How should Christians argue? Leave aside, for now, the question of how Christians have argued in the past. Leave aside the many times throughout history—or throughout this morning—that those of us who call ourselves Christians have failed to live up to Christian ideals in our disagreements. How should our ideals animate our arguments? And, more specifically, how should we make arguments as writers? Whether we’re writing a tweet or a term paper, a text message or a dissertation, which Christian virtues should guide our approach?
Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III explore these questions in their insightful new book, Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words. English professors and colleagues at Wheaton College, Gibson and Beitler note that the book began with an “unsettling realization”: there was nothing particularly Christian about the way they taught writing at their Evangelical Christian liberal-arts institution. On the heels of this realization came another: “We had never given much thought to our own writing practices. Did they reflect our Christian commitments?” These insights, they decided, required a change. “Our classrooms didn’t just need work; we did, too.”
Charitable Writing is the authors’ attempt to envision a particularly Christian approach to teaching and practicing writing, one ultimately rooted in the Gospels’ “great ‘double commandment’ to love God and our neighbors.” The book beautifully and bracingly challenges the assumption that our writing lives—and our professional and academic lives more generally—are somehow exempted from our moral and spiritual lives, noting that “Jesus frames the commandment so that it admits no exceptions: there is no activity, however mundane, to which the ‘law of love’ does not apply.”
Gibson and Beitler offer a wide range of illuminating models for a writing practice rooted in love, from Augustine and Aquinas to Maya Angelou and Simone Weil, as well as lesser known but equally inspiring figures like Pandita Ramabai and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. They also draw frequently on Scripture, on essential scholarship in the field of writing studies, and on the work of religious-minded scholars like Alan Jacobs and James K. A. Smith. Surprisingly, the book provides some visual inspiration as well, reproducing images from ancient and contemporary Christian art that Gibson and Beitler use to further unpack their central argument: that “charitable writers listen humbly, argue lovingly, and keep the time of writing hopefully.”
The sections on humility and humble listening are especially insightful. These chapters seek to recover humility as a central Christian virtue, perhaps the central virtue. For Gibson and Beitler, humility means a willingness to learn from others, particularly those who may seem, in our minds, to have nothing to teach us: “Humility is the virtue that allows us to see not only our finitude and fallenness but also the goods of our communities. It allows us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers.... Humility, in short, makes us teachable.” Thus, humility doesn’t simply mean acknowledging our own shortcomings; it also means avoiding the secret condescension of finding some people’s perspectives unworthy of our full consideration. True humility “resists our knee-jerk reactions. It forestalls the rush to judgment. It requires listening.” These insights expose the limits of my own humility, especially when it comes to political debate. In some ways, knee-jerk reactions and the rush to judgment have been among my favorite pastimes over the last four years.