What makes an article, or essay, great? Does it need to challenge us to move in a different direction, or can it also challenge us to move higher up and further in to the truths we already hold?
You’ve seen it on a thousand social media posts. “This is a great article!” Sometimes you will go on to read and will proceed to like or love or favorite it and then reshare it yourself. Sometimes, you will find yourself hating the article and end up muttering about it throughout the day. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, you will respond with the Eternal Shrug of the Articulatio Humeri and the Grunt of Apathetic Desolation: “Meh.”
What is it that makes an article—or “essay,” to use the term for more serious pieces of writing—great? First, we might ask what makes an essay worthy of being linked to (or, in our therapeutic age’s argot, “shared”)? I have a friend who writes me about once per year to complain about my social media posts. I now expect these missives as a kind of personalized digital Christmas card, with a fun picture of everybody on a boat waterskiing attached:
The kids are doing great. Makayla is a junior. She had a great volleyball season and is getting ready for the spring musical, Frozen 3: The Green New Deal. She’s “Alexandra,” Anna and Ella’s cousin from the Queendom [ahem!] of Milton Keynes!
Jayden is a freshman and learned why the football players call it the ‘hamburger squad.’ Several of his TikTok videos in which he dances to Lawrence Welk champagne music overlaid with Chance the Rapper rhythms have gone viral. Yes, we’re biased, but we think they’re really “wunnerful”!
Heather and I are loving our jobs and volunteering on Saturdays at the zoo to feed baby alligators Impossible Burgers! I hope you had a great year and also realize that your links on Facebook are an abyss of totally lame, one-sided partisanship, with cherry-picked statistics and viewpoints that will convince nobody! That’s why I never ever read any of them.
For instance, the one about labor participation rates that really manipulated the data from the. . . .
I enjoy the jousting back and forth. I am not too worried about being seen as a partisan because I am a partisan. Of course that is not to say I am simply a tribalist—Me People Goo-ood! You People Ba-a-a-ad! I am a partisan because I actually have convictions about a number of subjects and I support certain political groups, figures, and thinkers because I think them right or the best I can do to make the world move in the direction I want it to here and now.
Because this is true, most of the essay I link to agree with my point of view either in general or in some particulars. Even essays I endorse in general, however, do not thereby have a large imprimatur ensuring I agree with everything in them. Quite often I will attach a comment that either gives a quotation from the essay expressing the point I really agree with or an explanation of what part of the essay I think important.
My friend seems to think I am obligated to link to as many articles with points of view or details contradicting my viewpoints as those that agree with me. That is not, I submit, realistic. Though I will sometimes link to articles with which I disagree, these are usually designed to accomplish one of a number of ends. It might be to show that those I disagree with are crazy. As Napoleon supposedly said, do not interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. To which I would add, do try to make sure you get a link to his mistake and a screen shot. Alternatively, I might link an article to show that there are certain points that need to be addressed by people who generally think as I do. That is because, though I am a partisan of settled principles, sometimes even people who do not agree with my principles can make arguments that make me ask questions about how I apply those principles in the here and now.
This brings me to one my friend’s recent posts. “I think that ‘a great article’ is a piece that is able to effectively challenge your point of view, not one that simply reaffirms your long-held convictions.” I don’t disagree with the first part of this at all. An article from the other side that actually causes me to wonder if I’ve been applying the right principles to a topic is, as I said already, something that truly can be great.
The essays that have caused me to wonder if I’m correct about something are often not polemical at all. Many times they are essays that do not attack my position so much as explain another position that is different in such a way as to convince me that my position is wrong because it is incomplete. I’ll never forget an essay by one Avery Dulles, SJ, titled “Evangelizing Theology,” that made the case for a Catholic theology of evangelization.* It struck me as fuller and more persuasive than my own then-Protestant views. Though it talked about the differences between the two approaches, the essay spent little time with critique of Protestant views. Nor did it shy away from speaking of the failures of Catholics to do the hard work of evangelization. Instead, the essay focused on a Catholic approach that put together the disparate theological elements in a way that caused me to see the whole question differently. It was about a year later that I became a Catholic.
That really was a great essay.
The second half of my friend’s formulation is what I have trouble with. Perhaps the word “simply” might allow me to give him a pass. For if an essay “simply” reaffirms my commitments, meaning that it says what I believe in a way that I already know and adds nothing new, he is right that it is not a great essay. Too many essays we feel we have already read before and, though we do not really disagree with them, we skip through them only looking to make sure there isn’t an interesting detail or quote we might use somewhere.
If I take a more expansive interpretation of my friend’s claim, however, I might think that an essay that agrees with me cannot be great. If this is so, then I cannot agree. If you only think essays that contradict your long-held commitments can be great, it might be wise to ask whether these are commitments at all. It might be that they are instead passing moods, feelings, or perhaps vaguely held senses of what your professional organization or the Zeitgeist has breathed into your consciousness as the correct views.
Cynics say sharing essays from your side is “preaching to the choir.” In my experience, however, choirs need preaching as much as anybody. After all, the choir hasn’t always thought as deeply about what they are singing as they should. If you were to translate the Latin or Swahili or Sentimental St. Louis Jesuitry into doctrines, they might not know if they agree after all. They may have joined the choir less out of conviction than a desire for company and after-practice snacks. Their mouths may open wide and their diaphragms may expand to full capacity, but their minds are often, if you will, in la-la-la land.
Essays that confirm what we already hold are good and necessary because most of us do not need instruction, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, as much as we need reminding. An essay can be great, however, in a variety of ways. First, it can add new evidence for what we believe already. Such evidence is especially valuable when it comes from sources that do not actually agree with us on our conclusions.
Second, an essay agreeing with us might organize the evidence or structure the argument in a way that is different from how we thought of it. This can show that just as there is more than one way to skin a cat [editorial note: no actual cats were skinned during the writing or editing of this essay], our conclusion is not dependent on stacking the evidence deck in only one way. This is helpful not merely in convincing us that our point of view is not simply dependent on a narrow foundation of thought, but in helping us have new ways of explaining our point of view to others.
Third, an essay might offer a rebuttal to a common or very powerful line of argument against us. Assuming that there are great essays of my friend’s sort out there, essays that show such “challenges” to our commitments are not insurmountable have great value.
Fourth, an essay might simply express our point of view in ways that are simply better written than what we have experienced before. The argument might be more clearly laid out, the prose more beautiful or winsome, the analogies and metaphors more striking, and the gentle wit in arguing more conducive to our being able to take joy in the truth.
Finally, given all four ways in which an essay might be great, the end result is not merely that we are more confident in our commitments or more able to teach or argue for them. An essay that agrees with us but does so in one of these four ways will make us see the truth we hold in a different way will force us to see some aspect of our own view that we have not seen before. It will quite often either force us to see that these deeply held commitments entail other beliefs that we had not seen before. Better—or worse, depending on your attitude—it may force you to see that your commitments entail a different way of behaving than you are accustomed to. You may have to give up some action which holds you by habit. Or take up an action avoided because of fear or annoyance.
My friend is right that great essays challenge us. It’s just that they can challenge us not just to go in a different direction, but higher up and further in to the truths we hold and the truths that hold us.
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* Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Evangelizing Theology,” First Things, March 1996.
The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash user Rachel Lynette French (who does not necessarily agree with the views of this essay, nor those of The Imaginative Conservative), and has been slightly modified for color.