The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
Christians are word people — we’re such because God has given us a book of written revelation. Christians ought to be those who see the power of the written word, both in terms of reading and writing. On both fronts, consumption and production, I sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a dark era. Where are the readers? Where are the writers? There are some, to be sure, but I wonder: why not more?
I love to read and write. I especially want to reflect for a moment on the latter love — also in the interests of stirring up the same affection in others. How did I come to love writing?
Curiously, it was the same way through which I first came to love reading. It wasn’t because of a teacher. It wasn’t because of my parents. It was my late grandfather, my Opa Bredenhof. I was 7 years old. We were living in the Canadian Arctic, but went down south for the summer to visit Opa and Oma and the rest of the Bredenhof clan. While I was there, Opa took me to a sort of book store being run out of someone’s house. I believe it was Mr. A.W. DeLeeuw. From this store, Opa bought me several books, including this one:
It was Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins. This pile of books got me into a lifetime of reading.
Opa loved to read and he wanted to pass that on to me. Opa also loved to write. Even though English wasn’t his first language, he tried valiantly. As a member of the Mission Aid Committee, he wrote articles for the Mission News. Later, he wrote not just one book, but two — including The Gospel Under the Southern Cross, the first book about mission in the Canadian Reformed Churches. His writing needed the help of a native English editor, but that never stymied him from the effort.
And Opa loved to write letters. I know because I received scads of them.
Sometimes I struggled to read them and I think you can see why! Despite his penmanship, Opa was bound and determined to write to his far-off grandson and I almost always wrote him back.
Opa also encouraged me to see the power and value of writing. One adage he’d often repeat: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Imagine that being said in a heavy Dutch accent and you can hear how it still echoes in my ears. Opa didn’t come up with it — it apparently originates with English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But Opa repeated it often to his young grandson and it stuck. I sometimes wonder if it resonated with Opa because of his work as a courier in the Dutch underground during the Nazi occupation. That work sometimes involved circulating illegal newspapers. The Nazis hated the written word because of its power to change minds.
When I was in high school, I had zero aspirations to be a pastor. I had no intentions of making any career of working with words. My only dream was to turn and burn in a CF-18. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I still enjoyed reading — especially about aviation. When I had to write for school, I enjoyed it and had some proficiency at it. But my goal was to “slip the surly bonds of earth.”
God put that goal out of reach by giving me a near-sighted right eye. That realization sent me into a period of spiritual and existential crisis. It was just as well — I saw the Air Force as the ticket out of my churchly upbringing. Instead, through a series of providential circumstances, God graciously brought me to a firm commitment to Christ and living for him. I really became enthralled with the gospel and with Reformed theology. How could I share my excitement with others?
Around that time, there was a Canadian Reformed magazine for young people called In Holy Array.
In the May 1991 issue, Rev. Eric Kampen issued a challenge for young people to get off their duff and start writing. He was realistic about what it would involve:
How do you know if something is being read? By readers’ response! That might come orally, in the form of compliment. That is always encouraging. But, more often the way one finds out if what has been written is indeed read by someone else is in the form of reactions. That is one of the “hazards” of writing: someone might disagree with you! If you never say anything, then you never will get any reactions. Sometimes people react and strongly disagree, and will let it be known personally, but do not dare to go public. Others feel compelled to write a letter to the editor. Others yet will take the time to write an article in response…
…You shouldn’t be afraid to express your sentiments. It is often surprising how many thoughts and problems you have are shared by others, but no one ever puts them on paper. We mentioned the “hazards” of writing. You can’t get around that! But perhaps, you might help someone else, or you might be helped yourself, in that you find answers to your questions, even if you have to be corrected in some parts of your thinking. We should also be open to correction, from Scripture of course.
Those words hit the target with me. Combined with my Opa’s adage, I was ready to start writing.
So I did. My first article was published in the January 1992 issue of In Holy Array. It was entitled, “Women in Office: Is It Possible?” I wrote many more articles for In Holy Array, and then eventually branched out to other magazines such as Clarion and Reformed Perspective. In the early 2000s, I became aware of this phenomenon known as a “blog” and by 2007 most of my writing was happening via this medium.
I’ve seen that Opa was right about writing: it is a powerful tool. It can be harnessed for good purposes, including both edification and entertainment. Eric Kampen was right too: sometimes writing can be “hazardous” — but that does keep it interesting! At least you know people are reading and thinking about what you’ve said.
I want to encourage readers to become writers. You start by starting. You learn by doing. You learn the craft of writing by doing, but also learn heaps more about your subject matter. I often think of Augustine’s words, quoted by Calvin in his preface to the Institutes: “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” I look forward to reading what you’re writing and learning!