by Nick Carrington
As he and his mother sat across from me, I could tell they were hungry for answers. What exactly can you do with a professional writing and information design (PWID) degree? The mother asked the normal questions: What does the curriculum look like? What kind of writing style will he learn? How big are the classes?
When she had exhausted her list, the young man sat up straight and composed himself, shifted a little in his chair. Something was on his mind, and it took him a beat to formulate the question. I doubt my memory does it justice. “With all the stuff out there, how do you teach students to write in a godly way?” His mother leaned forward and folded her hands, making eye contact with me.
The Bible says a lot about how we use words, and yet, it was clear this student and his mother were worried about a few things in particular. As the young man described what “stuff” meant, there was a yearning in his voice, a desire to think biblically about the craft of writing and the messages we send through that craft. He mentioned the messages blasting out from popular books, Hollywood, and marketing channels.
My colleagues and I try hard to cultivate our students’ writing and editing skills, giving them the ability to adapt their style to different communication situations.
Our graduates write and edit in a variety of industries, including publishing, nonprofit, marketing settings. In each, they encounter unique challenges from our contemporary culture, the most significant being a challenge to reality itself. That’s what the young man wanted to discuss the most.
Our society encourages us to construct reality based on our feelings, as if truth were merely a form of self-expression. In this way, my truth may not be my neighbor’s, my desires reign over my biology, and good and evil are simply the preferences of individuals. This worldview bleeds from the heart onto the page, causing many writers to use words that conceal or dull the truth.
So, as we prepare another generation of writers, the PWID faculty members focus on two biblical principles that should shape the messages we send and how we send them. These principles formed the bulk of my answer to that student and his mother.
Let me see if I can answer this young man’s question.
Some of the most important words I ever heard came from my father in a conversation about making eggs.
It’s not a dramatic story. It was midafternoon, just an hour or two after lunch, and I was starving. Most 12-year-olds can relate, but amid a growth spurt, I couldn’t get enough food. There was one problem: I had no desire to get off the couch and make something for myself.
I could hear my father in the kitchen, putting dishes away and wiping off counters, the microwave, and the stovetop. Cleaning the kitchen was a big job at our house.
I could hear my father in the kitchen, putting dishes away and wiping off counters, the microwave, and the stovetop. Cleaning the kitchen was a big job at our house. My brother and I frequently had friends over and a whole mess of boys made for a whole mess of the kitchen. My dad had been working for a good half hour.
I took a shot anyway. “Dad, will you make me some eggs?”
He didn’t want to; I could tell by the look on his face. But without a word, he grabbed a spatula and pulled out an electric griddle, items he had just washed, dried, and put away. I leapt off the couch, guilt in my chest for even asking him. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I know you don’t want to.”
He paused for a second, hand on the refrigerator door, before looking right at me. “Son, sometimes we do things we don’t feel like doing for those we love.”
Those words coursed through my veins, made my fingers tingle. I’ve never forgotten them. Every time I read about Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, or the Good Samaritan bandaging the wounds of a beaten man, I think of my father and those words. When selfishness seeps into my bloodstream, his words are an antibiotic that keeps the infection at bay.That power is rooted in a God who created the world by speaking and gave us a book as His special revelation. In making us in His image, He imbued our words power, and even though we can’t speak the stars into existence, we can do a lot of good. And evil.
That means Christian writers, including our students, have an enormous responsibility to steward their gift of writing well. Recognizing that power is an important step. Writing is fun, but inside and outside their careers, our students need to know they wield power in their pens and with it comes great responsibility. Knowing this is one thing. Knowing what to do with it is another.
Represent Reality Full and Vividly
God made us physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. That’s why He calls us to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our writing must exhibit that entire reality. In class, I often use the example of writing for an antipoverty organization, like Compassion International.
Part of the writer’s job in that role is to show poverty in a way that helps readers experience the reality, not only knowing facts about poverty but feeling the weight of it. As relatively affluent westerners, we don’t know what true poverty looks and feels like.
Reading that a village does not have easy access to water is different than traveling alongside a family as they walk three miles to fill up their jars. The former addresses the mind; the latter touches both the mind and the emotions, maybe even the soul.
This practice isn’t manipulative; instead, it gives readers a fuller and more vivid picture of a reality in which they have little context. In doing so, writers will encourage more people to invest time and resources to aid the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. Hopefully, God will use it to draw those readers closer to Himself.
Sadly, this practice of giving words life is lost among many writers today. Instead, they too often use language that dulls or re-shapes reality. Christians may immediately think of the terminology surrounding gender ideology, but this problem presents itself in more subtle ways as well.
Outside of my job at Cedarville, I work as an editor for the Early Pregnancy Loss Association, a nonprofit that wants no family to suffer alone through the pain of miscarriage. We have an online publication where women and loved ones write about their experiences of losing children. The stories are devastating.
Some write letters to their miscarried children or discuss how they buried them. Some write about the depression and anxiety that followed. Others note the careless words their physicians or loved ones uttered.
The tears that splash on their keyboards are reflected in their writing. Even years after losing their children, they grieve.
But the language we use to describe miscarriage is so clinical that their pain seems strange. We read of “pregnancy loss” and “spontaneous abortions” and “fetal demise.” By these phrases, we know that a mother was pregnant and now she’s not. But do we feel the magnitude of that loss? As Christians, we believe that God knitted these children together in the womb, that they were made in His image and possessed immense value, even if their life was short.
Our language must reflect that. A child has died. It should prick our souls and if we do our job well, those of our readers also. The goal is not to be graphic but to allow our audience to experience the fullness of what truly is, whether it be beautiful and just or painful and wretched.
Our culture is so desensitized to language that reshapes or dulls reality that we don’t think anything of it. As PWID faculty, we teach our students to do what John Piper calls “seeing and savoring.” We encourage them to marinate in a subject, allowing the wisdom of Scripture to infuse the way they think and feel. Regardless of whether a topic is of eternal significance or not, we want our students to know and treasure reality before they write about it, so that their readers can think clearly and feel rightly about the topic as well.
The Heart of The Program
When that young man and his mother left that day, I hoped they could see the heart of the PWID program: We want our students to write with excellence and virtue. In our current climate, that means rejecting a subjective view of reality but also working hard to see and savor the truth as it actually exists. If our students succeed, they will write content that opens eyes and stirs hearts, bringing hope and clarity to a world that desperately needs it.
For a writer, that’s a great way to serve the Lord.