With a mixture of astonishment and shame, I note that it has been seven months since my last blog post. Amazingly (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), it is not the case that I have simply run out of things to say. Instead, I have been Busy. Only this last year I’ve finished my PhD, a consuming piece of writing on its own. On top of that, my family has moved internationally not once but twice in the last six months. I’ve lately been settling in to the routines of a new job. On top of all this, I’m suffering from a new form of anxiety that I’d like to call “publication anxiety.” It works like this: now that I’ve had some pieces published in magazines and journals, every time I get an idea I think, “I should blog this.” Then I start to work on it and think, “Maybe I should shop this around to get it published somewhere else…” The result is an anxiety that has kept me from writing anything at all. Or, rather, I’ve written some things, but now I’m trying to get them published.
At any rate, here I am. Writing once again. What is more, I’m writing about writing, and I suspect that the now is as good a moment as any—coming back to blogging after such a long hiatus—to ask what I’m doing here. Why am I still blogging? What do I hope to get out of it? To this question, I believe I’ve got two answers. Allow me to share them with you, today.
First, I want to blog because I still believe in the essay. That may sound like crazy talk, especially if your primary experience of the essay was writing them for school. I remember those days well, being taught in my English classes to prepare “The Five Paragraph Essay.” An introduction should outline the subject and schematize your three primary points, followed by one paragraph for each of those points, and a concluding paragraph to round out the whole. We wrote countless numbers of these essays during my years in school—the process became rote, and ritualized, and largely lifeless. Structure was not the only instruction in this formative essay-writing season. I recall other stylistic tics that were drilled into us with the fervor of a medieval religious catechism: You shall not use the first person! You shall not use the passive voice! You shall not under any circumstances use the word ‘got’! Imagine my sense of rebellion when, writing an exam in Seminary, I dared to produce a four paragraph essay! Put yourself in my shoes, if you will, when I discovered the freedom of the first person—of saying exactly what I thought and why I thought it. Or imagine my feeling of relieved kinship when I encountered G. K. Chesterton’s assessment of Greek accents—and with it of stodgy grammarians as well—noting that because the accents had been added to the text by later authors, not using them rendered Chesterton “as ignorant as Plato and Thucydides.” So many fictional rules! And regarding the passive voice and various awkward elocutions? Those can be made use of whenever I damn well please.
I’ve described many reasons why I should by all accounts hate the essay, but I don’t, and school, although it tried persistently so to do, was never quite successful in killing off the essay for me. Why is it, then, that I still love the essay? I suppose I should offer the historic answer first: I love the essay because it was through writing the essay that I developed the skill of articulation, of clarity. More than any other academic discipline, writing has forced me to reason my way from A, to B, to C, and to examine the linkages between those steps. The past twelve years of writing has had a wonderfully honing effect on my thinking
I have also grown to love the sense in which an essay is always a journey. The word “essay” has its roots in the Latin word exigere—meaning to test, ascertain, or weigh. In a lovely sense, it comes to be linked with a kind of wild anticipation: knights from a medieval keep may “essay forth,” anticipating an adventure in the forest of Broceliande, a place where they will attempt great things, be weighed against the code of chivalry, and ultimately return with stories of adventure to retell. The essay banks on your willingness to ‘go with’ an author on whatever journey he or she wishes to lead you, to whatever humorous, insightful, or surprising anecdotes that emerge from the fabric of that venture. All essays are travelogues—whether they document a journey of ideas or a holiday to the shore. In this respect, they’re a lot of fun.
But I have other, more subversive reasons for loving the essay. If the writing of essays demands clarity, the reading of essays demands attention. With alarm I have watched minds—my own included—suffer a seizure in their capacity to attend to any long argument. The tweet, the hot take, blazes across our news feeds and slowly, inevitably, our brains have lost the capacity to pay attention to anything longer than an image macro. Sometimes I fear that the essay is the only thing standing between the inane tweet and the utter degradation of the human mind in the digital age. Baron Friedrich von Hügel once advised his niece, Gwendolyn Green, to “Beware of the first clarity; press on to the second clarity.” In a world that has reduced almost all information intake to a rapid-fire succession of first clarities, how on earth are we to find that second clarity? The answer will be by learning once again to read, and in the systolic and diastolic pulses of clear articulation and careful reading lie the heartbeat of a crucial kind of educational formation: if we will not attend, we will be stupid.
Lastly, writing essays—extended studies of a subject, journeys through ideas, clear reflections upon or articulation of a concept—stands me in what I regard to be a noble tradition of journalism. I don’t mean journalism as pure reporting, but I mean the latent, and often forgotten, power of the journal: that is, a collection of writings that forms a community of readers. Writers are convicted of the need to speak the truth, and they articulate those truths for a growing community of readers who feel a “Yes.” “Yes. This articulates what I have felt. These words, in some small way, resonate with the ambitions and desires of my heart.” Consider for a moment the pedigree of this tradition and I think you’ll see what I mean: without publication and community, there would have been no Reformation, no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, Jr., and no Inklings. Communities are not formed around tweets; they gather around ideas, clearly articulated, written words that speak to the condition of our states, our souls, and our ambitions. If there is any hope for bringing our world out of the morass of inept thinking and contemptuous hot-takes, then that hope lies in the recovery of the essay as a way of intellectual formation.
That’s why I still love the essay—because despite the crushing conformity of a school system, I’ve found a joy in clarity that the essay is unparalleled in promoting, a clarity I believe we desperately require if we are to stem a tide of stupidity, and a clarity and attention that might just provide a bright glimmer of hope for gathering together a community around something good, beautiful, and true.
I said at the outset that there were two reasons why I still blog, and the second is this: I continue to blog because I have a sense of responsibility. I have been a pastor now since 2007, and have been blogging since 2010. Writing for me has always been first and foremost an activity of obedience—I felt quite strongly that the Lord told me to write in 2010. I have been trying to obey that command ever since. But as I watched my communities, and took stock of the information they were receiving online, I realized early on that if I didn’t speak some clarity into the sea of information, confusion would uncontestedly win the day. To speak has since become an act of pastoral responsibility. I must do all in my power to model clarity of thought and reflection for the sake of my people, my communities of faith. In the interim, and over the years, many people have subsequently asked me to write about various subjects. I now have a responsibility to them, as well.
So, I try, and hold up my flickering candle of analog essays against the megawatt digital flash of the modern information highway. Like Dylan Thomas, I shall refuse to “go gentle into that good night,” instead I will “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Doubtless, I’m far too insignificant to make any real difference—and you can comfortably detect and dismiss me on the grounds of my obvious delusions of journalistic grandeur. But perhaps—and to mix my metaphors with glee—my tiny and obedient candle, faithfully lit, may act as a mustard seed for light, truth, and faith among a few.