How do you write a review for a book titled Charitable Writing? Charitably, of course. Which means your words must embody what the book’s authors call “the distinctive Christian understanding of love, which used to go by the name ‘charity’ in English.” Fortunately, while love covers a multitude of sins, I don’t need an extra measure of charity to respond enthusiastically to this artful volume by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, both professors of English at Wheaton College.
Though the book has a clear target audience—professors and students of writing within academia—its message is vital in an uncivil world where argument often means war, public and private discourse divides, and words are wielded as weapons. How do Christians reclaim language and writing in such a world? As people of faith, called to love God and neighbor, might we write according to another rhetoric, another syntax, another grammar—the “grammar of faith”? If so, how might that happen inside the walls of academia and in the dreaded and much-maligned college composition class?
Three Core Concepts
Here is my main complaint: Where was this book when I first needed it 35 years ago? (But that is uncharitable and selfish.) Within the first chapter, I was transported back to the University of Oregon and teaching my first freshman comp class, where I stood before my skeptical students, sweaty hands behind my back. I wasn’t clueless: I’d completed a yearlong apprenticeship that included cutting-edge readings in composition and educational theory. I had written papers, student-taught, and questioned my professors. I was intellectually prepared. As a Christian, though, I was on shakier ground. What did the Christian faith have to say about the teaching and study of writing in a setting rocked by protests and deconstructed through postmodernism? I knew of no resources and no such conversation.
As the lone person of faith in my cohort, I devised an answer: In a culture immersed in the paradox of subjectivity as the only objective truth, I saw myself as a truth-warrior, a missionary for critical thinking. My greatest concern, in teaching, was my students’ intellectual formation. But even then, I knew something was missing.
My own limitations weren’t the only challenge. My students didn’t share my passion. Their primary concern was their grade. The biggest hurdle I faced that semester and all the years that followed—indeed, it’s one all writing professors face—is a tendency to devalue composition. For most, the course is a hoop-jumping throwaway class groaningly endured for the sake of raising scores on college papers—even at Christian colleges. (My son, currently a college freshman who just completed this course, assured me this is still the case.) Sadly, sometimes instructors feel the same way.
Yet the need for Christians inside and outside of academia to reclaim language and argument has never been greater. Which makes the publication of Charitable Writing especially welcome, as this much-needed resource restores writing and the teaching of writing to its rightful place: as an occasion to grow in virtue.
The book is built around three core concepts: humble listening, loving argument, and hopeful timekeeping. The notion of humble listening relies heavily on the work of Augustine and contemporary scholar Alan Jacobs. Both ask, what does it look like to love our neighbor as we read and write? It means being hospitable to other writers, making space to quietly listen rather than jumping to an offensive or defensive response.
What about “loving argument,” which is surely an oxymoron? Argument is not only the cornerstone of most composition classes but also the dominant rhetorical strategy in the media today. Is rescuing argument simply a matter of learning to sharpen our swords? Hardly. Argument, the authors posit, has too long been cast in metaphors of violence and war, necessitating winners and losers. What metaphors might resurrect a fuller, more charitable understanding? The authors borrow from the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux and other historical luminaries who present argument as a banquet rather than a battle. Banquets are for feasting, for conversation, for companionship. Writers, bent over their papers, do not write alone. They are guests at a long table laden with many other dishes. But they are hosts as well. As they write, they invite readers to partake of their own offerings on the table. There are no winners or losers, only guests and hosts who are fed by each other.
The final “threshold concept,” hopeful timekeeping, is an even more ambitious challenge for beleaguered writers and students: How might we see the painful and seemingly endless process of revision through the lens of love? The banquet metaphor again serves well. If we’re to feed our readers, we’ll need to figure out their tastes, gather our ingredients, and learn how to prepare a meal they will ingest, enjoy, and grow from. Writing, then, from the first draft to the last, can be undertaken as an act of charity, as a noble pursuit.
I don’t know how I would have responded to such content as an 18-year-old college freshman, but I’d like to think it would have made me a convert. Writing papers is a noble endeavor? I’m communing with saints across the ages? I can love others fully and humbly even as I disagree with them? As a writing instructor, I would have responded even more enthusiastically, setting this modest book atop all my other writing resources.
A Thoughtful Feast
I expect and hope Charitable Writing will become required reading for both writing teachers and students at Christian colleges and universities. Its scholarship dazzles, brilliantly integrating not only faith and knowledge from scholars across centuries and continents but other art forms as well. The book opens and closes in an art gallery, teaching a wider form of textual “reading.” In all of its artistic and literary range, Charitable Writing exemplifies its own metaphor of writing as a celebratory banquet.
But I cannot finish without noting an empty corner of my plate and a bit of wishful thinking. The authors rightly address our need to communicate from first to last with humility, speaking “the truth in love.” Our entire culture, awash in conflicting news sources and conspiracies, is equally challenged in discerning error and ascertaining reliability and truth. I would argue humbly, then, for one more chapter that emphasizes discovering and then speaking “the truth in love.” Despite this omission, all who care about language and rhetoric will relish this thoughtful feast.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
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