A Memo Can Change the World
On a few road trips this summer and last, our children watched movies as we drove. A favorite was the 2017 animated movie Boss Baby. As the driver, I didn’t get to watch, but I did listen. In one memorable scene, the main character, a child named Tim, asks Boss Baby, “What’s a memo?”
With Alec Baldwin’s arrogant, sarcastic persona, Boss Baby responds, “A memo is something you write to give people information. Memos are for important things. A memo can bring people together. A memo can be a call to arms, a manifesto, a poem.” Then, after a dramatic pause, Boss Baby adds, “A memo can change the world.”
The humor of the scene is the overstatement. Memos don’t change the world; they strangle the world in bureaucratic red tape.
Or do they?
Author and pastor Kevin DeYoung recently wrote on his blog that “good writers rule the world.” He acknowledged this was, of course, an exaggeration, but he believes only a slight one. “I can almost guarantee it,” he adds, “the writers who actually get read, and the writers you actually want to read, are writers who write well.”
For my part, Kevin DeYoung is the gold standard of evangelical Christian writing: theological precision and biblical fidelity combined with crisp prose and playful language. I certainly put him in the category of those good writers changing the world—at least my world has been changed.
For those of us who believe in the power of God’s words, we certainly believe words do change the world. As Moses said, “[God’s words] are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deuteronomy 32:46, NIV). When a young king named Josiah found the book of God’s law, which most certainly included the words of Moses in Deuteronomy, a kingdom woke (2 Kings 22). Years later, churches were established and strengthened when apostles wrote the memos we call epistles and biographers wrote the stories we call gospels. Indeed, these documents are still establishing and strengthening churches. And most especially we know that when “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), a new era in human history began.
But for the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether our memos or any of our writings can change the world. That question is too big to answer. What constitutes changing the world? How many people must be changed? And how would this change even be measured? Instead, let’s ask a more straightforward question: what are the characteristics of written words that seem to induce the most change on people?
I’m not the right one to answer this question. When it comes to the craft, I’m a student not the teacher, a pilgrim not the guru. But I did find some helpful advice as I recently finished the third and final book in John Piper’s lengthy series on the word of God. The book is called Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship. It is Piper’s attempt to explain what preaching is and why it’s uniquely fitted for a central role in a weekly gathering of God’s people in a local church.
At one point in the book, Piper holds forth advice that C. S. Lewis originally gave to a young woman about writing. I realize not everyone who reads this blog is also a preacher and writer. But most likely you are writing things that are memo-like, not meaning corporate directives but short bits of important information, whether an email to a friend about an upcoming vacation, a quick note encouraging your pastor (wink-wink), or a reference letter explaining why someone would be ideal for a job.
Here are the five suggestions that C. S. Lewis gives about writing:
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
We are all using words to communicate, and as Christians we should feel a particular burden to use them well. We may never achieve the facility with language of Lewis, Piper, DeYoung, or Boss Baby. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. “For whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do [such as write a sermon, blog post, memo that changes the world, or update to social media], do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).