One of the goals of the role plays that I do is to motivate the audience towards greater discipline in discipleship by putting them in a place of necessity. In other words, most Christians don’t take the life of the mind seriously, and I hope to change that by putting them in the midst of a conversation where they get tongue-tied and don’t know how to respond very well. So far, so good. Well, as it turns out, I got a good taste of my own medicine the other day, except this conversation was in the real world, as opposed to a role-play. It reminded me that I, too, can lose focus of some of the same points I make to my audiences. It was a good motivator to me to apply the advice I give to my own life. How I operated in the conversation definitely left much to be desired: I got flustered, tongue tied, dominated discussion in parts, and got frustrated when I didn’t need to. It’s actually been a while since I’ve had a deep conversation of that depth with someone outside of my classroom, and it revealed all the rust on the joints. The conversation was with a neighbor, a young man who is into a certain type of new age spirituality, similar to The Secret that was popular in Oprah fan circles 10 to 15 years ago. Earlier, he gave me something to read, I read it, and then we began to talk about it. The author--a new age guru of sorts--used the Bible and words of Jesus to buttress his new age worldview. What was fairly clear is that the author had the cart before the horse, employing isolated words and quotes from the Bible in the service to his agenda, rather than the other way around. It was straightforward prooftexting: ripping words and verses out ot their context and inserting his own meaning into those words/verses, instead of paying attention to the words themselves in their context and letting the Bible text speak for itself. In so doing, in order to make his point, he disregarded the common sense rules of communication that we all intuitively follow every day in the spoken and written word. In normal communication, the first goal is to correctly understand the other person or text. You must first figure out what the author means and is saying. Only then, once you have that down, can you move ahead to asking “is what the author is saying true?” Sometimes, figuring out what the other person means can be difficult, but mostly it can be done, including with the Bible. For one, if your interpretation runs counter to the context as a whole and doesn’t fit in the larger piece, your interpretation is probably off. We all intuitively get this, but somehow let new age folks and others (including other Christian teachers) off the hook when it comes to the Bible. I simply wanted the young man to go read the words of Jesus themselves, rather than take the second hand views of his favorite guru as gospel. “Have you ever read the Bible itself?” I asked. “No,” he admitted. He stuck mainly to his favorite gurus and online youtube tidbits. “Well, why believe this guy? Why not read the Bible itself and form your views about the teachings of Jesus based on that?” Of course, no interpretation happens in isolation; we are not atomistic individuals, and there is a communal element to any textual interpretation. Still, you should start with the primary source itself, rather than someone else’s take. This is a point I make to my students when they are doing their research papers; if you read an article with a data point or stat in it, don’t quote the stat or data point in the article. Go track down where it originally came from, and read that study as a whole so you get a sense of the original context of the stat/quote/data point. That is a protection against being manipulated and fooled by invested authors who only tell part of the story. While all sorts of other things came up, this was the main point I was trying to get across, yet it was largely lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the back and forth. It is a fairly simple and basic point, and it was frustrating that it was such a point of contention. Whether that was because I was doing a poor job of communicating, or because he was not getting it or because he was being purposefully obtuse (or a combo of all three), I don’t know. All I kept thinking was “this seems so simple. Why is it being lost in the fray, here?” There was considerable consternation. I did not expect things to play out that way, and that threw me. It got to me at times, in the moment; I responded the same way many audience members respond when I do a role play with them. So the real question now is “where to go from here?” Next steps are the same next steps I give to frustrated audience members after a role play: Back to the drawing board, essentially! Do some reading. Think through and journal through the question “how can I do better next time?” Think of some questions to ask, better ways to communicate points, and practice! Doing this both before and after real conversations helps. Also, take risks to get into more deep conversations. Part of the problem, as already acknowledged, is that I hadn’t been in that kind of scenario for a while. Rust accumulates quickly. This isn’t so I can “own” someone in conversation--its just so I can be a better communicator and so the conversation can go more productively. This is part of what it means to be an ambassador for Christ. One thing that was fairly clear is that I should have listened more, taking more time to ask him probing questions to get a better grip on what he believes. I kind of rushed past that in the attempt to make a point to pin him down. Probing questions are low-risk, and productive too. The young man is a neighbor, so its not like that’d be the last conversation--I could have used the info garnered from asking those questions in future conversations.
What’s more, spending a lot of time in listening mode like this, probing with simple “what do you mean?” style questions, has a way of preparing the ground for seeds, of making the other person more open to things I share later in the conversation or future. Asking questions such as “how did you come to that conclusion?” “how do you know that?” “how does that follow?” “on a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that that is true?” and especially “under what conditions could you be mistaken?” have a way of disarming the other person, especially if he hasn’t thought about his beliefs that deeply. They can “thaw the dogmatism” and lead to more productive places. If a person can’t think of any specific “breaking point”--specific counters that would cause the person to change his mind or at least to question his beliefs--then maybe he isn’t being as reasonable as he says he is. Not many people can think of a breaking point. Not many have even asked the question of themselves at all, ever, so asking it can be revealing. So I should have spent more time doing this. This, I think, would have lowered the temperature more, would have been easier for me to do on the spot, and would have been more enjoyable for him. At this point, some might ask “why not just share the gospel with him? That’s what matters anyway, right? Why spend all this time on esoteric and abstract points?” A few things in response… First, there is a grain of truth in sentiments like this: we can often get lost in the weeds, focusing on abstract questions that don’t really get to the heart of the matter. These kinds of conversations don’t change hearts, and can even sometimes be used by folks to distract from the real issue, which is submission to Christ. We don’t want to give up our autonomy, so if we can obfuscate by focusing on philosophy, we do so. Secondly, however, what this misses is that harvesting--sharing the gospel and seeing someone commit to Christ--is not the only role of the ambassador, nor is it the only step in the process. Both harvesting, and gardening--where we prepare the mind and heart through pre-evangelism, apologetics, answering objections, etc--are necessary parts of the process, especially in today’s post Christian culture. In other words, with most people, there are ideas, commitments, habits, postures, and dispositions that keep the seed from growing. If those issues are not addressed, no, the harvest won’t be plentiful. There won’t even be a harvest. Most people’s journey to Christ is just that, a journey, comprised of many steps. We all play a role. Third, the point above--go read the Bible itself rather than a second hand take--is not an abstract point. I might have communicated it in a poor way, but the point itself is solid. It is not an abstract distraction. It runs counter to an obstacle to the gospel, and if this man is to see Christ clearly, that obstacle will need to be removed. If obstacles like this and others are not addressed, then the other person is likely to simply disregard the gospel or re-interpret it in lieu of what he already believes, rather than submit to it. One step, one conversation at a time. I’m praying for and looking forward to the next time.