Thursday, November 17, 2016

Nobody Says ‘Meh’

The dromedary is singularly unimpressed.
One handy-dandy Oxford definition:
Expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm:
‘meh, I’m not impressed so far’

Tayyab Babar wants to help people speak persuasively — a highly useful skill whatever your subject. Theoretically, if you follow Tayyab’s rules, fewer people will say “meh” when you’ve finished expressing yourself.

For public speakers, this would be a good thing.

Grabbing That Audience

What he suggests is unlikely to surprise many: appear confident, self-promote, look decent, make eye contact, deliver an emotional punch, repeat yourself regularly, be passionate, be conversational rather than distant and officious, make your subject personal, and so on. Most of us would recognize his techniques in orators we have heard and admired.

But as useful as these common sense tips may be, those of us who try to communicate truth for God are better advised to model our delivery on that of the Lord Jesus. He is the Word incarnate, God’s embodied message to mankind. No greater communicator is to be found anywhere in human history.

Most Christians recognize this intuitively, but not quite so many have thought deeply about what it was about the Lord Jesus that made his message both compelling and divisive.

Whatever people thought of him, nobody was apathetic.

Not as the Scribes

The gospels record that the Lord Jesus taught authoritatively, a fact that is said to have astonished those who heard him both at the synagogue in Capernaum and on the mountain in Galilee. His teaching was “not as the scribes”, say Matthew and Mark.

I don’t think the takeaway from that statement should be that first century scribes lacked our modern communication tools. The better ones surely had the same skill-set available to them that we do today: confidence, ease, eye contact, repetition, passion, etc. There’s no reason to think they were all ugly little men who muttered and equivocated while staring at their sandals, though I suppose that’s not impossible.

But the reaction of the Jews to the teaching of their scribes was “meh”. The Lord Jesus had something they didn’t.

No Bluster, No Bravado

And no, the authority with which he spoke was not mere confidence. It was not bluster or bravado. It wasn’t even exceptional charisma. Notice that nobody who heard him said, “He’s a terrific orator,” or “I like him better than Rabbi So-and-So,” or “He’s one of the best.” Rather, they were astonished. Stunned. Taken aback. This was something they had NEVER witnessed before. This was the message of the officers sent to arrest Jesus to the chief priests and Pharisees: “No one ever spoke like this man!

And yet the messianic prophecies of Isaiah tell us there was nothing characteristically strident, pushy or self-aggrandizing about the Lord Jesus. He wasn’t reaching into the standard teacher’s tool kit to help himself out. He may even have disdained it altogether:
“He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.”
So much for self-promotion. Neither was he exceptionally charismatic:
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”
Looking “decent”, at least in the sense Babar means it, doesn’t appear to have been high on the Lord’s list of communication techniques. He blew the crowds away, not with charisma but with his authority.

His Word Possessed Authority

Now, all this is quite encouraging for those of us who are not exactly in the eye candy category, are not comfortable with self-promotion, and may even be a little uneasy when we find ourselves at the centre of attention. But if it wasn’t the standard speaker’s tool kit that made the Lord stand out, what was it?

Perhaps Luke’s gospel provides a clue for us:
“They were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”
Note the difference in phrasing here. Luke’s language is precise. It wasn’t the Lord’s bearing. It wasn’t his presence. It wasn’t his charisma. In short, it wasn’t his delivery.

It was his WORD that possessed authority.

Whatever we think about the Lord’s presentation skills (and since none of us actually heard him, all that we know of these is either inferred or conjectural), we must recognize that the primary difference between Jesus and the scribes of his day was in the message itself rather than in his technique.

The Day Nobody Said ‘Meh’

Whatever the Lord said produced conviction. This could be good or bad, depending. We see both in the synagogue in Nazareth.

The Lord starts by reading Isaiah, concluding with the words, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which he adds, “has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Nothing in his message is shocking or contentious, except that he can confidently confirm a singular fact that no scribe or Pharisee would ever dare to: that Isaiah’s prophecy has just been fulfilled. It sounds like a favorable announcement, and it is received favorably: everybody buys in. Luke says, “All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”

Shortly thereafter what he has to say is not so favorable, and it fills his audience with wrath, so much so that they try to throw the Lord over a cliff.

The point is, nobody walked away from that synagogue thinking about what was for lunch. Everybody in the Lord’s audience got a message with their name on it. His words were irrefutable, his arguments unassailable. Love them or hate them, you had to react to them.

You Have the Words

Peter hints at the irresistibility of what Jesus taught when he asks, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” and adds, “You have the words of eternal life.” It was the message that mattered.

When we seek to emulate the way the Lord Jesus taught, it is the content we need to concentrate on rather than delivery.

That’s not to suggest that there’s any virtue in being awful at oratory. Awkward mannerisms, verbal and visual tics, unpreparedness or unexpected pauses can be unhelpful distractions. But it’s amazing how many occasional quirks of delivery can be overlooked when the substance of what is being said is absolutely arresting.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter a lick how charismatic and confident a speaker is when he has nothing consequential to say.

Sunday Morning in the Parking Lot

How many times have you sat through a message that was, well, “meh”?

Dozens of times? Hundreds? Yeah, me too. I didn’t always characterize it that way when people asked — you know, trying to be polite and all — but that was pretty much the score. I’ve probably preached more than a few apathy-inducers myself; I suspect everybody who teaches has. We’re not the Lord Jesus, and we never will be. Nobody else ever spoke like him. He’s the Word made flesh.

But it seems to me the more we absorb and live out his word, the more like him we will be. And the more we are like him in knowledge and character, the more we will speak like him. And the more like him we speak, the more irresistible and convicting our arguments will be. Because they’ll really be HIS arguments, and nobody is ever truly indifferent to him, even the ones who feign indifference.

They love him or they hate him, but nobody says “meh”.

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