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Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Dictating, the Apostle Paul nears the end of an epistle. His amanuensis Tertius hunches, pen in hand, waiting for Paul’s parting words to the Romans. Paul is thinking. Tertius looks down at the letter and back up at Paul. Paul’s eyes are closed as though in prayer. Tertius tilts his head to study the apostle. When he hears Paul’s breathing slow, he takes his chance. “I Tertius,” he writes, “who wrote this letter, greet you.” Paul stirs and Tertius appends, “in the Lord.” Paul opens his mouth. “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you…” Tertius continues to transcribe as Paul says a doxology and with a final “amen,” the letter is finished.
The Church’s epistolary tradition has roots that stretch far into the past. Much of Christian moral teaching derives from Paul and the other apostles’ letters to different first century churches, and in the following centuries, theologians, church leaders, and mystics would continue to write to one another with words of edification and instruction.
Letter-writing is a fine art, difficult to master. A well-made letter, personal and brainy, is a thing of beauty; famous letters and exchanges are compiled into special collections and bound as books.
One of the trickier aspects of letter-writing is, of course, the end game. How does one close in a way that suits the occasion for writing?
When not ending with a doxology, Paul often closes his epistles by praying for grace to the souls of those who are in Christ. He and other New Testament writers pray for grace, for peace, for some combination thereof. One may close by remarking on having written “with my own hand” which is “the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine,” and exhort believers to “remember my chains” or to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”
After centuries of correspondence between believers — as well as the advent of the printing press, typewriter, word processor, and Internet — we arrive at the present moment, which finds a new generation of the faithful seeking to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ. Evangelicals may not offer one another mouth-to-mouth greetings, but we certainly do close many of our emails with Pauline farewells in mind.
For years I have sent and received email, and much of my correspondence has been with other believers. Some common outros have emerged, and a few variations on themes. Here’s a partially representative list:
Truth be told, “grace and peace” has often been a go-to of my own, echoing as it does the austere parting words of the Apostles themselves while conveying a downright warm sense of well-wishing.
The succinctness of “Blessings” makes it more a gesture than a meaningful word of spiritual encouragement, the equivalent of a cursory “how are you?” to an acquaintance on the street, or perhaps a verse printed inside a birthday card.
“In Him” has a similarly gestural quality. Depending on the preceding message’s content, it could also strike one as being somewhat cagey, as though to say that, regardless of the recipient’s opinions regarding the foregoing content, the sender’s worth is not open to question because it has an eternal guarantor.
“Under the Lamb.” Well this is a bit too much. The full statement would likely be “under the blood of the Lamb,” and, having eliminated the propitiatory component the terser version paints a somewhat confusingly literal picture of the sender as being, well, underneath a lamb. What is he doing down there?
“Clothed in Christ” is a scriptural allusion the clarity of which will be proportional to the recipient’s level of biblical literacy. If the recipient is without the Church entirely, she will be without understanding and perhaps also without sympathy.
“Soli Deo Gloria” is a phrase meaning “Glory to God Alone,” and therefore is appropriate only for intra-seminary correspondence. How, otherwise, could it not be prohibitively esoteric and pretentious, not to mention confusing?
“In His Grip” is likely the most perplexing of all. I have not often seen it, but when I have it has been in the context of Christian higher education and church correspondence. The line conveys a sense of utter rapture — think of St. Therese in ecstasy, or Peter witnessing the Transfiguration. It’s either that, or God’s absolute control of the sender. In that case, you may almost read it as a cry for help, it connotes such a powerlessness.
Now, these sign-offs could perhaps each be justifiable in isolation, written out in one’s own hand to convey the genuineness of each of one’s letters. But these email sign-offs are often written into an automatic signature — and God help us if they aren’t further adorned, nay, festooned with all manner of flowers, emoticons, and flash-animations. That Beauty, which late have I loved, has nothing to do with these garish footers. Forget art — a simple closing to a message has been thrown into chaos in this age of mechanical and digital reproduction.
That element of reproduction places the evangelical email sign-off within a larger culture of evangelical imprinting. The aluminum fish, the Bible verse bumper sticker, the edifying glow-in-the-dark graphic tee, the Contemporary Christian Music industry: there’s a cruciform stamp placed over artifacts in each of these categories, as though what’s necessary for evangelicals to be “in the world but not of it” is to turn our symbols into clip art and paste them over all of our things, lest they be mistaken for being another human community’s things. Abraham Kuyper may remind us that Christ claims every square inch of creation for Himself, but perhaps our peculiar sensitivities lead us to give Christ the assist in manually reclaiming each of those inches with our stickers and magnets.
Beyond that, a Christian email sign-off serves little other purpose than to pass a token from one believer to another as spiritual co-members. For those outside the faith who find these tokens in their inboxes, a wide spectrum of responses includes amusement, suspicion, annoyance, and outright alienation. The use of these lines in a public workplace strikes me as a delicate issue for the individual conscience.
Even so, there’s a soft spot in my heart for those who close their notes with an “In Him” or “Blessings.” Part of identifying with a faith such as ours is an acceptance of the idiom, of all the community’s idiosyncratic terms and symbols. A more gracious perspective than the one I’ve given voice to above might even go so far as to suggest that Christians with Christ-referencing sign-offs are working to break down the sacred/secular distinction, and are translating the terms of the office into the terms of the Kingdom that lays a claim to it. That might be so. But if you are of this opinion, and intend to carry on with your signing off in the manner reviewed above, consider rephrasing “In His Grip” at least. There are reasons why a New Testament epistle never closed with that line.
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