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The Christian Lover II: Dispatches from the Digital Age

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed The Christian Lover by Michael Haykin, a collection of historical love letters sent from one Christian lover to another. Despite feeling like a bit of a voyeur, spying on private communications, I enjoyed reading these letters, and highly recommended the book. But it got me thinking about my relationship with my wife and whether she and I will leave behind any such tangible evidence of our love for one another. We have a few letters from our courtship days, little love notes that we’d sooner die than have anyone else read, but notes that we can’t bring ourselves to throw away. I remember my mother once saying that she and my father once exchanged such letters and we were free to read them…once she and dad were dead. But these letters I sent to Aileen were from our pre-digital days. This was before we both had email accounts. Sure I still write her cards on occasion and seek to share my heart with her on pen and paper, but more often than not, if she and I are far apart, I turn to email.

I wonder what we may be losing in a digital world. Are love letters of this kind becoming relics of an age gone by? Will tomorrow’s young lovers leave behind any “hard copy” evidence of their love? Or will it all be in bits and bytes, emails, text messages and chats? When my hard drive crashes or my cell phone gets lost, am I losing all this evidence of my love for my wife and hers for me?

Is there something inherent in putting ink to paper that makes it more valuable than perhaps communicating by putting finger to keyboard and sending off an email. I began to wonder, what might this book look like in twenty or thirty years as a generation of digital natives grows older? What might we read in The Christian Lover II: Dispatches from the Digital Age?

Well, here is a chapter sharing the letters of John and Kate MacDonald, who were missionaries to China. They are both eighteen now, and these love letters will be exchanged in just a couple of years. This is an excerpt from The Christian Lover II, to be published in 2029:

*****

Following the traditions of the time, John asked permission from Katie’s father Frank before asking Katie to marry him. He did so by text message.

John to Frank:

“I can ask Katie to marry me? I luv her”

Frank to John:

“k”

Records of text messages shows what an important occasion this was in the lives of these two lovers. Just five days later, the morning after she had accepted his invitation, John sent this to Katie:

“kate, had a great time on sat. can’t wait to see ya again soon. byeeeee! ps sorry the ring was 2 big.”

Kate’s response showed how much their relationship was built upon humor and how much joy she found in him.

“lolz! love ya lots. luv teh ring!!!!”

*****

OK, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, I admit. But I do wonder. In all likelihood, such communication would have been quickly erased, lost forever when the cell phone ran out of memory. After all, who keeps endless archives of text messages? In this case maybe it isn’t a bad thing to see it lost. But what about those heartfelt, lengthy, deep emails a husband sends to his wife when he is traveling? They may get filed away in a “Keep” folder, but for how long? How will they be rediscovered 100 or 200 years later? What happens when the hard drive gets corrupted and the file destroyed?

Just the other day I was talking to a friend and asking if, in days past, a person had ever gone to his desk, taken out a pen and writing paper, written “LOL” on that paper, sealed it up, put a stamp on it, and run it out to a mailbox. Probably not. Yet every day I seem to receive an email or two that has no more content than that. And maybe I send one occasionally myself. Is there something inherently light, “unweighty,” about digital communication?

Roy Rosenzweig of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va has this to say: “The disappearance of letters as a source for historians is a huge loss; letters have traditionally been vital to some kinds of historical work — especially political and intellectual history.” I think love letters have been vital for children to learn about their parents and grandchildren to learn about their ancestors. And I wonder if we will be leaving anything behind for the generations that will follow us. We will leave plenty of digital evidence of our existence. But will we leave that heart-to-heart, husband-to-wife evidence that has educated and comforted those who wished to know about their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers?

What a loss it will be if a lack of evidence means that there can never be The Christian Lover II.