Letters to the editor: A Christian writes

Why write?

I write letters to the editor for a particularly idiosyncratic reason. About five-and-a-half years ago, my middle daughter was born and, unlike my eldest (who once slept uninterrupted for 13 hours), Ruby woke like clockwork at 4 in the morning. I was the one who scored the early shift with the bottle, and while she was being fed, I felt like I needed something to do with the extra time in the day that the Lord had decided to give me. Caring for my daughter is not enough. Give me action!

More spiritual people might have read the Bible and prayed. That worked for a few weeks and then, inevitably, my mind turned to the temptations of the internet.

Yes, the internet. There it was, laid out before me in all its glory and sleaze. But being parochial and a man of simple interests, I went straight to the daily Fairfax newspaper in our city, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), with its mix of ill-thought-out opinion pieces thinly disguised as news, articles about interest rates, and the odd colour photo, all glued together with a mish-mash of secular liberalism. And just occasionally, to give the appearance of even-handedness, there was the token space on the letters page for the occasional dissenting writer—for people like—well, why not me?

The more my 4 am befuddled brain thought about it, the more it seemed like the way of the future. Baby, internet connection, keyboard, one free hand—all you really need to get started on the quest for publication in a major daily newspaper. So for a period of about six months, I wrote at least one letter to the editor per day, and some of them were even published.

That’s why I got started. However, if I was trying to think more clear-headedly about it, I would suggest that there are several good reasons why Christians in particular should cultivate the art of writing 200 words or less, and sending it to the letters editor with a quiet prayer.

1. Brute numbers

Focusing on The Sydney Morning Herald, the figures to March 2006 reveal that each Saturday edition of the paper for the previous 12 months reached an average of 1.2 million readers . In a country of 20 million, that is a reasonable proportion. The sister publication for The Sydney Morning Herald is The Age in Melbourne, whose Saturday paper for the same period averaged 988,000. An identical letter published in both papers (it does happen) would potentially reach 10% of the Australian population. Bear in mind, too, that the letters page is the second most-read page of a newspaper after the front page. If you have something worth saying, that is a good place to say it.

If you check out their own publicity, the Fairfax publications emphasize something called the AB demographic, and they are well-reached by Fairfax newspapers. The AB demographic equates, so I’m told, to the upper middle class and the middle class. The idea that such a group is more important is a bit of a turn-off for someone who is genuinely gospel-minded. But all things considered, we know that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, so we should try to reach as many of them as we can.

2. Gospel opportunity

If you are sharp with one-liners, the letters page is your oyster. The Sydney Morning Herald letters page devotes a whole column to contributions that are frequently banal, but usually witty, and, above all, short. They are good for the occasional laugh or retort, but that’s not the section of the letters page that will allow a solid gospel message to come through. If you really want to talk about the Lord Jesus, his death, and his resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, write a longer letter. The letters page will give innumerable opportunities to do it in a way that is related to the concerns of the day.

3. A chance to fan into flame your own gift of communicating the gospel

I started writing letters because of my daughter’s waking patterns. I kept going for the two reasons outlined above, and also because I became aware that I was being forced to think about and apply the gospel in ways that I might not otherwise have done.

For example, lots of people seem to be interested in the subject of homosexuality. I’m not. The lifestyle doesn’t attract me, the reporting of the lifestyle has no interest for me, and it’s not the gospel. There are other battles I would far rather get involved in. If it’s true that those who regularly practise homosexual behaviour represent less than 2% of the population, why give airtime to a noisy minority, and why make matters worse by picking fights with them? It seems like a clanging distraction from the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.

Yet the papers talk about homosexuality frequently, and Christians who are known to be conservative on these questions are copping a beating for what they believe, or what they are supposed to believe. Do I really want to leave the discussion from the Christian side to the ‘God hates fags’ fundamentalists (who, like the actual numbers of homosexuals in the population, seem to be mysteriously inflated in popular reporting)? Worse, did I want representatives of liberal Christianity arguing that this form of sexual sin has no consequences whatsoever for our eternal destiny? Well, no.

So despite my vehement lack of interest, when the church’s stance on homosexuality is reported in the newspaper, I want to be able to give a gracious response that shows human sexuality in the context of marriage, personhood and God’s good gift of creation. I want to be able to talk about how the fulfilment of marriage is in our union with Christ in resurrection glory. Can I express that simply in less than 200 words? No, probably not. But being pushed by circumstances like these to make the effort means that I will occasionally succeed in saying something publicly about the gospel. Even when I fail to get published, the next time I have a conversation with a friend on the topic (or the next time I give a talk), I will have had some opportunity to rehearse what I think the Bible says, and some practice in how to present it well and perhaps winsomely.

So writing letters to the newspaper is a gospel opportunity, it can reach large numbers of people, and it helps me think and talk about a whole range of issues Christianly. It may even help other Christians who might read the published letters and become sharpened in their own thinking and evangelism. Even if they don’t agree, the person looking for opportunities will be able to take the flawed work that someone else has done and use it as the basis for more thinking and talking.

For Christian writers: why this sort of writing?

The biggest obstacle to writing, in my experience, is not writing. So if you are already convinced that writing is a good idea, writing letters to the editor is like the spark that ignites the gas. It was for me, and you should consider giving it a go, just in case it has the same effect for you.

What’s more, this form of writing carries certain advantages. It is fast. At least, it ought to be. If you spend more than five minutes drafting the key ideas of a letter, it is probably a waste of your time. You can come back to your draft and improve it after you have let it sit. Indeed, you should. But the initial draft should be knocked out good and quick. Be warned: to stand a reasonable chance of getting published, you ought to e-mail letters to the editor before midday. By 3 pm, the editor has generally settled on a shortlist, and (in the case of the SMH only) advised the letter writer accordingly. It would take something fairly big to change the shortlist at this stage.

My publication rate is about one letter published for seven sent. So let’s conservatively assume that for someone starting to write letters, only one letter in 20 gets published. Let’s also conservatively assume that a really thoroughly worked-out 100-200-word letter takes 15 minutes to write. That is five hours’ work to reach—let’s say conservatively—half a million readers with one particular letter. Any preacher who has spent 10 hours scrambling to prepare a sermon with one or two key ideas and then has stood up to communicate it to a congregation of 60, will tell you that is a very good return for labour.

Even the letters you write that don’t get published are useful. In writing them, you’ve sharpened your thinking. The letters editor would also have read them and used them to evaluate which of the other letters on a particular subject would get published. I once received a phone call from an aggrieved letters editor who was pretty upset with my suggestion that the letters he’d been publishing on a subject were unfairly skewed towards those of the opposing view. He assured me of what I’ve heard and read on a number of occasions: letters editors will publish in proportion to what they receive. If they receive 67 letters supporting a stance and 33 opposing it, they will publish two letters in favour of it and one against. So if you are one of the 33 who has taken a line, your unpublished letter has helped the published letter avoid the editor’s delete button.

What’s more, any unpublished or published letters that you produce can be loaded onto your blog, and if you update regularly, you will find that there are plenty of friends out there who will read and comment on your opinions. So in terms of reward for labour, there really is very little downside to this exercise and plenty to commend it.

Practical tips

1. Read the paper in the morning, first thing.

2. If prioritizing, read only the front page headline, the opinion pieces, and the letters page. There will usually be enough material in there to provoke a response.

3. Write early, write often. Not getting published is the common experience of all frequently published letter writers. 90% of all letters received aren’t published, so send at least 20 before even considering stopping.

4. Leave the letter to sit for a bit before sending it. If in doubt, send it to one or two pedantic friends. Maybe organize with a friend to swap letters before sending so that you can share inspiration and ideas.

5. If in doubt, leave it out. If two letters are making the same point, the shorter letter has a better chance of being published.

6. Bland language is for politicians. Letter writing gives you the freedom to cut loose, knowing that the only person you are representing is yourself. One of the enjoyable parts of reading the letters page is you know real people are writing.

7. You can often send the same letter to different newspapers, thus doubling or even tripling your chance of publication. I’ve seen the same letter in two different papers on a number of occasions, and, once, two different letters from one man in the same paper on the same day.

Some sample letters

Below are a few sample letters. If you’re curious, letters 2, 4, and 5 were published; letters 1 and 3 weren’t. You might like to ask yourself some questions like:

  1. What would I write on the same subject?
  2. How would I improve on or add to what is there?
  3. Is the mention of the gospel legitimate or illegitimate?

1. Homosexual unions

It’s possible that I’ve missed something in the discussion of same-sex unions in the last week, but I don’t understand why a government of a state or territory believes it has the power to legislate in this matter. The union of a man and a woman predates the existence of any sort of government legislation. It follows that it doesn’t lie within the scope of a government to redefine homosexual union as equivalent to marriage.

2. Women’s ministry

It’s difficult to work out whether Muriel Porter criticizes Sydney Diocese on the basis of ignorance or something worse (“A right royal rebuke to the Jensen doctrine of female subordination”, Opinion, March 13). Contrary to her opinion, there is no hypocrisy in striving to apply the Bible in good conscience. The Bible teaches that women are equal but have different roles. One role that a woman may occupy with honour and dignity is the role of Queen of Australia, and any consistent Anglican, from Sydney or elsewhere, will show her due respect.

Our ultimate authority in this matter is Jesus, who both honoured women and expected them, together with men, to listen to his word. Ms Porter dishonours Jesus by attempting to suborn his teaching into her feminist template.

3. Secularist fundamentalism

Dennis Altman wishes to critique fundamentalism (“Secularism threatened by fundamentalism of all hues” Age, March 1) whilst by obvious omission pretending that secularism itself doesn’t demonstrate such fundamentalism. The funding at our Sydney preschool was threatened when it was decided that the 30-year-old constitution was not consistent with secularist values. I have been involved in campus groups at Melbourne Uni where it’s been insisted that clauses in the constitution of our Christian group be changed to allow non-Christians to hold executive office. Hard questions about secular fundamentalism are long overdue, but are unlikely to be provided by secularists such as your opinion writer.

4. Boyer lectures

Tony Popdera, you are right. I tried to tell my Christian mates not to get too excited by Pete Jensen’s Boyer lectures getting onto the wireless, as no-one normal actually listens to them—although give yourself 10 bonus IQ points for even knowing that he’s giving them.

But you asked for a summary of the Boyer message, so here goes: Jesus died on the cross and rose again so that we could escape judgement and become children of God. We remember this at Christmas and Easter, but most people couldn’t tell you why.

Now if others can do better than this, I will personally undertake to give the summarizer a signed copy of the lectures. If I can’t persuade the Archbishop to sign, I will do it myself.

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