Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words
Reviewing a book titled Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words presents a bit of a quandary. If the review itself is not charitable, is it a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the book or is the reviewer an insufferable curmudgeon thoroughly resistant to the principal points of the book? I would like to think that neither is the case here.
Charitable Writing is an especially helpful work for those who are in graduate English programs of all sorts and for those who are relatively new to the profession of higher education. The book will be particularly interesting to those whose postsecondary and graduate education has been in secular institutions where discussions of faith and its impact on one’s teaching and scholarship simply do not exist. For teacher-scholars who want to begin thinking seriously about issues of faith, learning, and pedagogy,the book is an excellent introduction to many of the great ones — Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Simone Weil, and C.S. Lewis, to name a few. It also includes contemporary notables in Christian scholarship such as Alan Jacobs and Stephanie Pausell, the former who contributed an Afterword and the latter, permission to reprint “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline” as an Appendix to Charitable Writing.
As I approached the conclusion of Charitable Writing, I began to feel as if I had read a long and thoughtful sermon. And, like many sermons, the book even made three main points in three parts titled “Humble Listening,” “Loving Argument,” and “Keeping Time Hopefully.” These parts proceed from Gibson and Beitler’s questions about how their Christian commitments ought to affect their own writing and teaching of writing practices. Based on Christ’s double commandment to love God and neighbor, the authors build an elaborate extended metaphor that posits a banquet rather than the more traditional analogies of combat or an athletic competition as the charitable mindset to approach academic writing and writing instruction. It’s a thoughtful, if not predictable, and very agreeable analogy. Gibson and Beitler picture a writing classroom as a banquet complete with a gracious, loving host in the instructor and students who all bring something to the table — which at times sounds more like a potluck in the fellowship hall than an elaborate banquet. But, banquets make for much tonier metaphors than potlucks.
Part Two of Charitable Writing, titled “Loving Argument,” makes a well-developed case for why Christians should adopt writing as a spiritual discipline animated by charity, but Gibson and Beitler come up a bit short on the how of implementing such a view. This is especially important for those readers who graduate schools are forming (or have formed) into writing teachers or writers indoctrinated with the idea that writing in the humanities must have political or ideological ends in mind, as Ishmael Reed rather famously titled his 1988 essay collection, Writin’ is Fightin’. Or, how does one deal with an assertion by the likes of a luminary like David Bartholomae that “what is generally true about writing — that it is an act of aggression disguised as an act of charity”? (10)
At the risk of sounding as if I’m taking an uncharitable swipe at Gibson and Beitler for the book they didn’t write, what would help with the how is advice on how to respond thoughtfully and charitably to so much of what one encounters in graduate and undergraduate programs that is antithetical to Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, for that matter). So many of the theoretical approaches we’re immersed in smuggle in ideologies that are antithetical to basic Christian tenets. For example, if one subscribes to theory that argues what we really have in this world rather than truths are different narratives competing for power, primacy, or hegemony, then a statement like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to Father except through Me,” and all of Christ’s utterances, for that matter, become just another narrative competing for power. How to charitably respond when one feels torn between closeting one’s faith or going on the uncharitable offensive when facing the very real threat of being shunned or canceled for even questioning the prevailing orthodoxy is an ever-pressing concern for many an up and coming Christian scholar. The authors do offer an excellent illustration of Alan Jacobs displaying a remarkable bit of charity rather than blowing a proverbial gasket while attempting to respond to a particularly objectionable blog post, and their discussion of “slow writing” is also especially helpful. More of this sort of very practical advice would do much for the book.
Issues mentioned above aside, Gibson and Beitler have assembled some thoughtful and essential material for those who learn and those who teach. I wish Charitable Writing had been available about twenty-five years ago when I was retiring from a career in the military and beginning a second as a college professor.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 4-23.