Always talking past each other

Earlier today, I had a conversation with someone on Twitter about the Bible. One of the comments he made was that people from my particular ‘tribe’ in the church – i.e. conservative evangelical – aren’t always very good at engaging in a way which people can understand.  I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently: Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson recently debated our understanding of the Bible (there are a series of four videos all available from that link, as well as written articles from both of them).

One of the things that particularly struck me about the debate was their different approaches in terms of communication: Andrew Wilson seemed to be along the same lines as my approach. In contrast, virtually every time Steve Chalke opened his mouth he said something like “Let me tell you a story…” In other words, Chalke spoke almost entirely in anecdotes.

This seems to be a fairly common thing – for example, see the conversation between Mark Dever and Jim Wallis on Justice and the Gospel. In both cases the two people just seem to think differently: one thinks in fairly abstract propositions, the other in concrete narratives.

The problem is, are these two modes of thinking reconcilable? Are we doomed to forever talk past each other? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but I think it’s important for us to recognise different ways of thinking and accommodate. I say this to myself as much as anyone – if there’s anything this blog has proved, it’s that I’m not very good at talking to people whose thought processes are somewhat different to mine.

This issue with communication is particularly acute on the internet – so much content is written quickly, responded to quickly, without ever really being thought about properly (just look at the comments on any online newspaper article).

A while back, I read a brief blog post: “What you have to do first before you can agree or disagree with someone“. The idea is, before you can agree or disagree – you first have to understand. This strikes me as wise advice: our first task should be to make sure that we have understood correctly, rather than diving straight in with our own thoughts. I am far too guilty of diving in before understanding – I find it helps to take a few minutes before replying to something to clear my head a bit.

Also, it’s important for Christian communicators in particular to realise the validity of different methods of reasoning: the Bible contains narrative, poetry, history, proverbs, as well as logical / forensic – all different ‘discourses of truth’. These are all valid and should be used appropriately.

To bring this back to earth in a concrete example: I think one of the failures of the Christian campaign against same-sex marriage was the fact that it didn’t actually tell a story. The pro-same-sex-marriage camp had lots of stories about two people in love who wanted to get married. Which is more appealing?

As with many of my blog posts, I don’t really have a big take-away point here: now it’s over to you. How do we bridge the communication gap? Is it possible?

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3 thoughts on “Always talking past each other

  1. That’s a really good question! Here are my thoughts, directed particularly at the conservative evangelical side (I would write differently for the other side):

    1. Recognise that both styles of communication are valid, and “biblical”. Notice that Jesus taught largely with stories, and the gospels are largely stories about him. And much of the Old Testament is made up of stories. Of course there is more propositional discourse in the Law and in the Epistles, but even Paul wove stories into his letters, especially in Galatians.

    2. Learn that people do think differently. They have different learning styles. Some are left-brained linear thinkers who like logical arguments. Others are right-brainers who really struggle with such things. This is of course grossly over-simplified but the differences are real – and they are not at all the same as the difference between the “elect” and the “reprobate”.

    3. Understand that most people in the world, and the church, are more at home with stories than with lectures. It is easy to grow a big church full of left-brainers in a university town or a prosperous suburb with lecture style teaching, but it will never reach the masses who don’t care for lectures, and learn far better from stories.

    4. If you want to win your argument in the public square, find stories to back it up! If you can’t find any, perhaps your argument is not as strong as you think.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Peter!

      One of the things I have been particularly struck by while at college is how much like lectures a lot of sermons actually are, and how much I need to change how I communicate in order to reach a broader audience. I think too often ConEvo preaching has essentially preached to a certain kind of audience (e.g. middle-class, university educated) which tends to end up perpetuating itself.

      I think what you say about the public square is helpful too. I read an article a while back, a story written by someone who was raised by same-sex parents, which I thought was actually a more powerful argument at the emotional level against same-sex marriage than a lot of what was being written at the time (and could have been used in a complementary way to it).

  2. I tweeted #TestimonyOfTheLord recognizing that the testimony of the Lord is spoken of as singularity even though it contains commandments, covenants, prophecies, blessings, curses, and historical accounts. I believe this is important because so many manners of speaking are open to interpretation. However, the commandment of the Lord is as much His testimony as any other thing He said. Thus, He has given us a compass by which to adjust our sails as we encounter gales & currents (external influences) which try to confound our efforts to progress.
    Jesus said that those who continue in His word would be his true disciple who would know the truth that sets them free. “Continue” has an actionable quality that can be recognized in commandments- stories: not so much.

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