In some ways, Letters along the way by D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge is quaintly archaic in its form. Modeled on The Screwtape Letters (not, unfortunately, Dracula, which was also written in the epistolary style), this lengthy book from the 1990s is a novel in letter form that has been reissued by Crossway.
First and foremost, this book is excellent and well worth your time. Not that it’s a page-turner as a work of fiction. Stick to Screwtape or Dracula for that. But in terms of being thoughtful and careful and pastoral in its theology and cautious in its cultural criticism Letters Along the Way has held up well and is going to be a good addition to your bookshelf. (The sturdy paperback will also make a nice gift–and that’s not something I often say about a paperback!)
And yet, I say the book hasn’t held up well because of it’s form. For now at least, the age of the letter seems to be over. For a while the culture was talking about ‘snail mail’ as contrasted with ’email,’ but even that distinction seems to be fading as email falls somewhat out of use and snippets sent over various apps and platforms become the new order of the day. The long-form printed letter is no longer on anyone’s radar, which means that books like this are increasingly impossible.
I’m sure there are books based on email–though Email along the way is a terrible title which any decent publisher will reject. And no doubt in our own time there are books made up of texting or whatever using snapchat is called (is it just ‘snapping’?). I happen to know there are books comprised of fake blog posts. Each of these new forms may have their own place in print, but hopefully it’s clear how the passing of the written letter has cost us something. Email, texting, snapchat, and all the other various forms of electronic communication are fleeting compared to the durability of the printed word. Even accounting for our general belief that once something is on the internet it’s there forever (which is, I think, mostly true) and the fact that a physical object like a piece of paper is fragile and easily lost or destroyed, something still feels enduring about things we can hold in our hands. We’re not to the point where this format is so disconnected from the culture it’s unreadable, but it’s definitely jarring.
Fortunately, Letters along the way is good enough in its reflective and pastoral theology that this limitation doesn’t really matter. It is still readable, if unusual in our day. And maybe we need a little more of that kind of unusual anyway…
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar MO.