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One of the big cultural differences I’ve encountered in Kenya is the perception of written communication. Each year, in the session on communication at our induction workshop for the new apprentices we ask for the advantages and disadvantages of oral and written communication. If you asked that question of a group of UK fresh graduates I’m pretty sure that you’d hear quite a lot of disadvantages of oral communication and quite a lot of advantages of written. In Kenya we come up with the reverse – lots of advantages of oral communication and hardly any advantages of written (beyond the fact that there’s a record).

It’s a challenge to the western mind to appreciate the sentiment of the elder John who would “rather not write with pen and ink” but “see you… and… talk face to face” (3 John 13-14). It’s a challenge to those of us who gravitate towards blogs and emails rather than picking up the phone or getting out and seeing people. Certainly there are great advantages in bodily presence, fellowship over food, really connecting. The great joy we look forward to is seeing Christ face to face. And there are advantages in the process of communication – body language and facial expressions helping us get the tone and mood more accurately, immediate feedback, the chance to work things through, clarify misunderstandings, negotiate, develop a conversation in new directions.

And I was reminded by our Eastern European sisters (whose culture may in some ways be closer to Africa than NW Europe) that coming and visiting someone to talk about something or request something, rather than writing an email, communicates effort and importance and humility. It is more costly and risky but at the same time harder for the person being visited/asked to say No!

So there are lots of advantages to face to face communication but as Harrison often reminds us and as Njeri reminded me a in a recent post, there are advantages to pen and paper too in this present age.

  1. Writing gives stability, consistency and longevity to a communication. As Njeri points out, how would we know anything about Athanasius and Augustine and Luther if they had never written? How much of the detail of Paul and his missionary journeys would have survived if Luke and Paul himself hadn’t written? Oral communication can carry words a long way over long time periods but over time it inevitably gets distorted and splits into multiple traditions and versions which all recite the history somewhat differently. You can imagine the confusion after a few hundred years when one story teller recites the teaching of Paul in one way while another recites it very differently. One says that Jesus said this, while another tells us Jesus said that. We end up with different gospels and little way to tell between them which is the true one. This is why the laws of nations are written down. Some of the earliest writing discovered is of legal documents. Imagine the chaos if law was passed on orally and each policeman and judge just had to remember the law as it was passed down to them with no fixed point to refer to (we may think that sounds rather familiar in our context but that’s another story). Similarly, when it comes to organisations, having written policies is what maintains consistency and impartiality (1 Tim. 5:21). Interestingly, when it comes to the Bible, although there was certainly some oral transmission involved at certain points, compared to most ancient narratives, God’s Word was written down very early, often by the eye witnesses themselves (Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:24; John 5:46). Luke clearly wanted to move things from oral to written (Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is not just a bunch of amorphous ideas, like a jellyfish, shifting, without sharp edges – according to Jesus it is very important that every word in the original languages is persevered precisely, unaltered (Matt. 5:18 cf. Rev. 22:18-19). Our faith rests on the fixed rock of truth.
  2. Writing takes responsibility, accepts accountability. Recently a friend checked with the local government whether he and his organisation were complying with all the statutory requirements to operate as an NGO in a particular location. The council representative checked through the requirements and said, “Yes, you’ve done everything you need to do.” My friend asked, “Can you put that in writing for us? Just a note to say that we have done everything we need to do and are legal here?” To which the answer was, “Errrr, no – I’d rather not do that.” When you put something in writing and put your name at the bottom you take ownership of your words. Walter Chen: “Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility.” When we just speak words into the air we can deny them or edit them later. When we have written there is something to stand by. When God puts his word in writing he is taking ownership of it. “Thus says the LORD.”
  3. Writing indicates the seriousness and trustworthiness of a warning or a promise. This flows from the last point. When we say, “I’ll put it in writing” we are saying that we seriously mean what we say. A written warning in the workplace is a step up the discipline ladder from a verbal warning. A written commitment to pay back a loan usually has more seriousness (and legal currency) than a verbal agreement. A particular case in point is a Last Will and Testament (which if you haven’t done you should get done today!) which is a written document. As Luther realised, the whole Old Testament can be looked at as a legal Will – a set of promises that require the death of the one who made them for them to come into force (cf. Heb. 9:16-17; Matt. 26:28; Rev. 5:1-10).  Sentiments also mean more if they are put into writing too. “I love you” said to my wife is one thing. “I love you” written down for her in a letter or card and given means something slightly different, perhaps even more. Another way of looking at the Bible is as a love letter – God has put his love for us in writing.
  4. Writing gives time to think, structure, craft and REVISE. This is one of the great advantages of written communication. Once my words are out of my mouth they are gone. Once they are on paper I can screw up the paper and try again, or today just tap a few keys to delete a sentence, substitute a word, change the order and flow. I can read and check it. I can leave it overnight and read it again in the morning and find that it is far too harsh. Even better I can ask my wife to read it before I hit send! When you read the Bible you see huge amounts of careful crafting. Think of Lamentations – the way the poetry is so carefully organised with each verse starting with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That wasn’t something that someone came out with spontaneously. Or think of the New Testament letters, crammed with theology, where every word counts. When it comes to a carefully nuanced, precisely weighted communication, often writing is best.
  5. Writing develops clear, focussed thinking & communication. Harrison has reminded us of this a number of times. Prayer letters and reports have as much value for the writer as for the recipient. It is a way to discipline your thoughts. Walter Chen again: “Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking.” Jeff Bezos of Amazon: “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking” (RT Chen). There is a vagueness and sloppiness and incoherence that you can might get away with in verbal communication that gets ‘found out’ very quickly when you are forced to put your thoughts on paper. As someone once said, when your thinking is confused, “Write yourself clear.” And – old advice – write something out in old fashioned pen and ink and paper before you hit the computer – that will get you even clearer.
  6. Writing can be re-read multiple times. This is a major advantage of written over oral communication. Isn’t it great to get a letter from a friend or fiancée and be able to read it over and over? My daughter loves to read her favourite books again and again. And for understanding: when I’m reading J I Packer or John Owen I often have to stop and read a paragraph again, maybe two or three times to get the full impact. Paul tells Timothy to think over what he is saying (2 Tim. 2:7) and he can do that because he has it in writing. He can read the words about the good soldier and the athlete and the hard-working farmer because he has the letter in his hands. He can pore over it, read it slowly again and again. And we can do that with the whole Bible (thank God for Bible translators).
  7. Writing gives opportunity to develop complex arguments and accurately cite sources. Oral communication can communicate quite complex ideas – think of a science lecture or a Puritan sermon – but there comes a point where a book is a better form. You cannot convey 20 points in a sermon and you certainly can’t show all the interconnections and implications and look at the issues from different perspectives and address all the counter-arguments. This is why book writing and book reading is so important. Think how impoverished our thinking and theology would be if there had never been an Augustine or Calvin or Edwards or Dostoyevsky writing serious, long books. And particularly when it comes to scholarship and the academic exercise, writing allows you the format not only to structure complex ideas but also to give credit and evidence by citing very precisely the words and work of others, something that is essential not only to integrity but also to being able to check the truthfulness of our words.

So let’s long for face-to-face but let’s also keep writing…

 

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christian bookshop

This endorsement in the front of a book I read recently really caught my eye:

Fair, keenly observant, startlingly honest, this book is replete with careful exegetical work. Verses are not merely cited; they are considered in context… The result is a book that is nuanced an clear, useful and enjoyable to read, and that is no small gift… Open this book and you’ll want to open your Bible and open your mind…

It doesn’t really matter which book this was endorsing or how well it matched up. It was the endorsement that made me think – that’s it! That is exactly what we need and what is so lacking on the bursting bookshelves of our Christian bookshops.

Just as we desperately need preaching that goes through passages and books of the Bible rather than giving us a preacher’s idea supported with a scattering of Bible verses, so we need books that don’t just throw around verses but carefully treat whole passages in context, letting them set the agenda, letting them speak into our context.

Just as with a good sermon, a good book should make me more hungry to open my Bible, more hungry for Christ. Just as with a good sermon, I should go away not saying, “Wasn’t that book and it’s 10 points great” but, “Isn’t the gospel great”.

What I’m concerned about is not just the clearly terrible, prosperity gospel, self-help motivational ‘Christian’ books. I’m thinking of the books that are written from a good godly perspective, teaching good wholesome things. It’s just that they’re not modelling careful handling of the Bible. They’re just citing verses. They may even be using them rightly (though often there’s a reason why the context is not quoted) but even then they are not showing me how they are handling them rightly. They are not taking me with them through the hard (but rewarding) work of exegesis.

The danger, apart from the obvious one of error, is that a topical sermon and an exegesis-light book will both make me dependent on the preacher/author. They are the authority. They are the one who has conjured something out of the Scriptures I’d never have found. I’ll have to come back to them for my next fix,  the next 10 steps, the sequel. A good Christian book will point out wonderful things I could have seen for myself if I’d only read the Bible carefully and then set me free to explore the Scriptures for myself.

More of those books please…

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Writing

Even in the hitech corporate world, companies like Amazon are realising the value of writing – long hand, pen and ink and dead trees – particularly in getting your thinking clear.

“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

You could delude yourself into imagining you understood Chaucer or organic chemistry until the exact moment you tried to sit down and write a paper on the topic.

(see article here)

That’s partly why writing a research paper on a theological or biblical or pastoral issue is part of the iServe Africa apprenticeship year. Below is something we shared recently with the apprentices on “Research as discipleship” – or to put it in other words: writing a research paper is (or should be) an expression of the fruit of the Spirit…

  1. Humility 
    • Research should be a humbling exercise in itself as we start to glimpse how much we do not know or understand.  Realise that these questions may have been discussed for thousands of years and thousands have spent lifetimes researching them.
    • Once you’ve done a fair bit of work it requires a lot of humility to accept direction and criticism and to cut stuff out (‘kill your babies’).
  2. Love
    • When interviewing or interacting with people don’t manipulate; get permission to use names, quotes, responses.
    • When writing about other people or arguing with an author you disagree with, imagine they are sitting there beside you and love them.
    • When writing, think about your reader – how can you make it as easy and clear as possible – i.e. clear structure, explaining technical terms, proof reading, not just getting it all out of your head but communicating clearly to someone else for their benefit.
  3. Peace
    • Respect those you engage with – ‘Honour everyone’ (1 Pet. 2:17), ‘bless those who persecute you… so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (Rom. 12:16-18), write with generosity.
    • But ‘have no fear of them’ (1 Pet. 3:14) – ‘do not fear what they fear’ (Isa. 8:12) – don’t agree with a big name because he is a big name or with the ‘scholarly consensus’ just because it is the scholarly consensus.
  4. Patience and perseverance
    • Haraka haraka haina baraka.  Data collection, reading and writing can’t be rushed.  “The real task is much harder than to be intelligent. It is to unlearn all that, to relax and to slow down.”[1]
    • Better is the end of a thing than its beginning (Ecc. 7:8) – write down anything, keep writing, revise, revise, keep going, finish.
  5. Faithfulness and honesty
    • Don’t use fallacious arguments e.g. a ‘straw man’ or a false dichotomy.
    • Don’t make an assertion without evidence.
    • Don’t cut corners or pretend to have more evidence than you have.
    • Don’t just look for evidence that supports your argument – look just as diligently for counter-evidence and be willing to change to fit the truth.
    • Don’t steal words (Jer. 23:30) – When using sources (whether books, internet or spoken) reference properly with the author, the title, date of publication and the page number whether you are paraphrasing or quoting their words with speech marks.
  6. Joy – Research as enjoying Jesus. Never divorce mind and heart, doctrine and praise. It’s normal to use the third person rather than the first person and there must be evidence for what you say but never forget what and who you are writing about.
There’s some more on research papers to download here (especially for the current apprentices but may be of help to others).

[1] George Watson, Writing a Thesis: a guide to long essays and dissertations, Harlow: 1987, p. 11.

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