I don’t know of any way to be a thinking Christian without pen and paper or the electronic equivalent. These are basic tools for taking notes, journaling, accessory memory storage—and more than anything else, for unlearning what we thought we knew, and learning what we didn’t know we knew.
It happens to me over and over again. It happened again yesterday. I have an idea that I mull over when I’m in the car, walking around the neighborhood, doing chores or whatever. I get it all worked out in my head, and then being blessed or afflicted (sometimes I’m not sure) to be a writer, I finally decide to write it down. And then I discover I hadn’t thought it through nearly as well as I thought I had.
Yesterday it had to do with work I’m doing for a book chapter on Christian moral leadership (of which we need considerably more, by the way). Some acts of moral leadership are very practical. An example of that might be volunteering in a free clinic, providing medical services to the indigent. Some ethical leadership, on the other hand, happens as much in the realm of ideas as of practice: influencing culture to change its opinions regarding moral issues.
I thought I had a list of these sorted out in my head: group x is mostly practical, group y is more in the domain of ideas. Yesterday the time came to write it all down. That’s when I realized I had it at least half-wrong. Once I started working it out on the word processor, I realized the matter was considerably less clear-cut than I had thought. Care for the poor (for example) is intensely practical, but there’s plenty of think-work to be done on how best to deliver that care. It should have been obvious, but it didn’t come to the surface until I tried writing it.
I learn by writing. Though it’s just one of many modes of learning, it’s the one by which I really come to grips with what I know or don’t know. I’m speaking only for myself, yet I suspect it may be true for others: it’s how I test what I think I know. It’s how I pull together the threads of experience, reading, conversation, and reflection, and weave a pattern of knowledge out of it all. Sometimes it’s how I discover I don’t know so much after all.
If writing is so important to learning, then what shall we write? Notes on sermons are good, and notes on books we read. By all means, if it’s your book write on the page. (I like to use sticky-note flags for especially important material in books.) Write your prayers and how God answers—now, that’s certainly a learning experience. Write a journal: what’s happening in your life, what you’re discovering in Bible study, how you’re doing. Write down your ideas.
There’s a special case where writing yields additional learning: on a blog. Here at Thinking Christian I’m willing to test ideas and to be tested by others who might disagree. It’s a place to experiment with new thoughts, with the risk I’ll find out I’m wrong. The give-and-take here has solidified much of my knowledge, and corrected some of what I erroneously thought to be knowledge. You can do that on your own blog or on most anyone else’s, including here.
“But I’m not a writer,” you might say. Take heart: though I am a writer, just about every first draft I write is awful. I mean embarrassingly awful: hardly fit for my own consumption, much less the public’s. Here’s my encouragement: for journaling or personal study, it’s okay not to write perfectly. No second draft is necessary. It doesn’t have to be good, and the words don’t have to be spelled right. Just record what’s on your mind. If school taught you to dislike writing, remember this isn’t for anyone else’s eyes. It can be as good or bad as it is, and that’s okay. Wherever you are when you begin, you can grow from there; and if you practice, you will grow. Not just as a writer, but as a thinking Christian.
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