Earlier this week I caught Melvin Bragg on Radio 4’s ‘In our Time’ discussing Pliny’s letters with his guests. I, like many other theological students before and after me, had encountered Pliny during my degree. Pliny is particularly famous for the letters he wrote in the setting of first century Rome. He is one of the earliest non-Christian sources on what was happening with Christianity at that time. For example, Pliny was having to deal with the problem of what to do with lapsed Christians. Initially it reminded me of studying early church history and then teaching a paper on the Early Church, in my first year teaching A level RS, as a newly qualified teacher. I had a little advantage in that I did actually enjoy learning all about these characters, Origen, Pelagius and Tertullian. However, trying to persuade seventeen year olds that Tertullian was a funny guy and there was a great deal of wit in his writings was a tough gig. This made me think about the importance of letters and I tried to think about the last proper letter I had received. I suddenly realised that we have the difficult job of teaching new generations that really do not understand what it means to receive letters.
When I reflected on this further I thought that failing to really understand letters separates you from so much, obviously in literature, but particularly in RE. When I started to think about the meaning of letters I thought about the role they had played in my subject. You only have to think of biblical studies and the epistles in particular to see how hard it could be to have any sense of empathy with the letter writers. Biblical studies is a hard enough discipline, often limited to a quick romp through Mark for GCSE in schools, but it can be a an exciting discovery. Those letters are not short though and trying to equate them to an email exchange doesn’t quite capture the theological exploration. When I was at university my family and friends would write long, chatty letters and and cards, because communication was not immediate and easy. You had to wait and in writing back you thought about what needed to be said, which stories were to be shared. You didn’t summarise in an email, or even shorter in a text, or shorter still, a tweet. Can you even imagine the difference if Paul had had a mobile? He would have definitely needed a pay monthly contract with unlimited minutes in order to cope with the frequent calls to Corinth, Philippi and Ephesus.
I then realised that there were at least two other set of letters that meant a lot to me. These letters were connected to one man who I first encountered whilst studying A Level RE myself. I was lucky enough to study a paper on modern church history and one of the key figures was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After the discovery of his involvement in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler he was imprisoned, eventually at Flossenburg. During the two years of his imprisonment he wrote extensively, the writings were then collected and published as ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘. When you encounter these writings for the first time as an enthusiastic A Level student they have a profound effect on you. Bonhoeffer wrote about his quest for authentic living, costly grace and understanding ‘religionless Christianity’, radical thinking for his time. What was so tragic was that he was executed in Flossenburg only three weeks before the Nazis surrendered. When I was at university another set of letters were published in connection with Bonhoeffer, this was called ‘Love letters from Cell 92‘ and mostly consisted of the letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria Von Wedermeyer. They had been engaged for just four months before he was arrested. Not only do these letters tell of their relationship but they also reveal most of their thinking and how they were able to justify their beliefs to each other.
One can now buy volumes of the love letters of famous historical figures because these were crafted works. I didn’t study the letters between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but encountered these later. These only re-emphasise the point of what can be conveyed when someone takes their time over creating something meaningful. Time and effort went into their formation, thought went into the words that were chosen. Believe it or not this point is even highlighted in the first ‘Sex and the City‘ film when Big had to turn to the love letters of others because these days no one writes letters anymore.
My final choice of letter is something that I think becomes a philosophical rite of passage, something that Colin McGinn captures really well in his ‘The Making of a Philosopher‘, and that is the moment as a sixth former you first encounter Anselm’s Ontological Argument. I never like to spoil that moment so will not explain the magic trick of that first encounter, but one of the fun aspects of studying that for the first time is discovering that this is part of a prayer, a letter from Anselm to God and that changes everything.
The sad thing is that we are, if we are not careful, teaching the generation of lost letter writers, and not only to we lose the ability to write a good letter, but we lose that link with the letter writers of the past. It becomes harder to for us to make their words accessible to others. Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and ring? We, as the last of the letter writers, are now the custodians of the letters of our past and we need to make sure that they continue to be read.
Please keep reading and writing letters,
Radio 4 ‘In our Time‘