Friday, August 02, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Over the Target

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: A thought occurs to me this morning. If there is one thing I could do for the people of God, I would want it to be this: I would want them to start talking again as if being a Christian really matters.

What I mean is that I’d like to provoke people to start saying things like, “Well, that’s the natural perspective, but how does the Lord fit into this situation?” or “What does the Lord have to say about the choices I have to make?” or “How do I get my kid to be more spiritual?” or “What will happen if I do X, in view of heaven?” You know the kind of thing … talking and debating as if something’s at stake there.

Tom: Okay, I can see that ...

The Biggest Modern Failure

IC: I think the biggest modern failure of Christian thought is to imagine that being a Christian is a kind of “background”, not material or of front-page importance to life. So if I could get my brothers and sisters to talk as if the Lord was a live issue in their thinking, then even if they did some wildly off-point stuff for a bit, or even if it created disputes, it would be a good thing — because at least then we’d be thinking of the Lord as mattering, as an issue that needed discussion, as a serious factor in planning and executing a practical life.

Tom: I think I know what you’re saying. But I suspect that if you were to put your concern to the average Christian, you might meet with a few objections. Things like: “People who try to squeeze God into every single conversation are only virtue-signaling their own piety,” or “It sounds really unnatural when someone jumps in and tries to force a conversation into a direction it wasn’t going,” or “You’ll put people off.” And maybe there is something to that.

On the other hand, there are times when a sudden dose of Christian perspective in an unexpected place is really refreshing and helpful. I guess it depends on who it is you’re having a conversation with. What you don’t want to do, I think, is inadvertently encourage younger Christians to adopt some kind of phony piety when they are around you, and then go right back to talking the way they always used to around everyone else.

IC: Yes, well, I think that nobody sensible would say it’s a good idea to “squeeze” into conversations an interest in the Lord you don’t actually have. That would be hypocrisy. (On the other hand, it isn’t much better to be authentically indifferent to him, is it?)

Tom: Agreed.

Cultivating Authentic Speech

IC: What I’m suggesting is not that we artificially install religious language into our speech, but that we actually start to care about the Lord in such a way that we make him a recurrent theme of our authentic speech. I’m speaking of a change of our hearts, not a merely of a gloss on our behavior.

Tom: Okay. That’s something any of us can work at for ourselves, certainly. If we make it a habit to bring the Lord’s values and agenda into our own thinking — seeking first the kingdom, if you like — then we will probably come across as more authentic than the person who is just posing to appear spiritual. In all likelihood we will find ourselves bringing the Lord into conversations in a very natural way because doing so has become habitual for us.

Is there a way to encourage others to think and talk the same way that isn’t faux-pious? And if so, what would that look like?

IC: Yes, sure. People who spend time with Christ talk differently. In regard to content, it’s not that they are impressive in some superficial way, but that their speech shows that they’ve been taken to a depth of thought and understanding of things that is beyond what might normally be expected. They seem to have a more profound engagement with reality and with the meaning of things than the average person of their type ordinarily has. And, of course, their speech has a different general tone, too. It’s gentle at most times: it is not the speech of wimps, pleasers and politicians. At times, it’s incisive and defiant and even thunderous, but always legitimately so. And, of course, it’s always truthful.

However, I don’t think we can ever get that ability to speak from merely, say, summarizing its features and making special efforts to reproduce them in what we say. That sort of content, discernment and timing comes only from people who have spent quality time with the Lord, and only comes to the extent that they have actually done that. There is no other way.

Life Around Genuinely Committed Christians

Tom: I get that. What I’m not seeing is any way to transfer the desire for that sort of way of looking at the world to others — beyond modeling it ourselves, of course.

Here’s what I suspect will happen if we start living and talking like that: some people will absolutely love it, and some people will really dislike it. It will be very polarizing. The people in the Christian community with a desire for reality in their faith will find it very attractive, and some of them may start to act and speak much the same way. The people who are just posing, on the other hand — and there are always plenty of those — will find it irritating, challenging and downright offensive. It’ll spoil all the fun they’re having playing church.

IC: I think so. You’ll see real venom from two groups of people: those who hate God, and those who claim to love him but do it only superficially. (I’m not hugely concerned about offending either group, myself.) But as Christ said, “My sheep hear my voice.”

Tom: What’s the line? “If you’re not taking flack, you’re not over the target ...”

IC: Living like our faith really matters will be hugely appealing to other groups of people: genuine disciples, those who want to become genuine disciples, those who are hungry for something better, those whose lives have lacked direction and certainty, those who have not yet experienced the love of God, and those who have been wounded or crushed, and who are ready for a change.

So we’ll lose some, and gain others. But it will all be for the right reasons.

The Cost of Change

Tom: There’s is a cost to this type of change. People who are known to start talking about Jesus at the drop of a hat are not generally known as fun guys. It’s difficult to be frivolous and goofy and suddenly turn super-spiritual on a dime. The fact that you choose to work at stimulating profitable conversation of necessity excludes other sorts of activities and more casual repartee. If you turn the weekly card game into an impromptu examination of Ephesians, there will be those who love it and those who hate it ... but I find there’s also a third group, now that I think about it.

There are guys who really know better, but have gotten comfortable with the dynamics of their current Christian relationships and have drifted away from serious attention to the word of God. When you start rocking the boat, they are on one level a little annoyed to see people gravitating to something different — something that isn’t them — and on another level they are a little embarrassed they weren’t the ones to initiate moving things in the right direction. Secretly they realize this is what ought to be happening.

IC: Yeah, and I bet there’s a lot more of them than of any other group. Some people who’ve never yet really been up to anything might suddenly come around.

Tom: There were probably Pharisees like that in the first century. Guys who thought, “Boy, he’s going to spoil the whole game, but it really needs to happen. We have been awfully fake for a long time.” There’s shame that goes with that realization, but it’s a good thing too. Those people can make good lieutenants.

IC: What did the Lord say to one of them? “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” I believe.

Artificial Religious Language

Tom: I want to come back to something you said earlier about not artificially installing religious language into our speech. It seems to me that’s really important. If we are going to talk about the Lord Jesus as if he matters to every aspect of our lives, and do it convincingly and helpfully, we really have to work at avoiding religious clichés. The problem is that they are really, really easy to fall into. For most Christians, churchspeak has become our default mode. And nothing will ease us right back into unreality quicker than a dose of evangelical bafflegab. I’m thinking it would be really useful to check each other when it happens with questions like, “IC, how would you say that to your unsaved neighbor in a way she would understand?”

IC: Yes. And actually talking to our neighbors would be even better, because very quickly we’d see the perplexed looks on their faces when we lapsed into church-language. We’d (quite rightly) be embarrassed, and we’d stop. We’d learn to use authentic language, and to talk about things we really believe.

Tom: I have a friend who says this all the time, and he’s dead right.

IC: You can test yourself. Just take an important but clichéd phrase like “Repent of your sins” or “Worship is the responsibility of every believer.” Try to put those into language that anybody — especially a person who had no knowledge of church language at all — would grasp immediately, and would not misapprehend in any way. If you find out you can’t do that, what it really means is that YOU don’t understand it. You may think you do, you may have heard many people use it, and you may have said it a thousand times in confidence that you did know what you meant; but you don’t. And the proof is that all you’ve got is the cliché, and no more.

Tom: Amen. Oops. Er, “So be it.”

Concealing Your Meaning From Yourself

IC: We owe it to ourselves and others to do this kind of rethinking. As the great writer George Orwell so perceptively wrote, the alternative is this: “You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

That’s powerful. Inauthentic language will do your thinking for you, and will end up concealing what you mean even from yourself.

So if you won’t learn to speak plainly for your neighbor’s sake, then do it for your own.

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