Jump directly to the content
Dear Everyone: Stop Writing Open Lettersusdagov / Flickr

Dear Everyone: Stop Writing Open Letters


Feb 16 2016
Open letters have changed history, but our petty online rants are getting old.

When Dear Mom on the iPhone went viral a few years ago, sparking a lively round of retorts, I’d just had my first baby and purchased my first smartphone. Thanks to fluky timing, that debate seemed strangely personal. Of course it wasn't, and I've toughened to the mommy guilt since—but I've also kept a curious eye on the groundswell of “Dear ____” posts.

Do a little Googling and you'll find page after page of open letters addressed to quarterbacks and ex-boyfriends and snarky salespeople who won't ever actually read them. And now, like all good overgrown fads, the game has gone meta: In December, TIME published an open letter to all the open letter writers (ahem).

Though the Internet has offered us all a megaphone for addressing the masses, these letters aren't remotely new. Over history, they’ve proved an effective rhetorical device, making us smarter, making us tougher, and, most importantly, making us think.

Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, after all, worked as an open letter—inked, as he said, to spur dialogue “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.” In similar fashion, his namesake Martin Luther King Jr. also penned one: his Letter from Birmingham Jail, jotted in the very margins of the newspaper statement he was responding to. The Apostle Paul wrote from prison, too (the New Testament would be considerably slimmer without his epistles to newborn churches), and while we're at it, it's probably not much of a stretch to lump in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Those are fiction, of course—correspondence between a senior demon and his bumbling protégé—but eavesdropping on the devil's mail turns out to be sobering, spiritually enlightening, and let's be honest: just plain fun.

The best open letters can be enduring and artful, downright winsome, breaking up hard soil in the human heart. But in a Facebook age where we're speaking to everyone anyway, the form has lost some of its gravitas. Many modern ones (be they editorials or blog posts or tweets) come off as so self-aware, so hungry for applause. At the peak of its reign, the open letter has forgotten its roots and withered right down to a rant.

As a Christian, I worry that the very tenor of today's open letters, besides being tinny and shrill, reverses the model spelled out in Scripture. James 1:19 says, “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (NLT). We're cautioned to be quick-eared and cool, all while writing (and reading) letters that are un-interruptible and incendiary, deliberately aimed to arouse. How does that math work?

Support our work. Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

Comments

To add a comment you need to be a registered user or Christianity Today subscriber.

orSubscribeor
More from Her.menutics
How to Address America’s Foster Care Crisis? It Takes a Village

How to Address America’s Foster Care Crisis? It Takes a Village

The next wave of the evangelical adoption movement will rely on the church's support.
There's Never Enough Time

There's Never Enough Time

What I’ve learned as a working mother about the limits of time management.
Why Adult Coloring Works for Christians

Why Adult Coloring Works for Christians

I mocked the coloring book trend, until I discovered it for myself.
Does the Road to Character Run Through Silicon Valley?

Does the Road to Character Run Through Silicon Valley?

The HBO show draws us in with deeper questions about power and morals.
Include results from Christianity Today
Browse Archives:

So Hot Right Now

Blessed Are the Agnostics

How I learned to see my unbelieving husband through God’s eyes.

Twitter



What We're Reading

CT eBooks and Bible Studies

Christianity Today
Dear Everyone: Stop Writing Open Letters