Civility in the public square (III): Listening to the words behind words  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

This last Friday the weather widget on our laptops promised relief from humidity. There is a little park in Lake City, MN (the home of water skiing, the sign says as you enter the town) that we discovered several years ago. Huge oak trees carpet the grass with shade. On one side of the park stretches the Mississippi River and on the other a little canal linking a marina with the river. With two canvas chairs, books, and a thermos of iced water we retreat to absorb the quiet, read, pray, doodle notes as ideas present themselves, and talk.

We rag on some of the powerboats, their phallic shape unnecessarily calling attention to the shuddering power of their inboard motors. We wonder at the sprawling yachts that coast by emanating signs of wealth and guess whether the owners work for an investment bank or an insurance company. We imagine taking our grandchildren out for a day on one of the slow but steady houseboats, complete with gas grill on the flat roof. Jet skies, rather like high-pitched mosquitoes dart in and out among the traffic.

But mostly we break the leisurely silence of the day to talk about our life together, and the shape of our calling expressed in the ordinary things that come our way. We have talked about this for years, and know we will need to continue the conversation. Things don’t stand still, and if we aren’t intentional about it, our schedule slips out of balance and the tyranny of the urgent soon crowds out the good. Faithfulness isn’t automatic.

Later we continued our conversation as we ate together at Nosh, on an outside second story patio overlooking one of Lake City marinas. Beyond lay the River, dotted with sailboats, on which two barges slipped by en route from St Paul to someplace south, perhaps even to New Orleans.

We are best friends, married now for 43 years, working together in Ransom for 27 years, and still we find that none of this can be assumed. Such conversations must be intentional, listening must be unhurried, and still misunderstandings arise. I think she means one thing, she thinks I mean something else, and going back to square one can seem an annoyance. But it must be done, listening, asking questions, listening some more. Even when we are on the same proverbial page digging deeper can deepen understanding.

Sometimes the most important words are the words behind the words. They are often unvoiced, at least at first, but to not hear them is to not hear at all.

This is true in the public square as well. As we drove to Lake City we passed several billboards and signs on both sides of the abortion issue. I do not question the motivation of the people who paid for and erected them by the side of the highway. I assume both are passionate in their convictions. But I am impressed at how both sides seem to be preaching to the choir and I can’t imagine any of the signs persuading anyone on the other side to change their position. They are talking past one another. Neither side hears the words behind the words.

I am not interested here in debating abortion. But as a Christian I want to argue that the pro-life effort in the public square is often counterproductive. We raise arguments only pro-lifers will be impressed at and then expect pro-choice people to be persuaded. Our arguments not only are unpersuasive, but by failing to take pro-choice reasoning seriously we give the impression of being out of touch and of being people who simply want to force our convictions on others.

In The Rage Against God British journalist Peter Hitchens chronicles his pilgrimage through atheism to faith in Christ. As he tells his story, he remembers going to stores to purchase items for the birth of his first child, brightly colored plastic stuff that seemed cheap and aesthetically distasteful. The entire event is unnerving, but not just on the surface. Values about the good life that he has long held are in the process of crumbling—or more accurately, they are being torn down. “I felt (correctly as it turned out),” he writes, “that I was being called by irresistible force into a state of life I had not chosen and would never have voluntarily accepted.” That state of life was parenthood. “I have often thought,” Hitchens continues, “that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with this sensation of lost control, of being pulled downwards into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents.”

If Hitchens is correct, then the favored pro-life argument that abortion is wrong because it involves a baby is guaranteed to fail. (This was, indeed, the argument on all the pro-life signs and billboards we passed on the highway.) In fact, if Hitchens is correct, reminding pro-choicer people that it is a baby will serve to reinforce their commitment to abortion!

Civility, it seems to me, must include a passionate determination to listen to and address the words behind the words. It’s a skill that must be learned and a posture that is in conflict with the vast majority of speech practiced in the public square and in the church. By God’s grace may that be changed. When we fail in this most basic truth about human communication, we may even discover that our attempts to speak backfire into instances of strengthening the commitments we are trying to change.

As always I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

Source: The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith by Peter Hitchens (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2010) p. 31.

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Dennis - I'm really enjoying your series on civility in that you have so far expressed a lot of the feelings I've had over several years about the nature of the public discourse and the rhetoric fo the culture wars.

I'm hoping to see a future post on your thoughts of how a Christian who values civil discourse ought to respond to incivility. I suspect that in many of the points you've made so far, you're preaching to the choir, but where I struggle is in not getting frustrated and fed up with the shouting matches that we seem to be surrounded with and wanting to just hole up in a cave.

August 9, 2010 at 12:31 PM

I suppose I am just preaching to the choir, though my first foray into the subject came on FaceBook where my ideas were not very welcome. I had hoped to draw those folks into a conversation that was more substantial than brief back-and-forth wall comments. Alas that hasn't happened.

Good idea for a topic--let me start working on that...

Thanks for commenting.

August 9, 2010 at 12:38 PM

Is it civil to use sexual imagery for motor-boats which are shaped the way they are because of the laws of physics? Is it civil to not so subtly attack their owners on the basis of the false accusations implied?

All of the pro-life signs I have seen have been extremely positive and understated. I believe we ought to be far more blatant and to the point, to shake people out of their state of denial about what is going on even in this part of Minnesota. I can't imagine that road signs (were they to have been permitted) suggesting that letting a Jew live is a nice, heartwarming thing would have been effective against Auschwitz, whereas brutal pictures of the reality such as General Eisenhower insisted be taken might have made a difference. And frankly, the only difference is six million versus fifty million.

Why do you think that nice, heartwarming pictures of happy babies and toddlers will have no impact on the pro-aborts? Do you think they are that far gone from the human?

I suspect that many Americans including self-identified Christians allow abortion to happen because they let themselves ignore it, or pretend that "it is just a mass of tissue" real pictures of real butchered babies might shake them out of it. We must afflicted those comfortable with their sins, and comfort the afflicted. Law and Gospel must be rightly applied.

August 9, 2010 at 12:48 PM


It's hard for you or anyone to communicate fully in a blog. So with that qualification... I think I disagree. Not because you didn't make a good point. I actually agree with you in principle because I think your main point of civility is biblical. I disagree with this recent post for the most part because the point you make is a limited point.

If you are critiquing "billboard" communication, certainly it's impact is questionable - at best an annoyance, at worse an anger generator. However, if you are critiquing our relationships with a co-worker or neighbor or fellow church goer... I think the critique fails. My "guess" is that many of us over the course of a relationship don't have "billboard" conversations with people. Not if we are around them a lot. I do think people see a bigger picture of who God is and how He is present in my life (and the churches life) then what mere sloganeering would offer, even if we repeat some of the slogans to summarize a point. People saw a bigger picture in Jesus... and killed Him which tells me the other person's response is not always an indicator of whether I have been faithful or not. Thus, I don't think it's entirely fair to critique the communication of Christians based on results or even how the other person responds. Apart from God's grace, the other person will always self-justify. I know I do. So, I think it's a caricature (in part it's a caricature because sadly there are plenty of examples where we do just communicate in billboard slogans and don't listen) to describe the problem this way. Even in today's world many of us still live face-to-face and not just text-to-text or Facebook-to-Facebook. And people still reject Christ, Christ's people, and the good.

Tim Keller wrote an article titled "Faithfulness & Meekness" that I believe is still posted on Redeemers website that tries to capture the balance between forthright speaking and compassion. I found it helpful.

P.S. The best part of what you posted was the snapshot you gave us of how you and your wife have nurtured your marriage together. Thanks for sharing that.

August 9, 2010 at 2:22 PM

I had a conversation a few months ago with a couple of co-workers. They were expressing their frustration with single-issue voters, commenting that they couldn't understand how some voters can take one issue and make it a litmus test. (I realize your post is about civility, rather than abortion. Just happens that in this example there is overlap.) I told them that I understood how it can seem irrational to vote for someone who is pro-life on one issue, yet seemingly not pro-life on other issues. Then I said that the reason single-issue voters are singe-issue voters is because life is a prerequisite to all other rights. I said, "The Declaration of Independence says that we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those aren't in random order. You have to have life before you can have liberty, and you must have liberty before you can pursue happiness." Then I said that all the support in the world for better nutrition, better housing, equal rights, etc. was of no use to me if I were not alive. They looked at me for a minute and then said, "I never thought about it that way before."

August 9, 2010 at 2:46 PM

Second response: I am not sure if I agree with Hitchens that abortion is "popular" because people fear being "pulled downwards in world of servitude." He may be right. When I'm in conversation with people about "abortion rights" it's obvious that we are talking past each other.

I do have a question about civility, though. Is there a point at which civility becomes tacit acceptance? Do we have to appear apologetic for our point of view in order to be considered civil?

August 9, 2010 at 3:01 PM

Do you recall the pro-life video done by Tim Tebow and his mom for the Super Bowl? Was that civil? I thought so. And yet the pro-choice crowd was in full attack mode.

August 9, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Thank you again for your heart in this matter of civility. I don't know you and Margie, but I found Notes From Toad Hollow in my church office one day, and have been a follower ever since.
I admit, rather sheepishly, that a little bit of this went over my head. I think, perhaps, there is more than one dialogue present, and I would explore that.
I do think the billboards are a great example, but I also see by the comments that sadly, the example seems to be lost in the language. Seems like you've proven your point without setting out to do that. It seems like such an obvious example, but I (humbly) suggest your readers are not quite to the place where they can get past the hot button issue and actually see the point you are making.
The Hitchens quote is compelling, but perhaps a little too oblique for this post. I would like to see this matter approached with an entirely different example, just to flesh it out some more.
Regards, Cassandra

August 9, 2010 at 3:24 PM


Again, thanks for commenting, again.

I had thought that my reflections on the banter between spouses on a day away would be read as that, namely banter. That is how I meant it because that is what it was. However, the yachts do express wealth and the long inboard boats are phallic in shape--I'm not certain why those facts should be called into question.

You misunderstand my point about the signs and billboards. I am not questioning whether they are understated or should be more blatant. That is a separate issue. I am saying they do not communicate what the pro-life supporters desire because they do not address the defining issue that is the foundational conviction of the pro-choice position. Sorry I was not more clear.

August 9, 2010 at 4:25 PM

I appreciate your comment and suspect I did not communicate clearly.

I agree that the effectiveness of our communication is not the primary standard for evaluation. Point well taken, and I am sorry if I suggested otherwise. On the other hand, I do believe that as Christians we have a responsibility to address the actual questions or challenges being raised. In this I believe the pro-life signs fail. They seek to demonstrate something that pro-lifers find compelling but that pro-choicers, according to Hitchens at least, would agree with as the very reason for choosing an abortion.

Luther (I think it was) once said something about (don't you just love exact references?) we fail as Christians if we fail to fight at the actual point where the spiritual battle is being waged. I think there are pro-life arguments that might be compelling (though not necessarily convincing) to pro-choice folk, but none of them appeared on the billboards.

August 9, 2010 at 4:35 PM


I am glad for the conversation. Thanks for leaving a comment. More than one comment, in fact.

The issue of single issue voting takes us off topic, and is too rich a subject to do justice to in a few lines. Your argument is a good one, but limited. Some candidates running for office will have no possible effect on the legality of abortion. Voting for a poorly qualified county treasurer because they are pro-life instead of a better qualified pro-choice candidate for that office is not, in my mind, Christian faithfulness. Luther said he would rather be ruled by a good Turk (Muslim) rather than a bad Christian. He was correct and we should vote accordingly.

August 9, 2010 at 4:41 PM


You ask excellent questions in your second comment.

"Is there a point at which civility becomes tacit acceptance?" I don't see how. I am not suggesting we don't speak, but that we speak with winsomeness and by addressing the real issues involved.

"Do we have to appear apologetic for our point of view in order to be considered civil?" No. Keller isn't apologetic in his book, The Reason for God, but he is civil.

August 9, 2010 at 4:45 PM

It seems you've struck a nerve here, my friend.
Most of these many comments seem to focus on two points: Is my speaking style in the public square appropriate for a follower of Jesus? Is it effective? The desire to emphasize the latter over the former is one I often feel, but still recognize for what it is: a temptation to sin, and thus, to be resisted.

August 11, 2010 at 9:07 AM

Well said, my friend.
The need to get "inside" someone else's worldview in order to understand their assumptions so that our conversation gets past surface things is a difficult task. It takes patience, listening, grace. What seems discouraging at times is that so many Christians don't even see the need. As long as "truth" is proclaimed everything is just fine, even if the truth in question is misunderstood by their listeners. It is an extremely self-centered posture since they become the final standard of what is appropriate to be said. Utterly antithetical to Jesus' example.

August 11, 2010 at 10:48 AM

"...we give the impression of being out of touch and of being people who simply want to force our convictions on others." "Impression" may be too mild. Is it not the case that we do want to force our convictions. We speak of culture wars, of winning the battle. While there is biblical use of those words and metaphors in the spiritual realm, we tend to use them in the political/social realm. It is no surprise that civility suffers. And it should be no surprise that the world views us with suspicion.

August 11, 2010 at 6:59 PM

I agree completely. Perhaps my word choice was too generous, though I hoped that how I wrote it would make people think.

I suspect that when a history is written of the late 20th and early 21st century church, it's embrace of the "culture war" model to define Christian faithfulness will be seen as a main reason so many of the postmodern generation became convinced the gospel has nothing to say to them. Anne Rice's recent comments are only the latest evidence to that effect.

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

August 12, 2010 at 1:04 PM


I apologize if I was unclear. I wasn't offering an argument for single-issue voting. I hoped to offer an example of a conversation where I think I succeeded in being civil, and where I think I helped those on the other side understand why someone might be a single-issue voter.

August 13, 2010 at 5:55 PM

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