Stumbling in conversation
Good communication is hard even at the best of times in this badly fragmented world. Have I overstated that? I don’t think so. Would someone more optimistic than I (someone who is, in other words, less realistic than I am) put a more positive spin on the topic? Perhaps.
Please understand: I’m not suggesting communication never flows smoothly and with apparent ease. That sort of lovely, free conversation often happens in Toad Hall’s dining room over a shared meal, a line of lit tea candles, and later in the living room, over coffee and pieces of fresh berry pie as a short story is read aloud and discussed. Neither am I suggesting that strangers can never meet and quickly find a point of contact—perhaps similar backgrounds, concerns, questions, gifts, interests—and feel like they’ve known each other for years when in reality they’ve just met. And I’m not suggesting that weeks, perhaps even months can pass while two people—neighbors, colleagues, lovers—find an almost sacred mixture of talk, listening, and silence that nourishes peace in both souls, allowing the relationship to deepen with slow beauty and without hints of tension. I do not doubt any of that, and I cherish it all.
Rather, when I say that communication is hard I am suggesting that assuming it will always go well, or that some relationship is so secure that misunderstanding could never arise is an invitation to disaster. I need to keep reminding myself that good communication is always a precious, ultimately fragile thing—so that I never take it for granted, and so that I always remember that without grace, effort, and a sense of humor it can all too quickly unravel.
I found my old Bible stories hardback and brought it out on the porch. It was time somebody taught them something about something.
They gathered round, sitting on the floor, and I got down amongst them. I started into Genesis and how God made the earth, and how he made us and gave us a soul that would live forever. Moonbean reached into the book and put her hand on God’s beard. “If he shaved, he’d look just like that old man down at the Pak-a-Sak,” she said.
My mouth dropped a bit. “You mean Mr. Fordlyson? That man don’t look like God.”
Tammynette yawned. “You just said God made us to look like him.”
“Never mind,” I told them, going on into Adam and Eve and the Garden. Soon as I turned the page, they saw the snake and began to squeal.
“Look at the size of that sucker,” Freddie said.
Tammynette wiggled closer. “I knew they was a snake in this book.”
“He’s a bad one,” I told them. “He lied to Adam and Eve and said not to do what God told them to do.”
Moonbean looked up at me slow. “This snake can talk?”
“How about that. Just like on cartoons. I thought they was making that up.”
“Well, a real snake can’t talk, nowadays,” I explained.
“Ain’t this garden snake a real snake?” Freddie asked.
“It’s the devil in disguise,” I told them.
Tammynette flipped her hair. “Aw, that’s just a old song. I heard it on the reddio.”
“That Elvis Presley tune’s got nothing to do with the devil making himself into a snake in the Garden of Eden.”
“Who’s Elvis Presley?” Moonbean sat back in the dust by the weatherboard wall and stared out at my overgrown lawn.
“He’s some old singer died a million years ago,” Tammynette told her.
“Was he in the Bible, too?”
I beat the book on the floor. “No, he ain’t. Now pay attention. This is important.” I read the section about Adam and Eve disobeying God, turned the page, and all hell broke loose. An angel was holding a long sword over Adam and Eve’s downturned heads as he ran them out of the Garden. Even Nu-Nu got excited and pointed a finger at the angel.
“What’s that guy doing?” Tammynette asked.
“Chasing them out of Paradise. Adam and Eve did a bad thing, and when you do bad, you get punished for it.” I looked down at their faces and it seemed that they were all thinking about something at the same time. It was scary, the little sparks I saw flying in their eyes. Whatever you tell them at this age stays forever. You got to be careful. Freddie looked up at me and asked, “Did they ever get to go back?”
“Nope. Eve started worrying about everything and Adam had to work every day like a beaver just to get by.”
“Was the angel really gonna stick Adam with that sword?” Moonbean asked.
“Forget about that darned sword, will you?”
“Well, that’s just mean” is what she said.
“No it ain’t,” I said. “They got what was coming to them.” Then I went into Noah and the Flood, and in the middle of things, Freddie piped up.
“You mean all the bad people got drowned at once? All right!”
[From Welding with Children (1999) by Tim Gautreaux, p. 8-10]
The sad truth is that understanding can falter—even disintegrate—even between friends who have been close for years. Or that we imagined were close. But then understanding dissipates into hurt, painful silence, or worse, angry, rabid accusations and we wonder if we’ve known them at all. Or we settle into a kind of middle ground, a to-all-appearances-friendly-veneer covering a relationship, now uncomfortably hollowed out, that used to overflow with effortless talk, confidence, and affection. Sadly sometimes the relationship just seems to unfold that way, little by little, slowly, an inexorable process that’s hardly noticeable at first, until we find that no matter what or how hard we try, things stay stuck. Sometimes the passage of time introduces change that interrupts the rhythm of the friendship, and for some reason no new rhythm can be found, so absence produces bad feelings that fester. Sometimes, far more often than I care to admit, afterwards I can spot ways I derailed our communication, intentionally or not, maliciously or not.
Communication and understanding is central to our humanity, and essential to life and community. Since it is usually the artists who are most alert to the things that matter most, it’s no wonder that musicians often weave the troubles of miscommunication and the heartbreak of misunderstanding into the lyrics of their songs.
when I did something
(so stupid, so dumb)
I saw it coming
now all I want to know is how come
we’re all fingers and thumbs?
[“Stupid” on This (1998) by Peter Hammill]
Sometimes real understanding never seems possible, when everything we say is taken wrong, or heard wrong, or assumed to mean things we never intended. People seem unwilling or incapable of listening, of entering into a view of things different from their own. Sometimes all that seems to matter is what they say. We wonder if they wanted understanding at all or were merely looking for a chance to proclaim whatever idea or belief they happen to have adopted. Here relationship becomes reduced to conformity, meaning we need to conform to them, as if they have become the final standard for all that is true. Though imagining themselves wise, their embarrassing immaturity derails conversation, guts friendship, and increasingly makes their position implausible and unattractive.
Christians are not immune to this brokenness in communication and understanding. If you doubt that review the legacy of bitter rivalries and congregational splits that have plagued church history. And to think we are the ones expected by our Lord to demonstrate his divine origins to a doubting world by loving one another, even at cost (John 13:35; 17:20-21). It’s a travesty, something I have occasionally needed to apologize for to my non-Christian friends. Another sad proof of our failures here involves the sadly distorted perceptions of evangelical faith prevalent among our non-Christian neighbors. Many have “been witnessed to,” an ordeal that left them convinced that evangelical faith has nothing of significance to say into their world. They are asking questions about God’s existence and the nature of spirituality while the one witnessing talked about forgiveness and accepting Jesus. It was like ships passing in the night. They have also been exposed to evangelical rhetoric in the public square, convincing them that evangelicals represent a subculture intent on using political power to remake society, whether our neighbors like it or not.
No, I think I have it about right. I have bungled communication too often to imagine it is an easy endeavor. Good communication is hard even at the best of times in this badly fragmented world.
Dumbed down and numbed by time and age
Your dreams to catch the world, the cage
The highway sets the traveler’s stage
All exits look the same
Three words that became hard to say
I and love and you
I and love and you
[From “I and Love and You” on I and Love and You (2009) by the Avett Brothers]
Sometimes our troubles in communication involve expectations we have adopted, usually unconsciously. Julie Gorman, who teaches at Fuller Seminary, identifies some that appear to be deadly to healthy communication and fairly widespread. And as I will explain, for Christians each expectation represents a failure to appropriate some aspect of the truth of the Christian faith.
Expecting to be understood. “We expect to be understood by other Christians,” Gorman says, “and it comes as a shock to realize that they do not understand.” Actually I think it applies more widely than that. We expect to be understood, period, and are shocked when we aren’t. If not shocked, at least convinced it’s the other party’s fault—things were certainly clear when I spoke them.
But Christians should never be shocked to be misunderstood, whether by those who share our faith or those who do not. Misunderstanding occurs because of two realities, both basic to the Christian understanding of Creation, that as creatures we are both fallen and finite. Being fallen means our minds are never fully dependable, and our autonomous hearts are always attracted to whatever ideas seems to make us the center of the universe, even though it sets us adrift to be, in Walker Percy’s memorable phrase, lost in the cosmos. If anything we should be shocked when someone hears us correctly. But even if we were not fallen we would remain finite. Even if all we are and do weren’t so badly broken we would still be severely limited. Even at the best of times we can never comprehend everything at once, but only grasp bits and pieces, parts, and partially at that, which means we can never fully, exhaustively understand anything.
Being both fallen and finite, it makes more sense to expect misunderstanding, to see clear communication as a grace, a gift as precious as it is unexpected.
My life is different now I swear
I know now what it means to care
About somebody other than myself
I know the things I said to you
They were untender and untrue
I’d like to see those things undo
So if you could find it in your heart
To give a man a second start
I promise things won’t end the same
Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop
[From “Shame” on Emotionalism (2007) by the Avett Brothers]
Misinterpreting conflict. “We believe that conflict is wrong,” Gorman notes, “so we often gloss over misunderstandings to maintain the illusion of harmony.” Misunderstanding isn’t necessarily bad. It can become the beginning of discovery, the moment when a friendship begins to deepen, the chance to address convictions and values that are usually assumed rather than examined and discussed. Misunderstanding isn’t conflict—if by conflict we mean quarreling, discord, and antagonism—though in our brokenness we often turn it into that.
Given that we are both fallen and finite, we should expect both misunderstanding and disagreement. Discovering that the people I am conversing with are not on the proverbial same page is a good thing. I may be wrong, you may be wrong, we both may be wrong, or we both may be correct—just because we are both correct doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily seem to disagree or misunderstand each other. I may be saying the same thing you are, but saying it so differently that you have to believe I’m wrong, or think I’m claiming something that I’m not saying at all. The trouble comes when we respond to disagreement or misunderstanding in a way that serves to end the conversation instead of deepen it. Or when we define what is essential for unity so narrowly that almost no one makes the cut. That is not Christian orthodoxy but self-centeredness. It is never wise to be stricter or more insistent than God is himself.
An illusion of unity is neither healthy nor godly. As hypocrisy it can be maintained only so long before the conflict breaks into the open. As an effort to sidestep the hard work of dealing with whatever misunderstanding or disagreement that disturbed our unity it is like ignoring the warning signs of cancer. Still, like receiving a bad diagnosis it is hard to face conflict, especially when our busy lives have already removed whatever margin we need to flourish emotionally and spiritually. “I don’t care to belong to a club,” Groucho Marx once said, “that accepts people like me as members.” Only the gospel both calls us to such graciousness and provides us the grace to make a lovely response to conflict possible. Grace insists that conflict—misunderstanding and disagreement—need not lead to despair, cynicism, or shattered friendships, but can lead instead to deeper relationships and broader understanding. Not perfectly, of course, but substantially and really.
Tried to give you warning
but everyone ignores me
Told you everything loud and clear,
but nobody’s listening
Called to you so clearly
but you don’t want to hear me
Told you everything loud and clear,
but nobody’s listening
I got a heart full of pain, head full of stress
Head full of anger, held in my chest
Uphill struggle, blood sweat ’n’ tears
Nothing to gain, everything to fear
[“Nobody’s Listening” on Meteora (2003) by Linkin Park]
Misunderstanding agreement. How is it possible that Christian friends, people who as far as I can tell seem quite reasonable and nice can support unjust political policies and candidates, conform to such reprehensible cultural trends, endorse such wrong-headed ideas, and insist on such counter-productive patterns of church life and worship? “We often live with the assumption,” Gorman says, “that unity means we will all think alike or agree on everything.” It seems, at least from my experience, that this assumption is widespread among Christians, but needs to be gently and firmly refuted as a false expectation.
For decades, following in the footsteps of Harry Blamires, Os Guinness has argued that evangelical Protestants need to recover what he calls “thinking Christianly.” This is not, he says, “thinking by Christians,” since it is obvious a Christian can think in ways quite contrary to his faith and beliefs. Nor is thinking Christianly “simply thinking about Christian topics.” Christ’s claim is to be Lord of all, which means that the gospel has something constructive to say about every aspect of life and reality. Rather, “thinking Christianly is thinking by Christians about anything and everything in a consistently Christian way—in a manner that is shaped, directed, and restrained by the truth of God’s Word and God’s Spirit.” And Guinness is quick to add, “thinking Christianly should not be confused with adopting a ‘Christian line’ on every issue.” It isn’t even always desirable or needed or possible.
Yes, there is a core set of beliefs that define the Christian tradition—one ancient example is found in The Apostles’ Creed. Deviation here involves moving from orthodoxy to heterodoxy, and that places one outside historic, biblical faith. But to imagine that sharing core beliefs means that every detail of life is equally well defined is to misread Holy Scripture. Living as a Christian involves a process: we move from the biblical text, to the meaning of the text, to an application of the text in our own historical, sociological moment, to a decision as to what policy we will support in the public square, to actions taken to support it. Each step in that process is not equally evident to every believer. So, as we move from text to action, from Scripture to daily life, we need to grant one another freedom. Again, I am not here talking about rejecting such doctrines as Christ’s divinity or God as one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or the inspiration of Scripture. I am referring to how we can agree as Christians that Deuteronomy is canonical, and that in the law recorded in the text there are details touching specifically on how Israel was to treat their natural environment—as in Deuteronomy 20:19 and 23:6. However, moving from those texts (along with others we deem applicable), to support raising taxes on gasoline to help decrease America’s dependency on foreign oil is an argument that (unfortunately) might not convince everyone. We might both be faithfully seeking to have a Christian mind, to think Christianly, but we might still disagree on lots of things.
They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray for me, mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain’t going well
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Walkin’ through the cities of the plague.
Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
My mule is sick, my horse is blind.
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Thinkin’ ‘bout that gal I left behind.
[From “Ain’t Talkin’” on Modern Times (2006) by Bob Dylan]
Triumphant testimonies. As I grew up in the church, one source of discouragement and doubt came in the stories—we called them “testimonies”—that people told about their coming to faith. The testimonies seemed to have three parts: I was bad and my life was messed up; then I invited Christ into my life; and now I am happy all the day. No one seemed to have doubts and questions, and when I voiced mine it became evidence that my faith and devotion were faulty. We talked a lot about “God’s blessing,” but that looked suspiciously to me like the success promised to those pursuing a lifestyle of middle class consumerism—mentioning this was not well received. I’m certain the desire was good (to honor God for his goodness) and the intention was admirable (to encourage everyone to trust God), and I do not question that. What I would question is how Christians can expect their stories to be helpful when they are so radically different from the stories of Scripture, so removed from the reality of life in a fallen world. “Because of a strong ‘do right’ perspective [in the Christian community], many find it difficult to be honest in communicating,” Gorman notes. “We find it easier to share what we should do and our success stories rather than our real feelings and struggles.”
There is something about transparency that is strangely beguiling. Hypocrisy has always been detestable, but in a cynical age it becomes increasingly troublesome. Don’t imply you have no doubts or questions about faith, because all that proves is either that your faith is too shallow to prompt reasonable reflection or that you are so distracted that the cries of your own heart are drowned out by the cacophony of your busyness. Don’t respond to every hard question with a “verse” or “saying” or “sermon quote” because hard questions are resolved within community and ongoing conversation, and bullet points only prove you are not taking the questioner with sufficient seriousness. Don’t try to give the impression that everything is fine with you, because we know it isn’t, and so your impression is as faked as the latest tabloid version of Madonna or Lady Gaga, made possible because like them you have learned to manipulate your public image.
I am not saying that we must all exhibit our dirty laundry in public, because that is neither admirable nor edifying. We simply need to be honest, real, willing to acknowledge being finite and fallen and the wonder of being given grace. I need to demonstrate I am to safe to be with, neither hiding nor displaying my dirty laundry, so that you can know that you do not need to protect yourself in my presence, and that real conversation is possible.
When I was younger,
so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone,
I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind
and opened up the doors.
Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me.
[“Help!” on Help (1990) by The Beatles]
Imposing an agenda. Sometimes we feel we must insist on an agenda to make the conversation turn out correctly. I realize some meetings have a set purpose. We’re both busy, I don’t want to waste time uselessly, and so when we meet let’s identify our agenda and do what is needed. But that’s not what I’m concerned with here. I’m concerned with all the times we feel somehow obligated—through guilt or self-centeredness or whatever—to impose some agenda in order to keep from losing control.
Last night is an example. Our small group met, and the evening unfolded in ways I had not anticipated. I take my role as facilitator of the group seriously, and so had set aside several hours over several days to prepare. I had planned our study around a short piece a friend of mine had written that I thought raised provocative questions about our spiritual pilgrimage as Christians. I spent time reflecting on the ideas involved, identified possible tangents that might come up, prepared questions I could use if the discussion flagged, and imagined how the various members might respond to the topics we’d be covering. To put it mildly, I got it all wrong. The discussion did not go as planned, I never used the questions I had prepared since they would not have fit the flow of the evening, and the members responded in ways I never anticipated. Yet it turned out to be a wonderful evening.
I do not regret the hours I spent in preparation, even though what I had planned ended up being off target. The fact I was so comfortable with the material meant I could relax as the discussion unfolded in surprising ways, confident that my surprise didn’t mean we were lost. It turned out to be a rich conversation, with thoughtfulness, disagreement, storytelling, laughter, and sober reflection. When I mentioned it was time to close several were surprised the evening had gone by so quickly. One person mentioned we hadn’t really resolved anything—far more questions had been raised than answers. My goal had been to prompt us to think about our spiritual pilgrimage of faith in new ways, and they agreed we had accomplished that. Not all of our small group discussions go that well, of course. Sometimes we get bogged down, or chase some tangent that fades into insignificance, or float on the surface of things so our hearts are protected from the inroads of grace and love and truth. I am convinced however, that had I insisted on my agenda I would have shortchanged the group, undercut the discussion, and substituted a sense of control for the liveliness of true community.
But if we care about bringing the gospel into the conversation, someone will say, won’t we want to “impose” that agenda? This question makes sense only if by the “gospel” we mean a presentation—about the cross and forgiveness—that we want to give. If that is what you want to do, why not inform your friend and find out if they are willing to continue the conversation. Isn’t that more honest, more truthful than finding some way to slip it in? But, someone might object, what if I do it lovingly? I don’t know how that is possible. Manipulating a conversation for my own ends always requires treating the other as less than fully significant, less than a fellow creature made in God’s image. More to the point, it is unnecessary. Since Christ is Lord of all, the gospel—the biblical Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration—has something profound to say about every slice of life and culture and reality. Let the conversation go where it will, and everywhere it goes the gospel is relevant. Our problem is not the need to impose an agenda on conversations and discussions but of having such a weak understanding of the gospel that we cannot meaningfully discuss our own faith unless we’ve turned it into religious exercise.
The glory in all this is that against all odds good communication is possible. As a Christian I have this confidence not simply because I have experienced it but because I believe that this hope is grounded in the very nature of God. This is part, one small part of the wonder that God reveals himself as Trinity, one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When the biblical Creation narrative has God saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26) it sets itself apart from all the creation myths of antiquity. This God is a unity yet more than that, a complexity in unity that is believed by the prophets and finally made clearer by the apostles after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. This God not only speaks but lovingly communicates in himself and to his creation, meaning that communication among his creatures fits into the reality he has made. It is a grace, but not an anomaly, and since God’s communication did not cease at the Fall, we need not despair that as fallen creatures good communication is somehow impossible.
Hindrances to good communication are real, as we can all attest. We are fallen people that bring expectations to every conversation that when examined are revealed by the faith we profess to be unhelpful and misguided. “Let the words of my mouth,” the Hebrew poet prayed, “be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). David had it exactly right. Acceptable words can’t be expected, but they are possible because God is stands behind reality like an unshakable rock, and because he interrupts our brokenness with redemptive grace. So, let’s talk.
SourceCommunity that is Christian by Julie Gorman, p. 150.
Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to do About It by Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1994) p. 135-136.