It would be a significant exaggeration to say that I wrote “Back to the Fathers,” the first article I penned for Christianity Today. Tom was still recovering from heart surgery when the invitation came to me from CT to write the article. Yet even though Tom was weak from the operation, his mind was alive, active, and discerning. He was deeply engaged in the article from beginning to end; it was surely more his article than mine.
How was I to proceed in writing about Tom’s spiritual and theological pilgrimage back to orthodoxy? We decided the best path to follow was to use an interview format. I would ask a series of questions, Tom would record his responses, I would transcribe them, and we would go from there. Here are a few of the questions I asked Tom:
“What were the turning points in your movement away from modernity?”
“You have written that abortion on demand, more than anything else, made you question your commitment to the values and assumptions of modernity. How did that come about?”
“In After Modernity…What? you write that you date your entrance into the postmodern world to the day you had to select the books you would take with you for a research year. Why was that event so significant? What books did you take?”
“In place of modernity you call for ‘a careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christian exegesis.’ In other places you call this orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy?”
“If we have the Bible, why do we also need the consensual teaching of the first five centuries?”
These are only a few of the questions I asked Tom. In blogs to come I will share his responses to them and to others.
As we went slowly—indeed, painstakingly through the writing and editing process, I realized that Tom had more than one goal in mind for my first article. He surely wanted his response to each question to be thoughtful, direct, and honest. As we worked together, though, it was soon clear to me that Tom also wanted to teach me how to write.
After I had finished transcribing Tom’s answers and honed them a bit, I thought we must surely be close to finishing the article. Tom read his responses, looked carefully at how I had shaped them, and said, “I think we’re off to a good start.” A good start? I thought we were almost finished. Little did I know.
Tom made a list of suggestions and I went back to my computer, attempting to weave Tom’s revisions in to what I had thought was a finished product. As I worked I noticed that Tom’s recommendations and concerns were strengthening the article. The importance of each noun, verb, adjective, and adverb—along with the article’s content—slowly came to life for me.
I brought the revised article back to Tom and he commented patiently, “That’s an improvement. Let’s keep working.” I think Tom could tell from my expression that I thought further work was unnecessary. I clearly recall Tom’s response to my puzzled expression. “Chris, sometimes I revise an article forty or fifty times.” “Forty or fifty times? You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought to myself. And then Tom raised the bar further. “Chris, every sentence needs to be a work of art.”
I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s description of Shakespeare in Angela’s Ashes. ”It was as though he had jewels in his mouth.” I’m sure we failed to reach Shakespearean standards in the article. Yet Tom’s insistent, demanding coaching has stayed with me across the years. Tom taught me the value of words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. “Go slow, Chris. Use words carefully, not sloppily. There’s no rush. Pray well. Think well. Read deeply. And remember, every sentence a work of art.”
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