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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?

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Dear Everyone: Stop Writing Open Letters