Probably as the result of the political correctness debate—well, perhaps not debate; more brouhaha—I hear or read frequent complaints about an expectation of courteous speech as though it’s an imposition. In order to cater to someone’s excessively fragile sensibilities, the argument goes, one is expected to deny the truth in favor of “political correctness.” In this case, political correctness is in quotes, because it tends to refer to even the mere suggestion that one might change one’s approach to presenting a viewpoint.
I do believe there is such a thing as political correctness. You identify it by taking note of the term political. It’s an officially imposed form of courtesy, carried out by policies such as speech codes. I’m vigorously opposed to speech codes in any sort of public institution. I think they are generally problematic in private institutions, though privately owned organizations should be able to make their own policies. As a publisher, I certainly maintain standards for what I will publish.
But the term “political correctness” has come to be applied to any expectation of courtesy, not just a code enforced by law or authority. Having hundreds or thousands of people disapprove of your speech does not censor you or deny you free speech. It merely means that those hundreds or thousands of people will disapprove of what you say. Which is their right.
Here’s an illustration of how to distinguish these ideas. Reasonably shortly after I turned 21 I realized that my driver’s license, by proving my birthday and thus my age, gave me the power to go see an X-rated movie. So, lacking good taste at the time, and apparently having money to waste, I found an “adult” cinema, showed my license, bought my ticket, and headed it to enjoy this privilege of age. Within five minutes I left again, never to return. I’m not totally prudish. I’ve watched some pretty hard “R” movies. I just insist on a story. One that the writers received more than pocket change to produce.
In that way I exercised an appropriate form of censorship on pornographic movies. I never again provided them with my hard-earned cash.
The alternative would be to go on a crusade to ban their product. I know many people who would do precisely that. I don’t plan to debate that issue in this post. What I want you to see is the difference.
An expectation of courtesy is not the same thing as a requirement that you be courteous. When a public university says that you must use certain terms in discussion, then that becomes a legal requirement. I call that political correctness. Why do I specify public? Because the university is taxpayer supported. I generally oppose speech codes in private schools as well, but in that case it is a matter of my support for genuine dialog, which requires genuine expression of a participant’s uncensored views, rather than an opposition to a public policy.
So what does this have to do with courtesy being for the other person?
Well, remember those hundreds, thousands, and I might add millions of people who may demand courtesy of you? The question for you is whether you prefer to just annoy them, or if you would like to get a hearing for your ideas. If you wish simply to annoy them, go ahead. Be my guest. You probably won’t be welcome as theirs. But if you have ideas that are important to you, ones you want to express truthfully and with vigor, you will need to consider your goal. If you want to get a hearing, you’ll need to combine “vigor” with “courtesy” or they will exercise their freedom and ignore you. Or, as often happens, abandon courtesy and treat you with the same contempt you show for them.
This applies to any discussion, including both religion and politics. Frequently I hear things that are claimed to be arguments for Christianity against atheism or some other viewpoint that are actually simply ways to make Christians feel better about themselves. Taunting atheists with “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1) is a good, simple example. To you it is “truth” and you are just exercising your human freedom and “telling it like it is.” You can then slap the back of laughing fellow-Christians or fist-bump, or whatever you want, congratulating yourself on the point you’ve made by telling the truth.
But you have likely simply made it harder for the next Christian who would like to engage that atheist in actual dialog about matters of faith.
“But I’m just quoting the Bible,” you say.
“Out of context,” I reply. Nowhere does the Bible tell you to taunt unbelievers by calling them fools. In fact, it says something quite different (Matthew 5:22).
We taunt fellow-Christians in similar ways. I remember a class I led some years back. Some of the participants had been spoken of in a negative way by other members of their church. They went around the group talking about the unfairness and how inappropriate it was to treat them this way. I couldn’t resist asking this: “Have you treated any non-believers as you have been treated by fellow church members?” Many admitted that they had.
I hardly need to provide examples of how we taunt people who disagree with us politically. Then quite frequently we taunt them again if they don’t want to stay around and listen to us taunt them.
If you want to isolate your ideas and grow your contituency only by raising new members from infants (and beware of them leaving!), then by all means, treat courtesy as an imposition. Regard it as something that keeps you from letting people know how things really are.
But if you’d like your ideas to spread, learn how to express the truth in a courteous manner.
Oh, and a note to all. Disagreeing with you or thinking you’re wrong isn’t discourteous. It’s a matter of the way things are expressed.
One of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.
Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!
Outlining is a valuable practice in Bible study. It can
- Help you understand the relationship between sections of a passage
- Direct you to the key point
- Clarify ambiguities
- Give you a feel for the structure of an author’s argument
Clearly some of these overlap.
One of the common practices in teaching the Bible, however, is to provide an outline. Providing such an outline can be very helpful, but we need to remember that the outline is also an interpreter’s opinion about the passage and needs to be considered critically.
An illustration of the problem here can be found in the way laws are often named. “An act to prevent crime in the county” may be optimistic or even outright misleading. Frequently it will at least be controversial. Let’s suppose that “An act to prevent gun crime” provides restrictions on gun sales and ownership. Someone’s view of how likely such a law is to be successful will impact whether they believe the title is accurate or not.
Section headings in Bibles fall into the same category. We often absorb them without thinking, and quite commonly there’s nothing wrong with them. But precisely because we don’t pay attention to them, they can subtly alter our understanding of a passage.
I recently reminded a Sunday School class of this when we concluded in our study that a passage was talking about something other than the section heading. That heading is part of the editorial activity in producing that Bible edition and not part of the original text, as are verse numbers and paragraphing.
Outlining is good, but before you settle on a particular structure, look at the material for yourself.
Frequently when there is a crisis or any form of trouble, Christians call for prayer. These calls can take many forms. In addition, a common comment from Christians is that we will pray about a situation.
Now it’s quite possible that someone who says they will pray will limit their activities to just praying. It’s even possible that they won’t even bother with that. We are all human, and we often make insincere statements.
I think, however, that the majority both pray and also do other, concrete things. For those who have prayer as an important part of their spiritual life, it can be a critical part of action.
I discussed this with Dr. David Moffett-Moore, author of Pathways to Prayer, Life as Pilgrimage, and some other books, and I think he made these points extremely well.
It’s unfortunate that the common perception of prayer, a perception that is far too common in the church, is that prayer is primarily about getting God to do things our way, so that the test of the success of prayer is whether we get something or whether God’s (perceived) action changes. One of the primary ways in which prayer “functions” (a questionable word, but one that will have to do), is by changing us and driving our decisions and actions.
Here’s the video:
One of my favorite TV episodes of all time is the West Wing episode In Excelsis Deo. In it, Toby Ziegler arranges a funeral for a homeless veteran of the Korean War who died of exposure. Toward the end, President Bartlet is asking Toby about his use of the president’s name to arrange it.
” … you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?” he asks.
“I can only hope,” says Toby.
This also illustrates for me the potential power of fiction. There is no President Bartlet, nor any Toby Ziegler as White House Communications Director. They are characters in a drama. Nor is there really any Walter Huffnagel with a brother named George who is “slow.”
Yet there are thousands of Huffnagels, and many of them will not find a Toby Ziegler, no “powerful person” as Toby calls himself, to arrange something for them. There are also thousands of potential Toby Zieglers, potential moments such as the this fictional moment.
Will those people come out of the woodwork?
One can only hope …
You can watch the final portion of the show on YouTube (playback elsewhere has been disabled by the owner).
In the good old days when I had time to do fantasy role-playing games, stodgy traditionalists would object that it wasn’t real. Why spend your time on something that isn’t real? This was often said by people who would spend hours watching and discussing football games with approximately the same effect on reality. But I see one great advantage to those fantasy games (and to fantasy literature, for that matter). They don’t pretend to be real.
And thus I turn to the fantasy world of modern politics, in which speeches are written by teams of people who test out turns of phrase and issues on samples of target groups, then place the text on teleprompters to be read by otherwise often incoherent people. The issues emphasized in the politicians’ campaigns are not those the politician things are important. Rather, they are what researchers have determined seem important to the public. The solutions proposed are not those that the politician believes will really work. Instead, they are those that will sound good to a particular constituency.
The controversy about Melania Trump’s speech, with its plagiarized section, bundled the problems of our modern political discourse into one small package. A speaker uses plagiarized lines put there (accidentally) by a speechwriter, and never even recognized by the person presenting the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump or his campaign, but I can easily understand how this happens. The speech writers doubtless studied speeches by first ladies and potential first ladies for material. You get scraps of this stuff all over the computer, and eventually you drop the wrong one into place. Friends forgive you. Enemies won’t, but they wouldn’t in any case, so it doesn’t matter that much. The media spends huge amounts of time discussing it. Then bloggers like me discuss the whole thing all over again.
I don’t have any idea how close this was because I didn’t listen to or read the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump; in fact, I can think of huge numbers of things that I dislike about him. This doesn’t make the list.
Why? Because it’s part of that fantasy land that political marketing has created for us, the media propagates for us, and we go ahead and consume, no matter how much we may say we don’t believe the media. Yes, it’s our problem. Even those who most claim that the media is biased frequently let themselves be influenced by it. What they really mean when they say they don’t believe the media, is that they don’t believe it when it contradicts their prejudices. When it supports those prejudices it’s just fine. The people who put in the dollars know how it works. There’s a whole industry (at least one) built on hating the mainstream media.
When I speak, I do so either without notes or with the minimum of notes. I have occasionally used a prepared text, but I didn’t follow it, even though I did write it. Sometimes I have notes to tell me what topics to avoid due to limited time. If a politician wants me to listen to a speech, he or she will have to work in just that way. If your text is prepared, let it be your words. In all cases, let it be your ideas expressed your way. Then I’ll listen. I’m sorry, but in my preferred fantasy universe, speech writers would be out of a job.
I know that no politician can know everything necessary to handling the issues that the president must address. Fine! Let the candidate produce the team members who would talk about those issues, and have them talk about them. “Look,” says the candidate, “I’m not an expert on the middle east, but here’s the person whose judgment I trust most.” It could be sort of like the British shadow ministers, except that it lasts just for the campaign.
In the meantime, folks, politics is a great deal like a marketing campaign for widgets, except that there is no FTC to take the politicians to court for false advertising. In that atmosphere, a couple of plagiarized paragraphs might manage to be as important as one H2O molecule in the ocean.
One of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.
Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.
When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.
You can get more complete information on the Energion.com News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.
I’ve completed the second chapter of Deuteronomy in the CBC commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it may surprise some that I’ve felt a bit of a letdown as I moved from the variety of liturgy and laws, though interspersed with narrative, that is Numbers. It might surprise you less if you realize that my personal theology (and I think we all have one), is built on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, though not necessarily in that order. That’s the order in which I started studying the books seriously, however.
For most Christian readers of Hebrew scripture, I think that getting into Deuteronomy is a bit of a relief. Reading Genesis through the first half of Exodus goes pretty smoothly, but then one bogs down on all those details of building the sanctuary, and you get them twice: instructions and implementation. Then when you’ve worked your way through that you get to Leviticus, which contains so much liturgy, along with obscure laws on issues we generally don’t face. Numbers is a little less dismal, and then Deuteronomy starts to give us propositional theology that we can get our teeth into.
I was there before I spent serious time in Leviticus. I don’t claim expertise; that takes incredible amounts of study. But I’ve spent a great deal of time on the text. There’s a great deal that one can learn from that liturgy, including the simple fact that liturgy matters. Those of us who are not “high church” tend to think that the way in which worship is conducted isn’t very important. It’s mostly a time to accomplish our goals, often divided between “worship” (when that’s defined as musical), and “sharing the Word,” and of course those who believe one or the other is critical can have some great debates.
But we can learn a great deal from the ancient liturgy, and I think we can either increase or diminish our impact on the world around us through constructive liturgy. This is not an argument for high church liturgy. I am also not arguing that worship only takes place in worship services, much less that worship can be equated to music. All our activities should be done in worship to our creator.
But there is a time for us to act out for ourselves and for others the nature of the church as a community, and coming together at a common place and at a common time to share in activities as a community is, I think a critical part of this. Unfortunately, we have a variety of ways to avoid this. We may reject gathering together entirely. It may be a time when an ordained pastor occupies most of the time explaining to us what he believes we should believe. It may be a time to experience an emotional high as part of musical or artistic endeavors. It may be a scripted program that is ancient and could be meaningful, but is carried out by rote.
But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It can be, instead, a time when we gather together and join in activities that encourage one another and prepare us to face the world around us as effective witnesses for Jesus. I don’t think there’s a particular set of activities that make this happen. I do think it’s possible because I have seen and experienced it.
God doesn’t just communicate in one way. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear, and presents Jesus as the ultimate communication from our creator (amongst other things that reinforce that idea). The Torah (or Pentateuch) presents these different ways. We have liturgy helping to teach the people and to shape them into God’s people. We have story, showing us people experiencing God’s activity in the world, and we have theological propositions. I kind of prefer the liturgy, but that’s just me. Here we have all three demonstrated.
I think that neglecting one or the other leaves us with potentially skewed views of God. We need both the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and the God who is sorry that He created humanity (Genesis 6:6). The same God also forgives a poor Israelite who can’t even afford a bird as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:11).
So I guess I won’t be let down and instead enjoy the change!
(For studying the Bible as story, try Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure by Dr. Bruce Epperly.)