When we used to write letters
“Sending a handwritten letter is becoming such an anomaly," observes comedian Steve Carell. “It's disappearing. My mom is the only one who still writes me letters. And there's something visceral about opening a letter - I see her on the page. I see her in her handwriting.” I know what he means for over the last few days, confined to barracks by COVID, I have finally undertaken the task of sorting out all my letters, all the personal letters I have received since 1963. I have kept them all, stuffed into shoeboxes, box files and various folders, every non-official letter written just to me. It’s a necessary task I’ve been avoiding over the decades. There must be over a thousand, at least and initially I had no idea how I was to approach this mammoth task. However, the main test was not to be overwhelmed by nostalgia. I guess the big surprise is realising how many letters there are – and certainly in the early years when I was at college, how many friends wrote to me and how many letters some had written over time. A few surprises, but not many. A lovely letter, for example, from Peter Harris having just moved to the Algarve, the early days of A Rocha which he and Miranda were in the process of forming. Some of my correspondents were to achieve great things in the life of our nation. but at this point I will sidestep the temptation to name-drop. Only one went to prison. However, my collection vividly documents how letters have changed over the decades. In the 1960’s letters were the main medium of communication – not everyone had a phone, and so one very important purpose was simply to relate what was going on. And as such they represent a commentary on my life. Some letters proved to be highly significant, and so I have scanned some to email to our daughters as attachments. I scanned one from my mother, sent when I was a college in Durham in 1974, congratulating me on the birth of our first daughter. If I had phoned it would have been a hurried conversation from a public phone box, and this letter was her primary response to a milestone event. Consequently another daughter WhatsApped (that the right word, I checked) the scan to our grandchildren as an interesting specimen as to how people used to communicate in the last century. As we all know, letter writing has changed with the tectonic changes in technology. The more recent letters tend to be limited to thank-yous or sadly, letters of complaint. Even now I tend not to read these painful missives but simply scan them: they still hurt. And I resist the temptation to return them: “You actually sent this to me. What do you think now?” Having said that, the apostle Paul sent some painful letters. He refers to one in his second letter to the wayward Christians of Corinth. “I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.” (2 Corinthians 7:8f). Much of the New Testament is in the medium of letters, not all by the apostle Paul. Certainly for him it was the only way he could communicate if he wasn’t actually there in person and as such, from his perspective, the second best option. But – and especially if he was chained up in some prison – his only option. But it does mean that we have a record of his communications, totally unself-aware. There is no sense of Paul, unlike the Gospel writers, thinking that his letters would one day become revered as scripture. They were simply his spontaneous response to particular situations, usually yet another dire problem in a faraway church. And so for us, reading his letters millennia later, we often have limited understanding of the situation he is addressing. We are only listening to one side of the conversation. And some may even wonder whether he wrote them at all or that others were writing epistles in his name, pseudepigraphically. (!) However, we don’t really know how Paul wrote his letters: that’s the point. Certainly some were actually penned by an associate. Q: who wrote Paul’s letter to the Romans? A: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Romans 16:22). And sometimes to demonstrate authenticity, the apostle finishes off the missive in his own hand: “I, Paul, bid you good-bye in my own handwriting. I do this in all my letters, so examine my signature as proof that the letter is genuine.” (2 Thessalonians 3:17). Which means did he dictate word by word, or did some conscientious scribe do his best to put down in writing what Paul was speaking? This may well explain differences in style between letters in the Pauline corpus. For me the big question is how did Paul go about writing his letters? Did he plan them before writing or simply, as in this blog, just start writing and see what happens? And how quickly? The opening section of his letter to the Ephesians, some 11 verses , seems breathless and hurried. In fact, it was written as a single sentence of 257 words. His amanuensis (i.e. scribe) could hardly keep up. One of the very first books I bought was J B Phillips’ Fontana paperback (price 2/6) Letters to Young Churches. His introduction begins: “It is surely a remarkable accident, if it not the Providence of God, that these human, un-self-conscious letters of the very early days of Christianity should have been preserved. What is even more remarkable is their astonishing relevance today.” And finally. Did the learned apostle read over his letters making changes here and there or just press SEND? Like me, now.