interpretation of Scripture. He puts it like this in the afterword to Charitable Writing: “There is no human endeavor in which I, as a Christian, am free to neglect the Great Commandment to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength, and love my neighbor as myself.” Reflecting on his vocation as a critic, Jacobs notes that the law of love applies not only to the Bible but also the novels of Toni Morrison and the morning news. Writing at a time when many critics rank suspicion among the “cardinal principles” of interpretation, Jacobs argues that agape demands that Christians read another way: “The charitable reader offers the gift of constant and loving attention – faithfulness – to a story, to a poem, to an argument, in hope that it will be rewarded.” We may be disappointed in that hope, Jacobs grants; yet the law of love demands that we open a book in hope that gifts may be exchanged.

    With our book, Jim and I have extended Jacobs’s extension, carrying over into the domain of writing the love of God and neighbor that Jacobs drew from Augustine’s instruction on Bible-reading, and Augustine from Jesus’s teaching on the law, and Jesus from the edicts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Charitable writers, we realized, must begin as charitable readers, approaching our neighbors’ words, ideas, and data sets with the “gift of constant and loving attention” that Jacobs describes. But writing also demands that we ask how our words show love to those neighbors who will receive our work too. The characteristics of agape that Paul touts in his “hymn to love” in 1 Corinthians 13 took on new thickness. Practicing patience and kindness, not being puffed up or easily provoked, rejoicing in the truth: these are not just pleasant words on love to be read at weddings; they are guidelines for our writing lives.

    Practicing patience and kindness, not being puffed up or easily provoked, rejoicing in the truth: these are not just pleasant words on love to be read at weddings; they are guidelines for our writing lives.

    We discovered, moreover, that virtues like humility and charity could enrich the writing process. A humble listener is a better listener because she’s actually listening – actually learning – and not just impatiently waiting to get her point across. A loving argument is a better argument because the writer actually takes the time to understand the audience that he addresses. A charitable critique is a more persuasive critique for its author’s effort to grasp – and, in turn, faithfully explain – why others hold the positions they espouse. To write in pursuit of charity, we came to see, may not make our prose more mellifluous and profound. But it does make us better writers insofar as charity makes us more patient, more attentive, more alive to the world outside our heads and the souls who inhabit it.

    I have said that I did not begin writing the book with the American political landscape specifically in mind. But like so many people, I have watched the downward spiral of our political discourse over the last few years with alarm. And with each new crisis, each new attack and counterattack, each new occasion for denunciations and half-hearted apologies, I have had to wonder about the fate of our little effort to promote more charity in writing. Charitable Writing is not a book with a controversial political agenda, mind you. We venture no claims about modern hot-button issues. We don’t stump for one party or another.

    Instead, my anxieties have been about how our message would seem to our students. Over the last year in particular, I have had to acknowledge – with a gulp in the throat – how out of step our advice is with the implicit and explicit guidance about writing that our students receive constantly from their news feeds and social media. This is not simply a question of how every day Republicans tear into Democrats and Democrats lash out at Republicans. (And do notice that the phrases “tear into” and “lash out” are now regularly featured in the headlines of major newspapers.) Christians – writing explicitly as Christians – are tearing into and lashing out with gusto.

    The question about how agape should be understood in relation to politics has elicited a range of answers over the ages. Yet among the various commentators there has been a general consensus that the problem concerns just how far we ought to expect agape to go in the political sphere as it radiates out from the church. In the last year, I have come to see in our times the reverse problem: What are we to do when a toxic political culture leaches into the church? As Jacobs has recently pointed out, a shocking number of Christians have sworn off the practice of virtues like charity and humility in their political writings and dealings, justifying themselves on the grounds that “politics is a hard game, that these are not ordinary times, that we are in a crisis, that desperate times require desperate measures, that, yes, trying to practice the virtues we are repeatedly commanded in Scripture to cultivate is in politics naïve and indeed indefensible – that we must do what is ‘necessary.’” The tragedy of our hour is that this rationale doesn’t simply apply to political rivals. It is equally evident in the ways that Christians respond to each other.

    Against this background, I have wondered whether the account of charity that Jim and I offer would seem quaint, even frivolous to our young readers. This love stuff is all fine and good for English class, I could imagine a student saying, but this isn’t how things work out there in the real world. The student need only point to that day’s strikes and counterstrikes as reported on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Apple News. Were we even making our students a false promise? Teaching them writing habits that might only make the rude awakening to the brute facts of our cultural situation worse? While reading My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante’s novel about two girls growing up in a violent blue-collar neighborhood in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s, I came across a passage that named my fears exactly: “Of course, I would have liked the nice manners that the teacher and the priest preached, but I felt that those ways were not suited to our neighborhood.”

    Jim and I taught Charitable Writing this semester, and our students have responded generously to our efforts; my worst fears have not been realized. The distinctive characteristics of agape (a.k.a. caritas and charity) were new to many students, and previously fuzzy to quite a few more. The book is facilitating exactly the kinds of conversations about spiritual practices and virtues that we’d imagined when we began drafting in 2017. Together, my students and I have tried to imagine how we might make an argument without making war.

    And yet as the election neared, I grew steadily more anxious about how the “nice manners” that I was preaching in the carefully delimited academic space in which my students and I operate would seem amidst the barrage of decidedly uncharitable writing that we experience daily. Let me be clear: this call for charity is not an effort to quiet the voices of those who see injustice and suffering and call out passionately for change. Justice for the poor and oppressed is among the hallmark features of Scripture, the prophets above all. When Jesus says that “all the law and the prophets” depend on the double love commandment (Matthew 22:40), he knits love and justice together. As Jim has taught me, charitable writing might involve making a sign and taking it to the streets.

    Rather, election season brought into focus the problem of writing charitably in the midst a culture of “mutual accusation.” I borrow those words from John Milton’s description of the verbal fallout of the Fall in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. Spotless in their own eyes, neither Adam nor Eve will give an inch, and as a result they are trapped in a “vain contest” that leads only to further (and seemingly interminable) squabbling. Is there a better description of our media moment? Piped into our feeds and inboxes are daily dosages of language diametrically opposed to what Paul preached in the “hymn to love”: writing that’s short-tempered, unkind, envious, puffed up, unseemly, self-seeking, easily provoked, and full of evil thoughts.

    Election season clarified for me a deep truth. If Christians don’t try to publish their charity in the world, we make our own avowed commitments to agape less plausible, especially to the young who are reading around out there.

    To my great astonishment, though, election week supplied much-needed evidence that I have not been alone in my hopes for greater charity in our writing, giving me an unexpected jolt of hope. Now I could point my students to discussions of our political climate that displayed humility and charity when engaging with alternative viewpoints.

    What does charitable writing look like at this hour? Two examples from my small catch stand out in this regard. The first, an editorial by Christianity Today’s president and CEO Timothy Dalrymple examining “Why Evangelicals Disagree on the President,” appeared the day before the election. As Dalrymple notes, evangelicals have been painfully divided on President Trump – despite media claims otherwise. The same spirit of mutual disbelief and accusation seen in our national political discourse has spread among brothers and sisters in Christ: “Unable to see reason in the opposing view, each side asserts the other has succumbed to unreason, to prejudice, or to the lust for power or approval.”

    Although not himself a supporter of President Trump, Dalrymple is able to explain why many of his fellow believers are. Dalrymple supports what he calls the “Church Remnant,” the view that Christians should prioritize the church’s integrity and witness over political influence, but spends just as much time articulating the argument of the “Church Regnant,” which holds that Christians should seek political power in order to protect their way of life. Dalrymple names such care in relating the other view as one of charity’s obligations: “charitable disagreement requires that we represent our brothers and sisters at their best.” Dalrymple does not try to explain away the differences between the two positions. He is firm in his own convictions, and he takes a risk in stating them so directly given that Christianity Today’s readership presumably includes many who voted for President Trump.

    What’s important about this piece is that it clearly conveys that Christian love cannot be sacrificed in the process of making arguments. Our love, Dalrymple would remind us, should keep the channel open to our fellow believers when we disagree because our love knows a higher loyalty than national politics. Love, he memorably concludes, is “the last radical act in a radically polarized age.”

    “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” a familiar hymn proclaims. Will they know we are Christians by our writing?

    The second piece comes from more unexpected quarter – a reflection on “How Trump Changed America” by Clare Malone, posted on FiveThirtyEight shortly after the election was called for Biden on November 7. Strongly critical of President Trump, Malone’s tone is less irenic than Dalrymple’s, at least initially. Yet even amidst her critique, Malone acknowledges President Trump’s rhetorical powers in crafting political messages that resonated with millions of people. Ultimately, though, what interests Malone isn’t President Trump but the sides of America that his presidency has revealed.

    In particular, Malone reckons with the general breakdown of understanding among people in different parties or groups that we have witnessed recently. She recalls an email that she wrote to herself shortly after learning of Trump’s likely victory in 2016: “‘Prayer of St. Francis is really the journalist’s prayer and the prayer of our time.’ I was thinking of this part: ‘Grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood as to understand.’” In the last few weeks, I have often thought about the challenge of these words – not just for journalists – but also for others (like me) whose livings involve spreading words. How might my writing change if I wrote under the influence of the Prayer of St. Francis – or, as it’s also known, “The Peace Prayer?” But I felt even more strongly called into account by what Malone said next:

    Seeking to understand rather than be understood requires a suppression of ego that takes practice. Lots of us are out of practice. And this election has given us more information that we still need to process and understand.

    Once we get rolling, it’s relatively simple to reveal the ugly truths of the world – and to develop anger around them. It can be painful to realize your brother is a chauvinist, your cousin is bigoted toward religious people, or your mother is a racist. And that pain can drive us into the harbors of the like-minded.

    It’s harder to grapple with how to convince people to change the way they think about things, or to just go on letting them think what they think, not allowing their humanity to be defined by their worst beliefs. That’s a radical act of acceptance, and some might say a radical act of love. It’s not an easy thing. It might actually be the hardest thing.

    Malone doesn’t use an explicitly theological vocabulary here, but the issues she’s wrestling with are basic to the Christian tradition. Suppressing the ego in order to understand rather than be understood? We have a name for that: humility. The New Testament calls it tapeinophrosune – literally, “lowliness of mind.” Acknowledging the “ugly truths of the world” and yet not giving up on it? That’s been our charge since time immemorial. Not allowing another’s humanity to be defined by their worst beliefs? I too would call that a radical act of love. Indeed I would call this charity, the greatest commandment of our Lord.

    Malone has distilled in less than two hundred words what I learned over the last three years. The New Testament regularly commends Christians to love one another; Dalrymple reminds us of that. But Malone gets at the more formidable challenge of Scripture: to love the unlovely – all the neighbors you wish you didn’t have. Certainly, the law of love applies to our writing for and about such people too. And it should remind us to hope and pray that others will show love and mercy in writing for and about us. Perhaps in addition to the Peace Prayer, we all ought to recite Auden’s gloss on the Great Commandment when we sit down to write: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.”

    Soon after setting to work in 2017, Jim and I discovered an overlap between the ancient theories of virtue acquisition and rhetoric. They both held out the same two necessary conditions for growth. One is a dedication to practice, practice, practice. No less than good writing, virtues like charity require lifelong, and often arduous, labor. We’ll often mess up in both endeavors and then have to repent and begin anew. But all that practice is useless if students don’t have the other piece in place: examples worthy of imitation. We must have a target upon which to model our efforts. We must know that what we seek is indeed possible. Dalrymple’s efforts at “charitable disagreement” and Malone’s to honor the Peace Prayer in her writing are not perfect; no model is. But they are hopeful signs. More charitable writing is needed amidst our current political landscape, and will be needed in what comes next. The promise of Scripture is that charity will not fail us; our challenge, this year has taught me, is to not fail those who look to our example to learn what love is. We must watch our words.

    “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” a familiar hymn proclaims. Will they know we are Christians by our writing?

    Contributed By

    An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Richard Hughes Gibson is the author or co-author of three books, including, with James Beitler, Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words (IVP, December 2020).

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