Roads Well Taken: A Review of "The Big Roads," by Earl Swift
Hello Cleveland. I'm Back.

The Signature of Place and Time

What if the Postal Service's resurrection was found in a renewed conversation of places --- letters between Christians exploring what it means to be Christ's church in their own places? What if we could discipline our language and create a common formational practice among our young people by encouraging personal, meaningful writing from one place to another?"

("Slow Mail: The Discipline and Joy of Handwritten Letters," by Ragan Sutterfield, in Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 1)

 In the concluding paragraph of his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul says "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21).  He does it again when writing the church at Colossae (Col. 4:18) and Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:17a) and, in respect to the latter, adds that "[t]his is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17b).  No other letter of an apostle bears these words, though John's second two letters each add "[t]hough I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 13-14).  Paul's writing the conclusion of his letters or, at least, signing them, is a mark of authenticity.  His unique signature bears witness to the genuineness of his words, present, like an etching, even when he cannot be.  What John adds is his preference for physical presence over pen and ink, a letter being no match for face to face conversation.  John recognizd that physical presence was superior to a letter, Paul that a letter written in his own hand superior to that written by what Matthew Henry called an amanuensis (an assistant who takes dictation).  And both are superior to modern-day digital media.

What have we lost by this cultural drift?  And who will remember what is lost when the generation that remembers a non-digital and internet age is gone?  A digital book will never have the substantiality of a hardcover book, an MP3 file the tactility of a recording, or an email the weight of a letter.  And none of them will have the presence of a person --- whether storyteller, musician, or friend.  We may settle for less than presence and must do so much of the time, but to consider such accommodation progress is sad, a product of a disincarnate culture.  In one of his many prescient comments, the late Marshal McLuhan said that "[d]iscarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate Church."  It may have been his way of saying that the Body of Christ requires presence, requires embodiment, and cannot live in a people who seem to prefer disembodied connections.  Tweets, status posts, and text messages are a poor substitute for face to face life together.

One path back for me has been letters. . . not many thus far, and perhaps not as substantial as what Ragan Sutterfield suggests, but it's a start. Here I am, on vacation, and in the drawer of our hotel room is stationary embossed with the hotel name, with envelope, and I wonder what was the last time someone wrote a letter on a sheet of it, and if I could, if I would take the time to do so.  Who will I write?

When I read Sutterfield's article on letter-writing, the cynic in me said "get real."  How in the world do we discipline ourselves much less young people who may never have written a letter nor communicated in much more than 140 characters or less than instantaneously to write a letter?  Why would they do that?  Why would they take the time?  There are reasons to do so, but the case for it is so subtle that it would not be compelling.  It is a pleasure to be discovered, not commanded.

Maybe, just maybe, the best way is to take the time to write them a letter, to invite a conversation.  They may just take you up on it.