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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Angry, defensive, fight-picking "Christians"

This morning, seriously, I'm not making this up: I and two of my lovely seniors made presentations at a high school leadership conference in Western Mass. My assigned topic was "Strategies for Effective Communication in Climates of Conflict." I basically boiled my introductory course ("Christian Perspectives on Communication Arts") down to a 45 minute interactive lecture. My main points: communication is about being with and connecting, not winning; what distinguishes the communication of a Christ-follower from that of someone else is its purpose; the purpose of communication is to bring about shalom; shalom, more specifically than "peace," can be understood as "the presence of God in everyday life." A Christ-following communicator rejects, or (better) adds to the basic communication model of "sender - text - receiver" which assumes a unidirectional arrow, in favor of the model of exchange. It's not communication unless there's connection and participation by at least two individuals, and the best communication reflects God's character (including love and peace), in conflict and anytime. (I ended with some tangible strategies, but not before the following, non-made-up event occured.)

Remember, I am not exaggerating: one of the mothers in attendance (this was a gathering of Christian high schoolers who are pegged as "leaders" from around the northeast, I guess accompanied by mothers and teachers from Christian schools) raised her hand and said, "I don't get why you keep referring to communication as 'connecting.' What if I just want to get someone to listen to what I have to say? I don't care if they understand me or my 'worldview.' I just want them to listen to my message. Jesus didn't try to 'connect' with the Pharisees, he just said, 'you brood of vipers!'"

Strategy #1: refrain from eyes popping out, looking around the room to see if I'm being "punked," or saying, "um, did you just say 'I don't care' about the people you're 'communicating' with?" or, "what part of 'incarnation, God becoming man' didn't try to connect?"
Strategy #2: repeat definitions of communication that I accept, and allow her to disagree with those.
Strategy #3: come on!!!

She has a point. Sometimes you have to discern that some broods of vipers are incapable of connecting (unwilling? unready? unworthy of the effort?).

Later, during our second session, on the odd topic of "Have You Considered Communication Arts for Your Future?", I was talking about the commonly accepted functions of communication, and about the metaphor of the funhouse mirror for mediated communication. It reshapes and reflects reality. It doesn't deny reality, it just represents it in ways which draw our attention to various aspects of reality in different ways, with different intensities. All communication is mediated, I said. I talked about the "agenda setting theory" of media, which claims that media tell us not what to think, but what to think about. All our communication, I said, sets agendas. We're always making a choice about what to emphasize and how to represent it, and we communicate our priorities through what we choose to talk about. A mother (a different one!) angrily raised her hand in the back of the room. "Why would we want to reshape the truth? I'm offended by The Media, because they reshape truth. We should just tell the truth." I attempted to illustrate to the group the inadequacy of claiming to "tell the truth" by acting out what it would look/sound like if I "told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" when someone asked me how I am ("I'm fine, well I have kind of an itch in the back of my throat, you know I'm a little distracted because my bank seems to have made an error on my checking account last night, man am I glad we have a long holiday weekend, it sure is hot in here..."). When I say "I'm fine," or answer in different, more/less elaborate ways, I am telling truth. I'm not lying. But, we choose which pieces of truth are appropriate and effective to tell at which times, to which people. Like Jesus, when asked who he was, sometimes was cryptic, sometimes direct, sometimes just asked a question right back. But he didn't lie, he told (mediated) a particularly shaped (emphasized) truth.

Randy Stonehill had a song in the early 80's (no, not "American Fastfood, what a stupid way to die"; no, not "Turning 30"; no, not "Christmas at Denny's" - well, okay, he had those songs, too). It was called "Angry Young Men," and if I remember rightly, it was about how God wants angry young men. At the time (in my teens), I adamantly agreed. This wasn't very far removed from when I told a friend in elementary school that she was in danger of hell for believing in Santa Claus. (I know, proof-textly, that Jesus got mad. Wasn't it at the uptight, fight-picking religious nuts?)

Now I wonder: (1) why are mothers (not students) asking questions at high school leadership conferences, and (b) why are Christians so scared of being "wrong" or of "losing" that they cannot conceive of the subordination of truth to love, the value of vulnerability, the idea that life is not a mud wrestling contest?

As I think back over this experience, and Those People, I will try to practice what I preach and remember that they (and we) are fully human, they (and we) are loved by God, and we're always in process.

p.s. I just agreed (on three hours' sleep and four hours of driving and two hours of presenting/being accosted by culture-phobic mothers) to be "the donkey" in my church's Christmas play this year.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, I tried to respond to your entry today but then the 15 minute response was lost in space so I’ll give you the quick version:

I think what you’re saying completely captures what Jesus is all about. So often it IS about winning and being “right” and then we lose the battle because just like it says in 1 Cor. 13 “if you don’t have love” basically you have nothing. It might be a little cliché in the Christian community to point to that scripture but it’s very clear about what it says. And no matter how much you “know”, you gotta start with the basics. So many people try to say, “Well, Jesus talked harshly to the Pharisees….” but no matter what anybody says, there is only ONE Jesus. It seems a little self-righteous to equate yourself to Him. I’ve struggled with wanting to be “right” and I’ve discovered at least for me that the zeal to beat others with “truth” is often based in fear. I can only surmise that the reason that the mothers were asking all the questions and were so harsh is because they had fear ruling them especially regarding their children. Fear can really make you talk irrationally.

P.S. How great that you’re gonna be the donkey! First High School Sunday School, now the donkey, what will be next I wonder….

Anonymous said...

The first anonymous was mc,because she told us when she picked up D this afternoon

Rini said...

Is that fair - one anonymous outing another anonymous? Shouldn't you guys have some kind of anonymous code of ethics or something?

mccobbey said...

I just came to reread your entry since it was so encouraging to me and I need some encouraging regarding communication.

I just got my very first "not fun" response to one of my blog entries from a person I don't even know (she's a friend of a friend.)

She said:

Okay, I'm done being mad at you for your MEAN post. I'm back. Best movie EVER is The Godfather(parts 1 & 2)- and the quote I use ALL THE TIME (ask anyone)is: "This is the business we have chosen."

I was confused and asked what she was talking about and she said:

"This paragraph sounded mean to me....made me wonder if you were one of those girls who makes fun of everyone around her, in her head. Made me afraid to hang out w/you in person."

This is the paragraph she referred to:

"Just throw one of these out in the midst of a group and let it ferment in their minds. Then someone will surely start talking (there is always someone out there who likes to hear themselves talk) and you won't have to do any more chit-chatting. Just listen and nod and when the conversation lulls ask prodding questions like "Why do you feel that way?" and "Can you elaborate on that?" so you won't have to think of anything else to say. Not only will people think you are a great listener but they will think you are really smart because you are letting them talk all they want. Nothing increases someone's esteem than letting them talk about themselves."

Needless to say, I tried to explain myself and, in the process, have battled frustration, insecurity, sadness and bitterness. I actually cried over it believe it or not. I know I shouldn't worry about it but it's really not fun to hear someone judge you as one of "those kind of girls" which I've tried in every way not to be. Anyway, I really appreciate your view of unidirectional communication and, especially, in this instance, wish that it had been employed instead of this sort of finger pointing and judgement that was directed towards me.