Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 11 Beginning the Conversation

On my way to a walk along a creek near our home, I stopped to talk with some neighbors who were sitting on their porch. The cool autumn weather prompts front-porch life in Minnesota, as Vs of Canadian geese fill the sky and the sun sets. We talked casually of this and that, and then as I walked along the creek listening to the cries of red-winged blackbirds, I thought about how true conversation always tends to be so unpredictable. I had stopped to say hello, but had left with an invitation. Pleasant, but not what I would have predicted.

Sales pitches, lectures, and sermons, on the other hand, follow a specific agenda, which is fine since no one imagines them to be actual conversations. That is true even if the presenter involves the listener in some way. This involvement inserts a small measure of unpredictability into the presentation, of course, but the agenda still reigns supreme, and the involvement can be terminated if it threatens to take things too far off course.

All of which raises an important question for Christians who would like to introduce the gospel into their conversations with friends and neighbors. Namely, how do we introduce the gospel and still keep it a conversation?

I have argued in the tenth installment of the Babylon series that a good way to launch the conversation is by listening to and discussing the stories of our culture. All people, whether they realize it or not, tend to explore their deepest fears, beliefs, hopes and values in the stories they tell, and want to hear repeatedly. For the postmodern generation, the primary place where their stories are told is in the movies. Thus, we can use the movies as both a window of insight into their world, and as a point of contact to begin talking about the things that matter most. It is true that we will likely not share many of the ideas and values depicted in the cinema, but then, we live not in Jerusalem, but in Babylon. Whether we like it or not, our culture is not Christian but post-Christian. We can hardly expect Babylonians to promote the world view of Jerusalem because, well, they are Babylonians. Still, as the best film makers produce movies, they both reflect and mold the convictions and values of their culture. Those convictions and values are woven into the stories they depict on the screen, and they address the Big Questions of life and death. The very Questions we want to discuss in light of the answers provided in the gospel.

More than a few who have heard me say this, however, find it to be a very questionable proposition. “Why use the stories in movies as our point of contact when there is a better, more personal option? Why not just get to know our non-Christian neighbors well enough to hear their real-life stories and begin there instead? Then we won’t have to deal with all the questionable stuff in the films.”

Good question.

Our tightly hidden hearts
None of us are completely honest and open to one another, to God, or even to ourselves. In a fallen world, none of us dare to be. What psychologists define as defense mechanisms make sense when full honesty can be used to destroy instead of to heal, to blackmail rather than to forgive. Even within the church some wounds would have salt thrown into them if they were uncovered for public display. Which is why observers have noted that far too often the community of God’s people shoots its wounded. So, we hide our wounds, any sins deemed unacceptable, and say we are doing “Fine,” when admitting the problem will be more painful than lying about it.

In fact, the problem goes deeper yet. Even when we determine to be fearlessly transparent our fallenness stands in the way. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” the prophet Jeremiah says, and then adds, “Who can understand it?” (17:9) It is a rhetorical question, and the answer is, “No one but God.” We may say that we have nothing to hide, but the duplicity lodged deep in our fallenness always keeps full visibility at bay. Our wickedness makes our memories selective, our interpretation of events skewed in our favor, and our view of sin incomplete. John Calvin said that even if we honestly confessed all the sin we knew, the vast majority of our guilt would remain unconfessed.

Now imagine not a Christian who has an assurance of divine grace and acceptance, but a non-Christian who has neither. Who like us has found it discomforting to look deep into the hidden recesses of their soul. And who has, perhaps, been transparent before and been burned in the process. Is it any wonder that they might be shy about discussing, in the most intimate terms, the Biggest Questions of life and death? Blaise Pascal rightly noted that we usually find ways to be distracted from such things. Since we who love God and his holiness find repentance painful, can we not empathize with an unbeliever who is anxious not to probe too deeply?

So, our problem as Christians is this. We wish to bear witness to the gospel of grace in Christ, because it is in him alone that redemption can be found. Yet, this word which we bring is fearsome. It is God’s word, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit… discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). What could possibly be more threatening than that? Let’s not sentimentalize this text: swords hurt. The writer goes on to insist that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:13). That is a terrifying thought, and only the grace of God is sufficient to keep us from despairing at the prospect.

We must realize then, that when we witness to the gospel of Christ, we bring a word which is both loving and threatening, both gracious and dangerous. We are asking people to face the Big Questions of life and death, which is never to be taken lightly. We are inviting people to honestly face their greatest fears and all the sordid little secrets that they, like us, work hard to keep buried in the deepest recesses of their hearts.

So, how do we get the conversation to that level? Consider four possibilities.

Possibility #1: Use an evangelistic technique. Some have proposed that there are things we can do to steer the conversation toward topics which open the door to a gospel presentation. The one that was popular when I was a young believer was to ask someone, “If you died tonight, where do you think you would go?” Now, I have no doubt that God has used this technique, and for that grace I am thankful. Never-theless, the technique still leaves me cold. My difficulty is that I simply can not imagine a casual conversation in which that question would be the next natural statement to make. Perhaps those conversations exist, but none have included me. And the times that question has been raised in my presence the conversation ceased, at that moment, to be conversations, and became sermons. Or arguments. (Of course I realize it can be raised between two close, dear, long-time friends, but that is beside the point here.)

I believe that techniques are useful in technical matters, but they tend to kill conversations because by definition they are manipulative. And people must never be manipulated because they are made in the image and likeness of God.

There is another problem as well. When we suddenly insert Big Issues like death into an otherwise casual conversation we can inadvertently trivialize the very message we desire to commend. As finite creatures our context makes a difference. If we are chatting about ordinary things and suddenly someone starts asking about death, the atmosphere is changed. Either the comments about death itself are made to appear insignificant, or the person speaking is made to appear uncaring about those to whom they are speaking. No context of appropriate solemnity has been provided to make the question seem appropriate, or even truly serious.

Yet, I appreciate the desire that gave birth to this technique. Facing our mortality is a bracing experience, and tends to bring into sharp relief the things that matter most. Death is an enemy which Christ faced on our behalf, and so to be able to talk about it with my non-Christian friends is a good idea. But I’d like to do it naturally, by God’s grace, not as a technique. In other words, I want to find a context in which I can openly discuss death with my non-Christian friends because they are open to the conversation.

Possibility #2: Demonstrate compassion in relationships. The word “compassion” means to “suffer with” someone, and there are few things more precious than a friend who is willing to walk with you through the loss of a loved one. Do we have friendships with non-Christians that are marked by such faithfulness? We should.

Silence is important at moments like this, but those who cry with us earn the right to say things that we will accept from no one else. We may have to wait for the grief to pass, of course, before there is a time to speak, but such experiences open the door to talking about death, and life, and all they mean.

Perhaps it is we who will suffer the loss, and the non-Christian who will walk beside us. That is a precious gift, for presence is a grace in this lonely world. Letting them grieve with us, share our pain, and hear our doubts provides them a view into what life in Jesus consists of. It will not be perfect, of course, but that isn’t a problem because our perfection was never the decisive factor. Where need abounds, his grace abounds, and that is the decisive factor.

The only problem with this is that we may have a long time to wait before it occurs. That doesn’t mean we should not be there for them when the need arises, but it does mean that we will want to find other ways to prompt discussion of deep things—like death—in the meantime.

Possibility #3: Sensitively listen to our friends. As we ask questions and get to know someone, there can be, by God’s grace, little moments of vulnerability. As they tell their story over time, they may choose to include details which hint at loss, disappointment, and deep hurt. Demonstrating that we care, and gently asking questions can sometimes open the door to deeper discussion.

This requires holy-spirited sensitivity, which is nurtured only when we spend regular and unhurried time before the face of God in prayer and in his word. Our witness to the gospel is not simply a rational matter, but involves our full humanity as a child of God. Learning to truly listen instead of using the time to figure out what to say next can allow us to hear between the lines, and to notice the quiet, gentle prompting of God’s Spirit within us.

Review the conversations recorded in the New Testament in which Jesus interacted with unbelievers. He showed this sensitivity, and though he had added insight because he is God, we are not left entirely alone as we seek to witness to the gospel. Jesus told his disciples that it was to our advantage that he was returning to heaven, because the same Spirit which convicts the world of sin would dwell within us (John 16:5-11). Such sensitivity to people must be coupled with great humility, but we dare not allow the busyness of our age to keep us from maturing in this way, so that we grow increasingly sensitive to both our friends and to the Holy Spirit.

Occasionally this vulnerability occurs rather quickly in a relationship, but usually it reveals itself only after a great deal of time, when trust has been developed. So, we should be faithful, and patient.

But what about conversations with people we are only beginning to get to know?

Possibility #4: Using Babylonian stories. I have tried over many years to be a faithful witness, and yet I can remember very few instances when death was the natural topic of conversation. Most of the time the subject was quickly changed when death was mentioned, or some other signal was given that my friend had no interest in pursuing the topic. Yet, every person with whom I have watched the film Wit could barely wait to begin talking about it. They have cried during the movie, been moved deeply, and needed no invitation from me to discuss it, and at great length.

I have asked what people consider to be the meaning of life, and occasionally the conversation which results has gone somewhere. Yet, every person with whom I have watched 13 Conversations About One Thing could barely contain their enthusiasm to talk about it. And not just in a broad theoretical way, either, but in deeply personal terms.

I have tried to ask people how they deal with the moral failures they are guilty of, and a few of those conversations have included my sharing something of the meaning of Christ’s cross. Yet, without exception everyone with whom I have watched Crimes and Misdemeanors has eagerly tackled the topic, often with an honesty that takes my breath away.

The list could go on. Blade Runner for what it means to be human in a technological world. Chocolat and The Wicker Man for neo-paganism and Christianity as competing world views. Contact for the meaning of truth, and the relationship of knowledge and faith. So many issues that probe so deeply, and in each case it is the art, the Babylonian stories of my non-Christian friend that sets the agenda. An agenda which involves the Big Questions—the very questions addressed specifically by the gospel.

The question answered
The role that stories play should not surprise us if we hold a biblical view of art. Good art not only reveals something of reality, it speaks to the heart in ways that can not be reduced to words. When the prophet Nathan wanted David to face the horror of his wickedness, he knew he would be confronting his King. So he came with a story, a piece of fiction about a lamb that was sure to hook the heart of David, who had been a shepherd as a boy. When Jesus, the Incarnate One from all eternity came to preach the good news of the Kingdom, he told stories about wayward boys, lost coins, and seeds that grew in rocky soil. Brief but poignant bits of fiction that lodge in our imagination like a splinter under a fingernail.

Such is the power of story. And since the stories of a generation is where that generation explores their deepest convictions and dreams, the stories quite naturally revolve around the Big Questions of life and death.

“Why use the stories in movies as our point of contact when we can hear their real-life stories and begin there instead?” Yes, hear their real-life stories, by all means. How else will we get to know them in any meaningful way? But also use the stories in movies because the stories in the best films raise issues that would be hard to discuss if we had merely verbalized them. Besides, how can we get to know someone if we refuse to listen to the stories they hold most dear? It is true that those stories will contain “questionable stuff,” but then so will the stories of their lives. They are, after all, fallen creatures, just as we are. The best movies spin a tale which draw us in, so that our heart is exposed in ways that we normally work hard to protect. Film draws us into a world in which people like us wrestle with what we wrestle with, and since we identify with them, it does not seem so vital to keep the recesses of our hearts so tightly hidden. The world of the movie is safe (because it’s fiction), yet probing (because we were drawn in), so the discussion about what matters most can begin.

This isn’t to say that every film discussion goes well, because like any conversation they are unpredictable. Nor is it to say that movies excuse us from showing compassion and listening to the personal stories of our friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Compassion, our presence, and unhurried time to listen are all costly, but they are part of faithfulness.

I am not arguing that using movies as points of contact to begin conversations with non-Christians is somehow the only way to proceed. If you have found another point of contact that prompts people to eagerly talk about death, meaning, reality, guilt, and morality, then by all means use it. Just don’t use techniques to try to short-cut the process. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to use film. I can appreciate the artistry, the insight, and the beauty of the best Babylonian art without having to agree with all it represents. And as we discuss the stories, I can relax in the conversation. Not because I know all the answers, but because I am convinced that the Story of Jesus fulfills all human stories, in ways that both stagger the imagination and bring grace and healing to all the secret, hidden, hurting recesses of every human heart.