Civility in the public square (IV): Speaking to be understood  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

I am sitting on the back porch of Toad Hall as I write this. The sky is blue, the air is crisp as it is so often in the autumn, and the first hints of fall colors are appearing in the leaves of trees. A hummingbird has been visiting our feeder but the bees and wasps that gather to lick at the syrup keep driving it off. I chose the cheaper model instead of the one that had little basket-like guards designed to keep insects away. The birds that visit the back yard are like precious gifts of color and grace, so I’ll have to rectify this later today.
I rewrote that first paragraph a couple of times before I was satisfied, changing a word or two, deleting a phrase, adding another. I wanted to communicate clearly. You aren’t here on the porch with me today, and I want to bridge that gap at least a bit in your understanding. The hummingbird feeder is only one object in my line of sight—there is also the bird bath that has drawn a little flock of squabbling sparrows, the lovely pots that Anita filled with a variety of flowering, climbing, aromatic plants, the tall grasses near the garage that are in full display towering above the shorter hosta plants with their massive spreading leaves. At best I can communicate only a little, partially, but I want to communicate as clearly as possible. To do my best to be certain you hear something of what I actually mean.

In the public square I listen to the voices wondering at how poorly Christian pundits and commentators express themselves. Dick Keyes notes that, “many of our neighbors believe that regarding the issues they care most about, Christian people stand not on the side of good but solidly on the side of evil. Being confident that they have a higher moral ground than those who follow Jesus, they feel that can afford to ignore his claims… on many of the issues where our society is morally and emotionally involved, evangelical Christians are considered barbaric and bigoted. We are seen as part of the problem and not the solution.”

I am not interested here to debate whether people are fair to see us that way, or whether we have given them good reasons to hold the perception. Rather, I wish to ask, since this perception of us is widespread, do we speak in the public square with care in order to adequately deal with it? Are we careful to communicate so the listening world hears something that proves their perception of us is wrong? Or do we speak in a way that, inadvertently or not, confirms their worst impressions of who we are and what we believe? Have we intentionally reflected on this issue in order to creatively reflect on how best to communicate in such a setting? And have we developed careful but firm ways to distance ourselves from the voices clamoring in the public square that claim to speak for evangelicals while displaying little humility, disdain for any who disagree, sloppy research, and dire warnings of impending disaster?

Faithfulness in following Christ, who claimed to be the word, requires we take communication seriously enough to care not just that we speak truth but that as much as it depends on us, the truth in all its mystery and transcendence and beauty is actually understood.

Source: Dick Keyes in Chameleon Christianity: Moving Beyond Safety and Conformity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1999) p 12-13.

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I am meeting every week or so with the friendly folks who travel two by two on bicycles through our Midwestern neighborhood. I have agreed to read a chapter in their book, if they will read a chapter in the Bible. Then they come back and we discuss what we have read. It makes for an interesting hour or two on a Saturday evening.

I must confess that I boned up on their theology and evangelical practices, in order to know how they would approach me. Also so that I would know what they meant by their terminology, which is different than my definitions of standard Christian phraseology. The hard part is trying to rephrase the gospel so as not to lose the message, but yet lay it out for the Spirit to do his work on their hearts and in their lives. And I find that the Spirit is doing his work in my life as well. :)

They are normally treated poorly by real and so-called Christians. But are they not the lost that we are to witness to of the grace of the gospel in Christ? I agree with you, Denis. peace and grace, rick

September 14, 2010 at 3:20 PM

I have been struggling recently with keeping a careful watch of my tongue. As I am around more and more people who use language that I do not wish to use and speak hurtfully towards others or simply complain all the time, I find myself having the desire to join them in this talk. I have been realizing however that one of my jobs a believer is to be honest but also to stand in the truth and in what God has told us to do - which will often make me stand out. I also realize that standing in this truth is not passive - I must be on my guard and work very hard sometimes in order to control my tongue.

I know that this is not quite in line with what this blog post was about but it is what I thought of as I read your post. May we always keep each other in prayer and find God's grace so much more expansive than we ever thought.


September 14, 2010 at 6:39 PM

I believe one of the bigger problems is that we focus too much on how we use our mouths and pay far too little attention on using our ears well.

I believe it is a gift to have someone listen to me and I feel far more inclined to hear what they have to say after they have heard me. My goal is to learn to do this more myself. To listen. And maybe, to speak the truth I have to share.

September 15, 2010 at 8:57 PM

Rick, Amy, Rebecca:
Such rich and good comments.
Thank you for joining this conversation.
Sometimes I near despair over the noise in the public square and then I hear from kindred spirits.

September 15, 2010 at 9:26 PM

I share your concern over the depths to which political discourse has fallen in this country completely, but I can't help but wonder if it's also possible to be too concerned about what other people think about what we say. I've been preaching through the parables in the middle of Luke recently, and in the process I've been struck again by how often our Lord spoke in a fashion seemingly calculated to shock and confuse, rather than calm the fears of his hearers. How does his example figure into your thoughts on this subject?

September 17, 2010 at 8:38 AM

That's a very good point, and one I've been pondering a bit.

Jesus' example shows the need for good communicators to use disequilibrium to help people learn--sometimes only through some sort of rational shake-up can we see the need not just to change our ideas but to adopt a whole new paradigm. But this was not a failure to speak clearly but an intentional approach on his part because he knew their (erroneous) thinking and worldview so well. In the political square, on the other hand, it seems to me people talk past each other because they do not listen, do not do the hard work of getting inside their opponent's perspective.

I've been noticing a trend, though my data is anecdotal, partial, and unscientific. I've been noting which Christians are loudest in public arguing for specific political agendas, and then privately asking them which publications/commentators they read regularly. The trend: the louder the voice the less often do they read opposing perspectives from thoughtful commentators on the other side.

Confusion in listeners can come about, I think, from the worst and the best communication. Only one of the two options leads to truth.


September 17, 2010 at 9:13 AM

Thank you, Denis, for communicating this challenge in a way that inspires me to think carefully, and to communicate prayerfully in a world that often hears something that I don't mean. I am going to quietly mull this one over. Thanks for writing and calling us to faithfulness in seeking to be heard truly.

September 20, 2010 at 5:21 PM

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