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Communicating Clearly
How do we deal with the reality that there will always be some people who don’t understand what we are saying?

I spent a half an hour on the telephone this morning talking with a friend of mine who is a prominent Canadian Christian journalist. She sometimes writes for mainstream publications and recently was hammered by a number of readers for a column of hers.

… it is becoming more and more difficult to communicate because of three related issues…

After we commiserated (I, too, occasionally write things with which not everyone heartily agrees – no, it’s true!), we agreed on some observations that apply well beyond the work of journalists or professors.

Any good writer tries to anticipate the mentality of her readers: what they know and what they don’t know, yes, but also their prejudices, their expectations, their hopes and their fears.

In Canada today, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to communicate because of three related issues: what people know or don’t know, what they think they know but don’t actually know, and what inflames their passions, whether based on facts or not.

What can the writer – or speaker, or preacher, or evangelist, or broadcaster, or neighbour – assume her audience already knows and believes?

When I taught introductory courses in world religions at a public university in the 1990s, I had to assume that my students knew nothing in particular about religion. I knew that these bright, motivated young people knew lots of things individually, of course, and that many of them knew a lot about one religion or another.

What I could not assume, however, is that all of them knew who Moses was, or who Jesus was, let alone Muhammad or Krishna or Confucius. I could not assume any particular knowledge of any religion, and had to start each section from scratch.

That’s the situation nowadays in society at large. It is complicated further, however, because lots of people think they do know things about Christianity – or about Islam or atheism or Roman Catholics or Evangelicals or New Agers or Mormons or whatever – when it turns out they don’t.

This problem has hit me repeatedly as I’ve read comments on my blog or taken calls on talk radio: there is always someone who confidently, even belligerently, asserts something on the basis of what he is quite sure is factual – and is plainly mistaken.

No, the Gnostic Gospels do not show Jesus more clearly than do the New Testament ones. No, Hinduism or Buddhism do not teach merely compassion and acceptance of everybody everywhere. No, creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive categories. And so on, and so on. What makes the whole situation so much more difficult, however, is the passionate bias so many people bring to the conversation. Many Canadians hear any call to act morally as ethical imperialism or paternalistic condescension. Many Canadians interpret any admiration for a particular religion as a complicit denunciation of everybody else’s. Many Canadians understand any commendation of Christianity in particular as a defence of clergy child abuse or money-grubbing TV preachers or morality police.

So what can we do? We can do what good communicators have always done: Identify as clearly and as comprehensively as we can the likely areas of ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice in our audience. And take pains to fill in the gaps, straighten out the knots and calm the anxieties so that our message has a chance of getting through.

To do that, of course, we need to know our audience well, and that means to listen sympathetically to the audience, which is not easy to do when you’re being yelled at. We should also accept the reality that we simply aren’t going to be able to communicate clearly with everyone, let alone convince everyone.

Therefore, we’re going to have to be clear about our calling, which entails being clear about who God wants us chiefly to serve. We’ll have to do our best by them, hope we can serve others also, and take our hits when someone outside our target audience listens in and gets outraged by what we said or what we didn’t say.

Jesus, let’s recall, didn’t communicate clearly with everybody, either, and for the same three reasons.

John Stackhouse teaches apologetics at Regent College, Vancouver, and blogs occasionally for The National Post. His own weblog is at http://stackblog.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2010.

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