I came across this photo of a baby in a pram. I asked my sister (she’s older than me), did she know who it was? Turns out it’s picture of me. I’d never have known; I don’t suppose I am more than a few months’ old.
Keeping records from the past has always been a feature of us human beings. The two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 were both transmitted for centuries through verse and song. Until, finally, Moses copied them out from the records Jethro had in his library, perhaps. Or he himself heard them in all their glory as they were recited or sung around the family hearth.
Among the earliest writings that we have evidence for are scripts for which we still have no translation, but ancient Egyptian we can translate. They had the pictograms so famous from their monuments, but there was also a language script that we find on papyrus and clay tablets. Among the oldest are letters implying a sophisticated delivery system throughout Egypt. One of the most poignant is from a father to his son now working to the north. The father complains that he never hears from his son. Is all well? Your mother pines for lack of news. Even the farm seems to miss you. Do write soon. I like to think that he stopped whatever he was engaged with and quickly wrote a reply.
The great letter age was, of course, last century and before, starting during the reign of Queen Victoria. I’m not sure that today we can claim that letters are outmoded because we have the Internet and web, and because the Internet still relies on text for its content. But whereas a letter can be thought about and composed with care, Internet emails often seem to be rushed out before the brain is sufficiently engaged to compile the message with care. Often the content doesn’t end up saying what the one who sent it actually intended to say. The precision of language has been lost in our day-
Time will tell, given the transient nature of emails, whether their content will survive to inform our history in the same way that letters still do. So often they give the inside story, the emotional content, even the raw truth, whereas the ‘official’ account has been sanitised and denatured to become the dispassionate account historians and politicians want us to remember.
In the historic moments of our century, those few that I was involved with and had some inside knowledge of, it is precisely the emotional, human aspect that we find fascinating, not the dates and raw facts and figures of the historic accounts.
Of course we have letters preserved for us in the Bible. Much of the New Testament came from letters. And there are letters preserved in part or full in the Old Testament.
And it is precisely because so much of our sacred text is in the form of letters, with emotional content, involvement at the human level, that makes them so compelling and insistent. They are no anodyne account; they are full of imploring, of warnings, of urging us on, to endure to the end—precisely in such a way as to have the most impact on us.