Open Letters: Prideful, Presumptuous, and They Need to Stop

Last week saw an upsurge in one of my least favorite types of writing, open letters. The occasion was Miley Cyrus’ twerk-fest at MTV’s Video Music Awards in which she danced provocatively in a nude-colored bikini, touched herself with a foam finger, and offered herself symbolically to Robin Thicke in a sexual gesture meant to shock. It wasn’t a very good performance; the focus was on the spectacle of seeing the girl who used to perform as Hannah Montana shed off any last assemblages of innocence. Post performance, Hannah Montana fans, mothers, fathers, and concerned citizens took to the internet to write “open letters” to Miley Cyrus, to young women, and to young men who might be influenced by the performance.

I both sympathize and agree with the majority of concerns that these letters express about the way Thicke and Cyrus expressed themselves on stage. In general I think young people would do well not to look to either performer for guidance for identity formation. That said, I do not find the open letters a helpful form of communication. Further, Christians seem to have a penchant for writing open letters, we’ve written open letters to Justin Beiber, Mark Driscoll, President Obama, Beyonce Knowles, and Joel Osteen. While I find many of their injunctions of these to be helpful, the sad reality is that the mode by which they are communicated is prideful and presumptuous.

So here are three reasons I find open letters to be a form of communication we should leave behind.

1. They make assumptions about their addressees. Open letters are generally written to correct people that, in actuality, we know very little about. The general idea behind most of the open letters to Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber, and Beyonce Knowles is that their behavior is a poor influence and they need this letter so that they can get back on the right track. It’s fine to offer correction, but honesty and charity requires that we do so without masking correction under the false pretenses of a personal letter.

This open letter to daughters in response to Cyrus’ VMA performance is a good example of what not to do:

Dear daughter, let Miley Cyrus be a lesson to you.

Yes, this is what happens when you constantly hear everything you do is awesome. This is what happens when people fawn over your every Tweet and Instagram photo. This is what happens when no responsible adult has ever said the word “no,” made you change your clothes before leaving the house, or never spanked your butt for deliberate defiance.

It seems this author wants to talk about parenting, but the entire argument is based on ungrounded assumptions about Cyrus. Christians ought to be people who “speak the truth in love.” We don’t need the guise of a personal letter to do so. Instead we should say what we mean. We should speak winsomely and in love and trust that will be enough (Ephesians 4:29).

There is plenty we can learn from the behavior of public figures without presuming to know why they do the things they do.

2. They treat their addressees as if they are stupid or ignorant. When writing a letter to someone you aren’t actually writing a letter to, its easy to treat that person as immature or ignorant or immoral. This letter to sons in light of Robin Thicke’s behavior is a prime example:

Don’t let any of these pigs and perverts you see on TV be a lesson to you. They treat women like garbage; they possess no chivalry, no self control; they are disloyal and dishonest; they spend all day pursuing pleasure at the expense of others, and they encourage you to do the same. You might be tempted to follow suit. In fact, you WILL be tempted. These male pop stars and celebrities, look at them, you’ll think. They take advantage of emotionally broken, self loathing, confused young women, and they are rewarded handsomely for it. Look at their nice clothes and their nice cars. Look how they are admired and loved. Look, they treat women like trash and other women fawn all over them because of it. This must be how real men behave, you’ll think.

The assumption being made about young men here is that young men have no idea what is being sold to them. They are buying the lies of the pop music they listen to. If this is true, it deserves to be addressed. The problem, however, is that the argument being made is based entirely on assumptions about the influences of pop music on young people. A more honest form of communication would be to address the ideas presented in “Blurred Lines” and Thicke’s performance of it. As a father and a pastor, I sympathize with this author’s concerns, but he isn’t writing to fathers and pastors–he is writing to young men. When the default stance is to speak down to young people, should we be surprised when they don’t listen?

3. The pretension is misleading. As my Christ and Pop Culture colleague Brad Williams said, “an open letter is a passive way to talk about someone while pretending to talk to someone.” Open letters aren’t really written to particular public figures as if those people are actually going to read and be helped by them.

Jesus’ teaching on personal conflict (Matthew 18:15-18), does not  rule out writing public criticisms of public figures. When people put themselves forward as public examples, I think it follows that their example should be examined publicly. However, open letters do something deceitful here–they claim to be offering correction to their addressees when really they are publicly criticizing them.

This letter to Mark Driscoll is a prime example:

The first is this: you are fantastic at making much of yourself.  You are the master of the humblebrag now that the meme is dead and the ship has sailed.  Like a self-aware version of Ari Gold from Entourage, you drop all the names you know to demonstrate your position — but dutifully, you’re not like any of them.  . . .

If anyone knows how to salvage his own reputation from the doctrinal and moral pratfalls and frankly-insulting egoisms for which you are actually well-known, it’s you — and it’s funny to watch you do it as you get older and your audience stays the same age.

This author has some pretty strong words to share with Driscoll. As someone who lives a very public Christian life and sets up his example as something to be admired and followed, Driscoll is worthy of examination. The problem with this, however, is that the author pretends to be concerned about Driscoll’s lack of humility while simply talking about how pompous he thinks Driscoll is.

Jesus warned against “practicing our righteousness before men in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1) and encouraged us to let what we “say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’” (Matthew 5:37). Open letters ignore these two injunctions by placing us on moral high ground above those we seek to critique and refusing to directly address the things with which we are actually concerned. I believe in critiquing culture and particularly those in culture whose behavior is worthy of critique. In doing so, it is essential that we speak honestly and in love.

photo credit: gioiadeantoniis via photopin cc

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • MorganGuyton

    Yup.

  • Zachery Oliver

    Oh, I like Pyromaniacs too! I think part of that was meant to be satire and ridicule (also, it doesn’t seem to be much of an open letter considering how forceful and direct it is)…in a Biblical way (see 1 Kings 18:27). There’s a time and a place for it, and the author felt strongly enough (also, I am pretty sure Driscoll saw this one, and would see it if Douglas Wilson also commented about it, so it’s not as if the blogger is so far removed from other Reformed bloggers).

    Of course, that’s just me complaining about an example! Agreed with the rest; most of these letters do feel a bit pretentious and pompous.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/ D.L. Mayfield

    spot-on. i actually love how McSweeneys posts “Open Letters to People or Entities that are Unlikely to Respond” and then people write things to things like the job market or certain phrases or very specific circumstances that happened to them. An excellent (and funny, and sometimes sad) way to critique a horrible genre. http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/open-letters-to-people-or-entities-who-are-unlikely-to-respond

  • Esther O’Reilly

    What about an open letter that’s written in love? Like an actor or musician you really like, but you want them to get saved. I’ve thought about doing that kind of thing. “Dear so-and-so. You are awesome. Here is why you’re awesome. Now here is why I want you to be saved. Here’s why you should think about Christianity some more. Love, me.”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I do like Pyromaniacs and thought that particular letter was pretty good. Unfortunately I’m a little Arminian for their tastes so we’ve butted heads a few times there.

  • Zachery Oliver

    That is to be expected. But maybe he was predestined to butt heads with you, and you chose to confront him?

    Ok, now I’m just joking.

  • Drew Dixon

    Thanks D. L. I will have to check those out. I tend to enjoy McSweeneys.

  • Drew Dixon

    Why not just write the actor or musician a personal letter? That would probably mean more.

  • Drew Dixon

    Well it is titled, “An Open Letter to Mark Driscoll.” Just because the prophets were direct and forceful doesn’t mean we should always be (I think there is a time and place for such language but it probably doesn’t come around as often as we like to think it does).

    Anyway, that doesn’t change the fact that Turk is speaking about Driscoll while pretending to speak to him–whether or not Driscoll actually read it (I actually think Driscoll doesn’t read that much of what people say about him on the internet), doesn’t change the reality of the pretension of the letter. Turk is clearly more concerned with informing people about Driscoll than he is with saying something to Driscoll or else he would have just written Driscoll a letter.

    Again, I am not saying that Driscoll or whoever else isn’t worthy of critique. I think we all are. I am just saying that this time of communication tends to be prideful and presumptuous.

  • Dan Phillips

    Is the self-parody here intentional, or unintentional?

  • Zachery Oliver

    No doubt about that. Just the title “Open Letter to Mark Driscoll” seemed less-than-accurate in that case, haha.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Frequently, if the personality is famous enough, there’s no good way to write something personally to them.

  • jonswerens

    So, is this column an open letter, or not? If it is, how does it avoid the criticisms leveled by this very same open letter? If it isn’t, how is it not? Because it uses third-person rather than first-person? Why not just write Frank Turk et al personal letters instead of this column?

  • Sergius Martin-George

    I was right with you until I got to the “winsome” part.
    Don’t drink the YRR Kool-Aid, Drew! If you cannot afford a thesaurus, we will send you one free of charge.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Drew, you’re so silly… If you want to criticize the open letter format, and you include specific examples of open letters in order to point out and examine their flaws, weaknesses, etc., then — surprise! — you are actually writing an open letter to the open letter writers, thus making you a hypocrite and totally invalidating your point.

  • Alan Noble

    Neither. It’s nonexistent.

  • Alan Noble

    It’s pretty clearly not. For example, it’s not addressed to Frank Turk et al. It’s a public conversation about a popular form of writing which is problematic.

  • Alan Noble

    But seriously, y’all. Who opens letters these days anyhow?

  • jonswerens

    So, the problem is the literary form? Because the writer finds it pretentious? If that’s all, I’m having trouble connecting the dots.

  • Frank Turk

    So when do we stop blogging altogether? Alan’s tepid ‘no it’s not’ defenses aside, there’s no way to justify any Christian-oriented punditry if the complaints in this post are valid and logically forceful.

    Looking forward to the “Nuh-uh” but hoping for something which will influence me more substantively.

  • Frank Turk

    Your letter to me is missing. Must have gotten caught in my spam filter. Please resend.

  • Frank Turk

    I get it: it’s ok to talk -about-someone as long as you don’t talk -to- them. 2faces 1:1.

    I always forget that verse!

  • Brett

    No, it’s not.

  • Drew Dixon

    Sorry brother. I thought it was easier to just publicaly criticise a public open letter you wrote.

    FWIW – I respect you. I don’t care for the way most Chrsitians write open letters, I tried to make that clear. My issue is not with you personally but with a particular open letter you wrote. Feel free to offer me correction if you think its not misleading to claim to be writing to someone while actually writing to the public about someone.

    Like I said, I think public criticism of public figures/actions is fair game, I just think framing those criticisms as letters to a someone is misleading. I think there is a more honest, more helpful way of going about it.

    Also FWIW, I agree with much of your criticisms of Driscoll in that piece, my issue is that the format lends itself to pride and presumption.

  • Drew Dixon

    I mean I think you probably get my argument but I will try to explain it one more time, just so don’t think I am making up Bible verses ;)

    I am saying that in general open letters are not written to the person they are addressed to. They are written to the public. Its clear that your letter was not really for Driscoll. It was for all of us.

    I think its more honest to leave that pretension behind and just say what you mean. I think your argument about Driscoll would have been more effective and more honest if you had just said, “here are some issues I have with Mark Driscoll’s behavior and here is area where I think he needs to be corrected.”

    If you think that I am wrong about that I would love to hear why.

  • Drew Dixon

    I think I was pretty clear that writing public criticism of public figures and ideas is important and often worthwhile.

    Like my pastor said, “An open letter is a passive way to talk about someone while pretending to talk to someone.” I think its more effective and more honest to not pretend.

    Perhaps I am wrong?

  • Guest

    You’re the best Dan!

  • Drew Dixon

    I gave examples of how the form lends itself to pretension, presumption, and pride.

  • Alan Noble

    WHO YOU CALLING TEPID?????

    But seriously, no, this is not self-parody. It’s just not. And my defense” was precisely as detailed and elaborate as Dan’s comment was.

    It’s perfectly legitimate to point out that a particular form of critique is not edifying. That’s what Drew did.

  • Frank Turk

    The idea that “in general open letters are not written to the person they are addressed to” is a self-defeating proposition. In the letter you linked, I was, in fact, talking to Mark Driscoll. He’s not a straw-man in that letter for some other movement or trend: he’s the one I was talking to. The subject was his video, or specifically his on-going war with everyone who thinks he’s ever made a mistake. I think the mistake would be to talk /about/ him as if there’s nobody here like that, nobody in my house or my pants like that — and rather talk /to/ him and his web-checking media staff who are, frankly, obviously blind to the sort of thing he continues to be into.

    As to whether that is a pretension or not, I’ll reiterate: given that you sent no warning shots to my in-box, I think the pretension is that somehow blogging about “stuff” rather than “Frank’s pride” with any hope of generating change in the people actually doing it. You could write a master’s thesis on the problems created by eating onions after 10 PM, but unless you turn to your wife and say, “honey, our house is not Syria, and I would prefer that you not turn it into a chemical war zone just before bed time,” (or however you would say such a thing to her) you’ll never get the result you’re looking for. And just to be clear: all of Paul’s letters are open letters. All of them are speaking to specific people for their own good, and are intended (by God if not Paul) for the general edification of anyone who would read them. If you what Biblical support for open letters, let me introduce you to this one to the Romans, then these to the Corinthians, and so on.

    Regarding saying what I mean, I think you can’t find anyone who thinks I beat around the bush. In 15 years of internet mayhem, I haven’t hardly been afraid to say what others, frankly, didn’t have the nerve to say. The reasons behind your opinion regarding the open letter in question, or that genre in general, simply overlook the fact that the real difference between an open letter and a blog post is the author’s willingness to admit that he wants this particular public person to get a public message about his public hyjinx.

    I think what really puts me off your message here is the utter poverty of it. You know: the Screwtape Letters is a collection of (fictional) letters, now open for all to read; In fact, almost of the Naria books are written this way, with the author being an immersed narrator speaking first-hand of the events to someone in particular. As I mentioned, the NT is practically chocked full of open letters. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while not all actually letters (they are journal entries mostly), is an anthology of first-person exposition for the events in question — it reads like a series of open letters. There is nothing inherently prideful or even idiosyncratic in the idea that I can speak for me — even if in some sense it is the fictional me with the raised eyebrow and the sardonic smirk.

    But your objection is that I’m only pretending to speak /to someone/, right? Well: who were you speaking to when you wrote this blog post? Anyone? Did you have anyone in mind at all? If not, I congratulate you on letting us in on your own internal dialog, and thank you for being so humble as to think that sharing your inner monologue would be well-received and helpful. But if in fact you wrote this intending that someone would read it, anyone at all — for example, other bloggers, or the readers of blogs — then the difference between this and an open letter is only that one of us is honest about to whom he is speaking, and the other one wants to pretend he’s just spit-balling, just off in a corner someplace doodling and spinning inconsequential yarns, however seriously ad soberly he might be doing it.

    The poverty of your view is that it overlooks that writing ought to have its own life, its own inherent gaudiness, and ought to speak to someone — and that the meat of the message is not its sincerity but its emotional force. If you want to get a full-length treatment of how that works and why its effective, let me recommend this open letter from the end of 2010: An Open Letter to Jesus Christ. If it offends that a writer intends to speak to someone to generate that, I think we have identified why, frankly, Christian writing is nearly dead as a way to reach people in the 21st century. Now we have to ask ourselves whether its worth resuscitating, and who is able to do it.

  • Frank Turk

    I am glad, in the final tally, Alan, that you get me.

    And I am calling -you- tepid.

    Dear Alan:

    You are tepid. Your defense of Drew is tepid. Either boil some water, or get some ice, but as it stands right now, your effort is like a Coke I left on the table overnight — and if you want me to drink it, you’re going to have to at least pour it over some ice cream if you can’t put any fizz into it.

    Love, Frank

  • Drew Dixon

    Frank,

    You don’t have to be so condescending. Yes I want people to read this article, I hope it will help them be more direct and more humble in the way they communicate. I am not trying to police anyone. I do think there are good ways to write open letters but I did my best to show how they often lend themselves to our pride. Perhaps I did a poor job and perhaps I am entirely wrong, but I think you know that this was not my intent:

    ” then the difference between this and an open letter is only that one of us is honest about to whom he is speaking, and the other one wants to pretend he’s just spit-balling, just off in a corner someplace doodling and spinning inconsequential yarns, however seriously ad soberly he might be doing it.”

    I was pretty honest about who I was writing to. I was writing to Christians, trying to show them that I think there is a better way to say what we mean than writing open letters.

    Also I know you to be a person who values public criticism of public writing and speaking–I value that too and I think that things that go up on the internet are fair game to criticize–I noted that in this very piece. I meant this critique to be helpful not personal. I didn’t mention your name in the article because I respect you and I didn’t want to make this about you. Perhaps that was the wrong way to go about it.

    My point is that your open letter is for everyone, not just for Mark Driscoll and I suspect when you wrote you were aware that he would likely never read it.

    I think you have an intersting point about the epistles being open letters. But again my point was that I think the pretension of claiming to write to a person when you are really writing for all of us is more honest, more direct, and more helpful.You were writing for all of us when you wrote that or any other open letter you have written were you not?

    Obviously you think I am wrong in thinking that that pretension is unhelpful. Perhaps you are right.

    Peace to you brother. I didn’t think less of you for writing this open letter. I appreciate much of what you do and wish you all the best in the gospel ministry that we share in common.

  • Drew Dixon

    Hey Frank,

    In reading over my article again, I realized that I owe you an apology.

    I said, “The problem with this, however, is that the author pretends to be concerned about Driscoll’s lack of humility while simply talking about how pompous he thinks Driscoll is.”

    I think you really were concerned about Driscoll. My writing that wasn’t honest or charitable. I presumed to know your intent and that was wrong.

    Sorry brother–I am happy to see about having that part edited if you would like me to.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Ah, Frank’s a grump. Don’t worry Drew, it’s not just you. I’m a grump too and sometimes Frank even gets grumpy with me! ;-)

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Dear Frank, you may be a grump, but I’ll admit you can be a pretty entertaining one!

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I lost my appetite.

  • Brad Williams

    The point is pretty easy. Drew took a general shot at a general habit of people, including you Frank. That is “Open Letters”. You are writing “Open Letters” to specific persons pretending that it is for them, when it really a form of open critique masked as a kind of personal letter. It’s disingenuous. Just write, “A Critique of Mark Driscoll: A Hope He Likes Getting the What For” and you won’t have to worry about this little blog anymore.

    ^^More substance, less tepid coke^^

  • Susan_G1

    I’m late to the post here, but honestly, isn’t an ‘open letter’ just a literary form, understood as just that by most people? Honestly, Drew, I do not know you, but when you say it’s permissible to say everything that Frank said if he puts it in a different format (“here are some issues I have with Mark Driscoll’s behavior and here is area where I think he needs to be corrected.”), aren’t you really just tone-trolling? It has nothing to do with pride or pretension, and certainly nothing to do with humility and speaking the truth in love (which should truly be the aim of each of us). You are setting yourself up as judge and jury, no less prideful and pretentious than Frank’s “letter”/post, ESPECIALLY since you state that you agree with him!

    (sorry, this should have been posted to Drew, not Brad)

  • Susan_G1

    Just finished all the open letters. I thought the one written to Justin Beiber was full of concern for him, with grace abounding, and with her knowledge of him (having authored a book about him), it certainly did not meet your three descriptives. Perhaps I am blind, or naive, but I saw little pride or presumption in it.

    Perhaps you owe an apology to Cathleen Falsani as well?

  • Roadkill Goldfish

    I’m the author of “Dear Daughter.” I am also a Christian.

    I’m a bit offended that you used my blog post as a good example of what not to do. How can you judge a letter based on the opening paragraph? You missed the entire message of the “Dear Daughter” letter. The piece was written for our daughters who see this stuff everyday and think this is the only way to get attention. And God used it for GOOD. The letter got millions of people around the world to talk about being a parent (not a friend) and telling our girls that they are too valuable to sell themselves cheaply. I have received countless notes from young women who wished a parent had shared those messages with them. I’ve heard from older women who went down the wrong path and then turned their lives around.

    Overall, God used it as a good example of what to do to start dialogue.

    Sorry, dude. I’ve dodged enough stones from haters. I don’t need to get any from Christians.