Talking Past the Others

14 03 2008

I don’t know if it’s still there, but I remember a cool exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, in which one convinces a friend to stop whatever they’re doing so he or she can sit on a bench in front of a giant hollow semi-spherical mold.  Then you leave your subject and walk across to the other side of the room to a matching assemblage and, low and behold, the two of you can hold a private conversation from across the room, talking past all the other people who are utterly and completely oblivious to all the juicy details of your A+B conversation.  Whoever else walks by the two of you, they’re all C.

Language, and the way we employ it to articulate our thoughts, works in the same convoluted way.  It’s like the meaning of our words have this high-tech ability to wind clearly around entire populations in order to hit their intended target.  Buzz as of late in Emergent world has sort of been along these lines, as the publishing industry specifically, and culture more broadly, is trying to figure out what’s going on here.  It seems like every subset of humanity is commonly defined by language – not just nations, but generations, and even within a generation it can be broken down to the crowd one rolls with.  My church in Oakland probably functions at any given time with at least six different languages, all of them English.  Here are a few I can, in a rough draft, delineate:

  • Toddler
  • Elementary Kid
  • Junior High Urban
  • Junior High Suburban
  • High School Urban
  • High School Suburban
  • Evangelical/Business Leadership hybrid
  • Post-Evangelical Organic Spirituality
  • Traditional AG Women’s Ministry
  • Sunday School Teacher

And, amazingly, all of us have the capacity to talk past each other.  I find that it’s the rule rather than the exception, that we do seek out the people who speak our language instead of learning new languages.  Learning is hard work and requires us to hang up our powerful drive to be heard so that we can hear.

Last night one of our Junior High Urbans got into a situation with one of our Traditionals.  I was called in to kind of sort it all out, and I was simply blown away at the way this white woman in her 70’s took the time to hear and understand the junior high kid.  She sought out language that worked for both of them.  I know it would have been so much easier for her to revert to ChurchSpeak and feel vindicated at the prospect of having “evangelized” the young girl.  But she took the hard road of seeking to understand before being understood.

 Fast-forward to this afternoon, as I walked across an elementary school campus and noticed a young teacher, probably about my age, yelling at four or five kids.  I don’t know the guy, don’t know the kids, but if there’s a line separating firm from losing it, he was flirting with that line.  And I had a sinking feeling that he wasn’t really communicating as much as he was bludgeoning.  I should know – I’m equally guilty of doing the same thing.

So that brief moment last night gave me a whole lot of encouragement about the future of Christ’s church.  How can we, who are often set in a particular ideology with its’ corresponding language, accept this woman’s challenge and start listening?  What do we need to tidy up or get creative about in our language, so we might start generating conversations with our words instead of shutting them down by vying for that ever-elusive “last word?”

Speaking as a card-carrying member of the AG, I wrestle with the dissonance that often exists between what we communicate and what we likely truly believe.  Are there any terms you’ve wanted to flesh out, wrestle with, or talk about, either within or outside the AG tradition?

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