Stories and Dialogue

Found a section of my old book Theo-storying that had stuff that I had forgotten about. I think I will have to update my book on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to include this. If I have time.

Another thing that affects the impact of a story is the respondent’s (or hearer’s) attitude about stories. Let’s return to the idea of responding to movies. Robert Johnson in “Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)”3 speaks of different film responses.

  • Avoidance. Films are all bad. Best to stay away.

  • Caution. Films are often bad. Be careful to avoid any sort of heresy, or bad language or behavior.

  • Dialogue. Films speak for themselves. Critique and interact with the film on their own terms, not our own.

  • Appropriation. Films may have something important to tell us. Let’s be ready to listen and learn.

  • Divine Encounter. Films may provide us an epiphany or divine experience.

According to Johnson, these five attitudes describe five philosophies of critiquing movies. He notes that they fit into a spectrum where avoidance and caution are in the region of ethical critique. By that is meant that the critic looks at the movie regarding how moral is the behavior, visualizations, and scripting. If there is too much bad stuff in the movie, the movie is judged bad. Otherwise, it may be okay. Appropriation and Divine Encounter are on the other end, is where the critique is more aesthetic. Bad behavior and language may not be the main focus, but rather whether the film inspires and enlightens.

This, I believe, is a useful way of looking at films, at least from the standpoint of film critique. However, for individuals hearing stories, there needs to be some changes. We can keep the same spectrum. However, since this is a response attitude, rather than a philosophy for critique, there will be some differences.

Avoid    Caution    Dialogue    Appropriate     Encounter

|                   |                   |                   |                   |

<—————————————————————————>

Less Educative                                        More Educative

Less Doubt                More Doubt                Less Doubt

Further to the right on the spectrum the greater the tendency to accept the story as having educative value. The further to the left, the less presumption of educative value is given. The whole spectrum can be seen as sharing the attitude of the story having entertainment value. After all, a story without entertainment value probably is unnecessary… just replace it with facts and declarative sentences (or say nothing). Combining these makes the definitions change a bit.

  • Avoidance. Stories entertain, but should not be trusted to inform. Listen but don’t learn.

  • Caution. Stories entertain, but are not a good way to inform or educate. Perhaps they may have value as case studies or illustrations for difficult concepts.

  • Dialogue. Stories entertain, but they also provide an alternate perspective and experience. Interact with them and see what they have to say.

  • Appropriation. Stories entertain, but they also are an educational tool. We need to learn from stories.

  • Divine Encounter. Stories entertain, but they also inspire and transform. We need to hear God’s voice (or perhaps “divine wisdom”) coming through the story.

But Which Response Is Best?

If one is telling a story with the purpose of informing and inspiring the hearer, which response attitude is best? The immediate thought may be that Divine Encounter is best. And in one sense that may be true. It is nice when the respondent already starts from the presumption that what you have may be, not merely true but, the TRUTH. But I might suggest that Dialogue is a better starting point. Why?

Dialogue, the center of the scale is most likely the highest position of doubt and critical faculty. As one moves towards Avoidance, there is a lessening of doubt and critical faculty as one is more sure that the storyteller does not have something of value. Likewise, as one moves towards Divine Encounter, one is lessening doubt about the storyteller/story and lessening the critical faculty. Strong faith often comes from critical wrestling with doubt. It may not be desirable for the respondent to start from a lesser amount of critical faculty and doubt.

Take the example of the story of the Good Samaritan. An avoidance attitude is likely to lead the respondent to think that the Good Samaritan is a nice and pleasant story… but has no personal relevance or application. Divine Encounter attitude may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the story. That may sound good, but the uncritical acceptance may lead to a trite understanding (“It is nice to be nice to people”). Or, perhaps, the hearer will have an understanding of a deeper meaning, but not take time to see how to integrate the message with the hearer’s life. On the other hand, Dialogue means that one is open to hear the story, interact with the story, and “wrestle” with it. Elwood P. Dowd may have “wrestled with reality” for 35 years, but we can and should wrestle with stories. We grow through the process.

One should not minimize the concept of meditation or rumination. It is a cognitive and affective wrestling with the story. Two of the greatest defenders of the faith of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, only came to faith through a long process of this sort of wrestling with truth.7 In the case of the Good Samaritan, what does it mean to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself, when one’s neighbor can be one who hates you? In the case of the the priest and Levite, is Jesus saying that religious piety should be set aside to help someone you don’t even know or like? (If you have read the Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly,8 one of the main characters begins going to church less often to invest time with a non-Christian friend on Sundays, to the chagrin of his Christian friends. Not completely a parallel story, but it does have elements of commonality.) If loving one’s neighbor includes friends, family, fellow believers, and enemies, is there any way in which one’s actions should differentiate these relationships? Are you TRULY loving your neighbor as yourself while you are reading this paragraph about loving one’s neighbors? The more you meditate, the more questions you are likely to have. Questions show that we are still learning, or at least open to learning.

Oh Yeah, Listen First.

Teaching Interreligious Dialogue here in seminary, I decided to write my own book because I did not care much for the books that already exist in that topic. I was planning to give my latest group of students a “beta” version of the book to review. However, in a rare burst of energy I finished the book during Christmas break and published it online. (It is available HERE.)

Anyway, I still wanted comments from my students. I got some good ones back. Some small grammar problems were identified that I missed (isn’t that always the way it is?). My illustrations were useful but not aesthetically pleasing (as one of the few people on earth to have ever failed a 6th grade Art class, I am clearly “aesthetically-challenged”). They recommended that I add more examples (Yup. Good point). And they noted I should work more on some aspects of my discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Absolutely.  But I got one comment from the quietest student in my class. She mentioned that I should add a chapter on listening.

Of course!! Why did I not add a chapter on listening? In all my stuff on pastoral care, I emphasize listening. Lately, when I was leading a graduate level seminar on counseling, the group facilitator asked me what was the single most important skill that the students need to learn. I said it was to listen— since pastors do not like to listen.

Our training materials at our counseling center discuss issues of active listening, empathetic listening, head-level versus heart-level listening, as well as techniques to draw out more from others.

Even in the Dialogue book, I emphasize the idea that as one of the two in dialogue, one should should seek to listen more and talk less, especially in the stage where one is seeking to gain understanding and insight of the other.

So why did I not add a chapter on listening? I don’t know… perhaps it was because that topic was already in our pastoral care book. But that is hardly an excuse. Interreligious dialogue is one of a couple of major topics where Missions and Pastoral Care intersect (another is Missionary Member Care). The fact that listening was covered in our Pastoral Care book in no way suggests that it is not highly important in Interreligious Dialogue.

And let’s be honest. Most all of us are horrible at listening. We tend to hear, but not listen. This is even more true in interreligious dialogue where there is the temptation to think in apologetics mode— where the time alotted to the other in talking is used by oneself more in coming up with ways to undermine the other’s point, or to come up with a very persuasive statement— not to listening intently and respectfully.

Hopefully next year I can come up with a Rev. A to the book. At that time I will most definitely add a chapter on listening. Better figures?  Not so sure about that, but we shall see.

Dialogue Lessons from Westboro

I was watching a TED Talk of Megan Phelps-Roper. Image result for westboro baptistShe was raised up in Westboro Baptist Church, a small church in the United States known for its “hate speech.” Now I know sometimes people use the term “hate speech” pretty loosely, but I think most anyone would say that Westboro’s words and actions would fit the term “hate speech.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church, part of the Phelps clan that founded and dominate the membership of that church. She actively supported the activities of the church but in her Twitter conversations with people who were part of groups that she was trained to hate, she gradually saw things differently. Today she supports open dialogue between different religious and politcal groups. I found two interesting things in her short presentation.

First, she noted the possible value of Social Media to break down barriers. She noted how social media helped her to see others differently. I found that surprising. Years ago I spent time on the religion forum of Compuserve (yes 30 years ago). We did talk to each other– people of other faiths. But we had people who maintained “decorum on the forum.” That was because there were people who loved to “flame.” They loved to attack other people. Seems strange that people who are interested in religion would want to attack each other— but history doesn’t lie. I actually got reprimanded once on the forum for using the weird and childish term “royally pissed.”  But over the years, and especially with most social media having little enforcement of standards of any sort, the situation has gotten worse. Trolls abound, and the comment section of many sites are just filled with mindless rage, vulgarity, filth, and generally ‘trollery.’ Why would they do this. I don’t know for sure, but as my youngest daughter said just tonight, “It is hard for people to see others as people behind a wall of text.” I find it strange that social media, a realm dominated by confirmation bias and pushback, could be a place to find acceptance from others. But as Megan noted, some responded differently than she expected. Some that she expressed hate against, responded in like manner reinforcing what she already thought about them (no surprise there). But some responded differently. That different response gradually led her to question what she believed.

Second, she listed four simple guidelines for cyber-dialogue. I like collecting lists for interreligious dialoge. This 4-point list has merit, and has the advantage of being pretty simple. I will list them with my own spin as commentary.

  • Don’t Assume Bad Intent. In fact, even in the case of Westboro, they believe they are right and that in spreading their message they are helping to make the world more moral— a better place. People rarely share their deeply held beliefs because they want to ruin people and make the world worse (although sometimes it is quite easy to wonder).
  • Ask Questions. People often want to talk but not listen. But asking helps you learn. It also makes the other person more likely to try to understand you. Counterintuitively, we best get people to trust us by our asking favors from them. When we go to others with honest questions and a willingness to learn, we build trust.
  • Stay Calm.  It is tempting to get angry and lash out. Fear and anger are responses to threats. We commonly aren’t that good at training our emotional response. We allow a hippocampus takeover based on words put on a computer screen in much the way of a direct physical threat to our family. In case of physical threat, such a response may be useful. In cyber-dialogue it is almost always counterproductive. Megan actually noted a strength of social media because it is easier to pause or disconnect than it is in a direct face-to-face encounter. People often revel in a lack of calmness on the Web, but the medium actually makes calmness easier.
  • Make the Argument. If you truly believe something is true and you have good intent that the world would be a better place if they agree, than explain it so others can understand. Often, we think our views are so awesome that we don’t take the time to think about it as others would. We have bumpersticker phrases that support our views even though others may not see it that way. Often those who do try to make the argument aren’t thoughtful in their explanation, but focus more on ad hominem arguments or logical “face moves.” Creating effective arguments may not only change others’ minds, they may lead to changing our own.

Megan Phelps-Roper is not a practicing Christian, and she would not now describe herself as a Christian. She saw Christianity (in the broadest sense of the term) at its worst. I can hardly condemn her for turning away. Condemnation has little value anyway, as has been shown over and over at Westboro Baptist Church.

You can see the short video by CLICKING HERE.

Mutuality and Dialogue

A section of my book “Dialogue in Diversity.” The first very rough draft is basically complete and will be reviewed by my students in “Interreligious Dialogue class.

According to Martin Buber:

The presupposition of genuine dialogue is not that the partners agree beforehand to relativize their own convictions, but that they accept each other as persons.”
Mutuality is not as commonly promoted as a Biblical virtue as some others. Yet, it is a strongly supported virtue, especially in the New Testament. Mutuality describes equal support. It implies two different aspects: Equal as position, and equal in interdependence.
Consider the figure below. The figure shows two people– A and B. In the top part of the figure is A and B in unequal positions. If they are communicating, A is “talking down” to B, The middle part of the figure shows the two in equal position, but not equal in interdependence. If they are in conversation, A is “talking at” B, with little communication back from B to A. The bottom one shows equalness in role and in interdependence. They have mutuality in conversation. A and B are “talking with” each other.
Mutuality applies to many things beyond talking.Figure x
The church has often struggled with battle between seemingly competing virtues of submission and mutuality. Typically, the church has tended to focus more on submission— submission to authorities, to parents, to husbands. Yet built into each of these is a mutuality. Jesus modeled and taught a form of leadership built on serving, not being served. Wives may be told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And that form of love involves self-sacrifice and serving. It is hardly surprising then, that the most well-known passage in the Bible, Ephesians 5:21ff, opens with an overarching call to mutuality, “Submit one to another, out of reverence to Christ,” and then returns to the theme of mutuality with the body metaphor of Christ and the church.
The book of Philemon can be read as a book of Christian mutuality. Paul appeals to Philemon no to punish Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Rather to accept him back, and even give him his freedom, and treat him as a full brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t actually order him to do that, for to do so would be to place himself as an authority. Rather Paul appeals to him as a fellow partner. The book sometimes is seen as a half-hearted rejection of slavery. However, it may better be seen as how Christian love and Jesus’ form of leadership is applied to a difficult situation, rather than law and hierarchy.
Many of the verses on mutuality are found as “one another passages.” There are dozens of these. A few of them include:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
  • …Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
  • …Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
  • …Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
  • Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
  • …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
  • …When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
  • …Have equal concern for each other. (I Cor. 12:25)
  • …Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
  • …Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
  • …Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)

These principles apply to Christians within the church. Some other statements of the same order were given by Jesus to His disciples– most famously, John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

On a strict, rather legalistic, level one could say that since these statement are given to the church for behavior within the church, it doesn’t apply to a Christian’s relationship with those outside of the church.

HOWEVER, mutuality could be understood as a logical application of the Great Commandment. If I love my Christian neighbor as myself, as Jesus so instructed and modeled, and my Christian neighbor does the same, then we relate to each other in a state of mutual love for each other. And if we do that then the other characteristics of mutuality must then also apply (we bear each other’s burdens, we encourage each other, we forgive each other, etc.).

But… the Great Commandment was not given to believers only to relate to other believers (‘love your friends, hate your enemies’). Rather it is for all followers of Christ to all peoples. We may love our families different than we love members of our church, and we may love members of our church differently than we love members of other church, and all of these different than we love strangers or enemies. Regardless, if our behavior to any group is unloving, then clearly we have failed to follow Christ. In like manner, we serve, forgive, encourage, and show hospitality, in a manner that is Christlike even for those outside the faith.

It is interesting to note that over the years mutuality has grown outside of the church, commonly influenced by the church. Sometimes they caught on and even went ahead of the church. Human rights grew out of Judeo-Christian principles where each person has basic rights that are not based on race, gender, nationality, status or achievement. The movement against slavery began largely in the church, and grew beyond the church as some churches sought to defend the practice. Servant-Leadership has now become popularized in business and governance, even while some churches defend unilateral submission.

Dialogue works best from a position of mutuality. We treat each others with respect and with equality. We are there to teach and there to learn. We are there to encourage and be encouraged. We are there to help the other grow, and grow oneself. There is no guarantee that the other will accept those terms. The other may draw away, or may seek to assume a position of authority. We have no control over the other, we only have control over ourselves.

A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

Please click on the link at the bottom of this post for an article from Jackson Wu that then links to the related article in Relevant Magazine. It is an interesting case study of a Christian who gradually moved to atheism. The seeming cause was a lack of openness in his church to dialogue and range of thought.

You can decide for yourself. But as for me, I think it is on the mark. A lack of dialogue, and the lack of freedom to disagree leads to FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). I will leave uncertainty and doubt to Wu’s posting, but let me give an example of fear.

Fear.  Consider this story– Years ago I was leading a Bible study, and some of the members wanted to study the Book of Revelation. Sure. Why not. But one of the members was very nervous about it. I asked him why. He stated that there were so many different viewpoints out there that he was worried about the group breaking down into a big fight. He was also afraid that the group may push only one orthodox view. (More recently I was in a group discussing prophecy and when I expressed my doubt, not rejection, of the future narrative provided in the materials, I was offered yet more materials to “help me.”) Anyway, I told my friend that when we go through Revelation, we will focus on what we can say with confidence (it is a book of comfort, hope, and warnings after all) and then give freedom  for diverse opinions on the rest. It was good I did this. One family, who were American missions who serve in Africa expressed belief in the interpretation of a Kenyan Theologian regarding Revelation that is rather allegorical and places the United States as the Antichrist. I was wondering at the time whether I had made a mistake in establishing such a “freedom of thought” zone. Looking back, I was glad I did. And surprisingly, although I still do not think that Kenyan Theologian is correct, I do rather see the interpretation as probably being stronger than the “Left Behind” narrative.

Being in a church environment where a forced orthodoxy does not allow for honest questions and disagreements creates an atmosphere of fear. That certainly does not aid faith.

via A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

Meriting Dialogue. Kärkkäinen Quote

““Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, evenImage result for veli karkkainen if no agreement about the truth can be reached. For consensus is not the goal of the dialogue. . . . If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. In the interfaith dialogue which has to do with what is of vital and absolute concern to men and women—with the things in which they place the whole trust of their hearts—the way is already part of the goal.” Moltmann rightly says that only those people are capable of dialogue—“merit dialogue,” as he puts it—who “have arrived at a firm standpoint in their own religion, and who enter into dialogue with the resulting self-confidence.” Thus, Moltmann continues, “it is only if we are at home in our own religion that we shall be able to encounter the religion of someone else. The person who falls victim to the relativism of the multicultural society may be capable of dialogue, but that person does not merit dialogue.””

     –by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in “Christ and Reconciliation,” p. 28.  Quoting Jurgen Moltmann in “Experiences in Theology”