Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How important is presentation?

I'm very sad to report that I've lost what may have been my only reader. I apparently offended them enough that they no longer want to know me any further. Being the type of person I am, my first reaction was "Oh well." Because I rarely care what people think about me or my ideas. But then I remembered how annoyed I get by most street preachers and other in-your-face proponents of my faith and ideas. Why am I annoyed by them? It's not their message. (Usually) It's the method by which they present that faith. Telling people that they will suffer for eternity if they don't start believing like me is not conducive to a loving relationship with God. For one, because most people simply don't believe it anymore, but more importantly, because those who do make a religious decision based on fear are more likely to be working the system then they are to be lovers of God and His ways. It's what we call fire insurance. And it's a relationship with God based on selfish motives. (Not wanting to go to hell.) So Christianity is presented as a sort of business arrangement. You go to church, pay your tithe, and check the box marked Christian on all the polls, and in return you go to heaven. I don't see the love there.

Then there are those who promise prosperity to those who will convert. They say God will make you wealthy if you just believe hard enough. He will answer your prayer if you give enough. Obviously this line of thinking gets you in the same kind of contractual mindset as the first.

Both of these presentations of my faith are fundamentally flawed and lead to bad religion. Not the band. Well, maybe the band. But mostly a faith that seems to run parallel to Christianity, but slowly and surely bends further and further from it. And what those initial presentations have that so offends me is that they share the same tactics as high-pressure sales. "You can't possibly keep driving your current car. It's a death trap! Think of your children. The safety rating on THIS beauty is so much higher." And, "Your neighbors will be green with envy when you pull this gorgeous automobile into your driveway."

So now I have to ask myself, am I presenting my beliefs in such a way that will unnecessarily turn people off to the gospel? It's something I want to explore, because of the nature of the letter I got from my gentle ex reader. They didn't say that my ideas were bad, my logic flawed, or that Christianity is just for losers. No, they said: "I think I finally see the true you, and I don't think you are somebody I want to know any further." This is a profoundly personal attack. (Please don't think I'm whining, it really doesn’t bother me.) This says that they have discovered my essence, and found it of so little value that they are choosing to never listen to me again. They go on further to say that they think I am being hypocritical and judgmental in a mocking way.

So I think there are three possible explanations for this. One would be that this person was just so offended by my ideas that they chose to lash out at me personally. (Something that I think everyone does from time to time.) Another option would be that I truly presented my ideas in a condescending manner, which exposed a real character flaw that is so repulsive it drives people away. I won't deny that this is a possibility. A third explanation would be that my beliefs are intrinsically offensive, and therefore a certain number of people will naturally find them -and the bearer of them- offensive.

Oh, and a forth option would be a big mixture of all of the above. This is probably closest to the truth, but I find that there is usually an option that is MOST true.

It would be really easy for me to argue option 3. Jesus said many times, and showed us even more, that His message offends people. He said he is a rock of offence that many will stumble over. He pissed off the religious elite and the secular rulers. He beat down a bunch of merchants selling animals in the temple. He hung out with prostitutes, ex-demoniacs, and thieves. The guy was clearly not trying to win any popularity contests. So I could easily claim all that stuff, dismiss my ex reader's rejection as a rejection of truth itself, and move on just fine. But isn't that exactly what the fire-and-brimstone street prophet thinks every time someone spits on him? Or the televangelist says when their ratings fall? Yet I point at them and say, "It's your presentation that is flawed!" So I need to look at the four fingers pointing back at me for a bit.

OK, so that's the religious counterargument I could make. Here is the philosophical one… If someone believes that no one can know absolute truth, as postmodernists and most agnostics think, then anyone who claims to know it must seem to be an insufferably arrogant person. Therefore any postmodernist believes any fundamentalist is arrogant. Therefore my ex-reader could never have a positive impression of me since I claim to know an absolute truth. Though I think I have made is clear that I don't believe I know this truth because of any merit of my own. I have said before, I, and every other Christian have been given revelation, not because we deserve it, but because God freely gives it to any who ask. Anyway. That is another way I could dismiss this persons apparent disgust… By showing that our philosophies are like oil and water.

But do I want to leave it at that? I suspect that probably accounts for everything. But I've been wrong before about a great many things. So I wonder, is there a better way for me to present what I believe to be truth? I could tailor my message to a postmodernist by downplaying all the absolute statements Christ made, and emphasizing that I don't know any of this for sure. But then I'd be pandering just like the prosperity preachers pander to the selfish. I guess there is no easy way to present an incompatible worldview to people who don't like what you have to say. I suppose that is why we need the Holy Spirit to guide us as we interact with those around us.

But what about the written word. There is no way to customize your message to an individual in this medium. There is no way to become silent when you notice that you should be, or warm your tone when you feel you may have upset someone.

With that in mind I'm looking over the offending entry and weeding out what could cause someone to dislike me so much. (Beyond just stating what I believe is truth.) I did use the word stupid to describe a moderate position on abortion. I usually try to avoid that because using the word stupid to describe something generally a shortcut for lazy thinking. It means you object to something, but you don't want to take the time to explain why. But in this case, I think I clearly articulated why I believe that position is stupid. And I have never heard a satisfactory rebuttal to the argument. Although that doesn’t give me the right to insinuate that people who disagree with me are stupid. Though I make a distinction between the quality of an idea, and the person who holds the idea, I recognize that many people do not. So I will strive to omit words like stupid from my writing from now on.

Another potentially offensive thing I said was that agnosticism is a place where men go to bury their hearts. Again, I draw a clear distinction between the validity of an idea, and the validity of a person who believes it. And when it comes to this statement, I am reporting what I have seen. Because I believe God gave us our hearts to give back to Him, the philosophy of agnosticism kills the intended purpose of our hearts. We can't very well give God our heart when we aren't sure if we believe in Him or not. So am I saying that agnostics are heartless? No. I'm saying they aren't doing what they should be doing with their hearts. But I can see how what I said could be taken the wrong way.

I guess this exercise was motivated by my desire to never get in the way of the message that God wants me to bring to people. I don't care if the message offends people. That is between them and God. But if my method for delivering that message is what is offensive then I have done a grave disservice to God and my audience. Therefore I want to be careful about how I present myself, my ideas, and my God.

And just in case my gentle ex-reader happens to drift through here again… I'm sorry that I offended you.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>>> Another option would be that I truly presented my ideas in a condescending manner, which exposed a real character flaw that is so repulsive it drives people away.

Yes, that's the one.

Please let me clarify. I am someone with similar faith as you, although a more exploratory mindset on certain things. I found that last essay so deeply condesending, that it almost made me angry.

I spend time reading religous and philosophical blogs, because they are inspiring and interesting to me. Yours especially, because you're honest and really think about your faith as well as applying it to your daily life.

I live in an area in the south where there are a certain branch of Christians that are always telling people who disagree with them, or even have a slightly altered view of the gospel from them, that they are "going to hell", etc. Even if they don't SAY it, you know they think it. It's extremely condescending to point at somebody and say "I'm right, you're wrong. God will punish you with eternal damnation because you havent figured out the "right" way of thinking like I have." Especially when it's followed with "I'll pray for your poor soul."

I guess that kind of thinking is always in the subtext of any faith, but I have always been and always will be shocked and disappointed when it comes to the surface and rears it's ugly head.

I have never sensed this aspect of thinking in your writing before. But wow, you sure did have a lot to say about other people's flawed thinking the other day. You have to understand, that as a writer, as soon as you tell your audience that they are "stupid" or intrinsically flawed because they may have different ideas than you, that there is no longer any room for thought or conversation. I mean, what can somebody say to that?

Of course the very fact that you addressed the issue is admirable. In fact, I came back because I had a feeling you'd address it. For the record, the personal attack wasn't exactly meant like that. Like I explained, it was a bit of a sore subject before you said a word. I still think you're a decent, well meaning person. Although, for me, as a person interested in learning more about your spirituality, I definitely felt smacked in the face by that entry.

On a side note, this deep offence that I've felt is probabaly the exact same emotion that has started holy wars throuout history. I think we need more people in this world who have an honest interest in hearing other people's thoughts on faith, religion and spirituality. ESPECIALLY if they disagree. Don't you?

10:19 PM  
Anonymous hexacrab said...

My question was,why did they (the complainer) respond in such a mean way? Why try to make you feel bad when they could simply stop reading your blog? I have often had stupid ideas, and having them called stupid never offended me. Having me called stupid, that I admit I don't like, though I have gotten rather used to it. I liked your article so much I printed it up and read it at the breakfast table to two other families and we had quite the discussion about it. Thank you for your blogs.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As him (the complainer)... I too am always moved by joshua's messages. that's why I read them.

Joshua: you see, I'm NOT your only reader! I may have been offended, but hey, this is your blog. Say what your heart says, and say it loud. THAT is true American freedom at work.

Hexicrab: I got the impression that he is always open to conversation. I hope he continues to be that way. As a writer, I also hope he continues to contimplate how his message effects others. In other words, it was not my intention to be mean...only true to my own feelings in reaction to his written word.

11:18 PM  
Anonymous hk said...

"In other words, it was not my intention to be mean...only true to my own feelings in reaction to his written word."

It sounds like Josh wrote something, true to his own feelings about life's experiences, and it offended someone, when, just like you, he wasn't meaning to.

I like to hear what both of you have to say. I'm sorry to hear that it may be the end to read what you,anonymous, have to say.

There are so many different ways that people try to find comfort and stability in this world and try to find their meaning and destiny, and many are content chasing after dreams, money, drugs, education, philosophy, science, ect. to make life more fulfilling.

Many choose religion.

To find the "One" or the "God" that truly satisfies the hunger and emptiness that seem to latch onto us, no matter how successful or unsuccessful we are at reaching our dreams, must be quite freeing. To know that even when this world hurts us with poverty, persecution, cancer, disease, destruction, emotional emptiness, and even to the point of physical death, that there is someone out there who cares about our eternity...whatever that means.... and however long that is.

We are all trying to make sense of it the "best we can." But there are so many things that even the most intelligent can't explain, even at their 'best.'

10:47 PM  

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