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?
Now, I'll be first to admit that emotions work as great starter fuel, but most open letters don't close the deal. They're passive-aggressive catharses. They carve out safe places for the reader (and the writer) to laugh and groan and fist-pump and feel; they exhaust us emotionally and then leave us inert. A successful open letter, by modern standards, isn’t one that actually affects change. It's one that affects us. At best, we might re-share it—an open letter's virality is its own greatest talent—but in doing so (and I'm channeling Neil Postman here) we become accomplices, helping pulp real issues down into diversions and sideshows.
Correcting others should be anything but a spectacle. Even Paul, so bold with a pen, said he initially regretted sending a stinging letter to the Corinthians, but was grateful later that the pain had worked its full purpose: “godly sorrow” and an eagerness to make things right (2 Cor. 7: 8-10). Jesus also explicitly teaches that believer-to-believer confrontation should begin privately (Matt. 18:15-17), probably because this high-touch approach reminds us there's a soul on the line. And come to think of it, that's probably why so many open letters can afford to be so scathing: They're ambivalent about their audience. They're written for everyone and no one, and so they have no real stakes.
I realize it's 2016, and the Internet has happened. Our online environment feeds us a firestorm of information and yet, at the same time, almost teasingly, doesn't allow us an audience with anyone we'd like. I'm not saying we need to sip a certain amount of coffee with every presidential candidate before cobbling together criticism, but I do want to ask sincerely: Who said it was our duty to voice it so loudly? Aren't we promised that we will shine “like stars” precisely because we aren't always moaning and arguing (Phil. 2: 14-15), because our conversations are markedly different in texture, trajectory, tone?
Oswald Chambers said that when “we serve Jesus in a spirit that is not his, we hurt him by our advocacy.” And strangely enough, he goes on to say that if we're doing “our duty” with the right posture, the work will actually humble us. “If I feel I have done my duty and yet have hurt him in doing it,” he says, “I may be sure that it was not my duty, because it has not fostered the meek and quiet spirit, but the spirit of self-satisfaction.” When we move to correct or criticize—even legitimately, even in God's name—we should watch what kind of mood wells up within us. It's a frighteningly good barometer.
More and more, we have to find ways to dial back down. That's Jesus's style, anyway. He was the genuine article, the God-man himself, and yet he didn't rabidly seek audiences out. He seemed to intentionally scale his message to keep things personal. Isn't it ironic that some of his most enduring words are plucked out of his most intimate conversations? That hallmark gospel verse, John 3:16, was spoken to Nicodemus in the cloak of night. And also, one of Jesus's iconic claims to be living water, a deep flowing well? That metaphor was delivered to a Samaritan woman at noon, with no one else around. And having her truth spoken back to her—so baldly, beneath the hot afternoon sun—it unzipped her. That's why she ran off to tell others, and this part's poetic: she left her water jar behind.
I tried this one morning, recently—the frankness, in private, offered from the sincere heart. I'd been sitting with a bunch of other women, poking at a cold breakfast casserole, when one of them set her question down right in the middle of the table: I wonder sometimes about how I'm handling a certain relationship, she said. Then she smiled. But we're women, right? We worry for a living?
On cue, the snickering began, along with the usual hormone jokes. When I got home, I spent 15 minutes finessing a four-sentence message for her. A non-open letter. I might be overstepping, here, it read, but you asked an honest question and you deserve an honest answer. My fingers were sweating; she might begrudge me, the meddling fool. But the incident reminded me that real talk—real relationships—connects us precisely because it costs us.
Os Guinness, in his latest book, Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, puts it plainly: “Christian persuasion always has to be primarily person-to-person and face-to-face, and not argument to argument, formula to formula, media to media or methodology to methodology.”
The truth is, words matter—letters do, and language certainly does—but at the end of the day they're only vehicles. They'll run out of gas and only get us so far. Our motives matter more. People can smell true concern a mile away, and when you think about it, that's where the gospel pulls all its raw power: it passes the sniff-test. It proves God's own heart. After all, he could have sat down and written us another angsty open letter, but the good news is that he didn't. The Word didn't stay Word, but got braver. It took on flesh and dwelt among us.
Rebecca Rene Jones is the author of the forthcoming memoir Broken for Good: How Grief Awoke My Greatest Hopes (FaithWords) and loves old homes and sooty coffee. A former health care PR pro, she lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband and son. You can find her at rebeccarenejones.com and on Twitter @beckyrjones.