Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Everyone wants to be heard, literally

Have you noticed how often people are injecting the word "literally" into their conversations?

It's happening all the time, or at least it seems to me.  Perhaps it's like the word "like," but for different reasons. 

Years ago, when teenagers dominated our home, we had a "like" tax at our house.  When one of the kids would tell their story (interjecting the simile-marker), I would hold up my hand, raising a finger with every "like" word (heh, heh, get it?).  Usually that provoked rolled eyes and exasperated gasps, but it worked.  My teenage children policed their diction and then would add, "This is just the way my friends talk.  I can't help it."  Of course, we adults would laugh with derision at the nonsensical word filler, knowing our conversation skills were far superior.

That was until the new "like" word began to pop up in adult conversation.  Listen carefully.  Adults love to throw in the word "literally" like a valley girl (did it again).  Indeed, "literally" seems like the anti-valley girl filler, literally (somebody stop me).  When teenagers in southern California had a hard time gathering their thoughts, they threw in a simile now and then, perhaps to avoid the dim-witted "uhhhhh" (I'm probably giving too much credit to valley girls to explain the phenomenon that lasted for decades).  Adults, on the other hand, with all of our mental faculties, have taken a different tact.  Rather than rely upon similes to fill in the gaps, we throw in a word to be heard.

In the space of a half hour, I heard it three times this morning.  Watching the news about the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma caused by a tornado, one of the reporters said, "The tornado literally mowed down everything in its path like a lawn-mower."  One of my family members used the word, literally.  Then, on my way to work, I no sooner turned on the radio when I heard a reporter on NPR say (referring to a new "quantum mechanics" computer), "It's literally a black box."

I think I'm literally getting tired of hearing the word.  So, why do we do it?

I have a hunch that it has something to do with the volume of words we try to take in everyday, the cacophony of voices that clamor for our attention.  Everybody has something to say.  Everyone has an opinion about everything, literally.  But, we all have a sneaky suspicion that no one's listening.  Think of how many words are spoken per day.  Thousands?  Millions?  Zillions?  Really, are there enough ears in the world to hear it all?  Besides, in a world where metaphors and similes dominate the landscape of everyday speech, throwing in another "like" won't help.  So, what do we do to be heard?  Shouting seems to be the recourse of political pundits and angry citizens.  Sound bytes are fading in their appeal (television is wearing them out).  Seems our latest strategy is to pique the interest of our listeners by appealing to what we say "literally."

So, here's an approach that I hope will become fashionable (I can dream, can't I?).  Perhaps we should use silence to get others to listen.  Rather than add to the madness, where everyone is talking at once, maybe the best approach to being heard is to say nothing.  Rather than assume that just because it passes through the gray matter between our ears people must hear it, maybe we should keep our mouths shut for a change. Then, when we speak, people might listen to what we have to say.

Wouldn't that be a welcome change, especially after the latest disaster that brings out every opinion--crazy or not--from every corner of the world, literally?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Jesus we'll never know

Among several enigmatic moments in the gospels, there are two stories that I don't understand, two times when Jesus doesn't make sense to me at all.

1. After sending out the twelve to recover the "lost sheep of Israel" in Matthew's gospel, Jesus offers a blistering critique of the town and villages he (and the twelve?) had visited because they didn't repent after seeing his miracles.  Then he offers a prayer, thanking God for the situation by adding, "Nobody gets me and nobody gets you; I'm the only one who knows you and you're the only one who knows me" (obviously my paraphrase).

2.  At the peak of his career, Jesus asks the twelve about the scuttlebutt, "What are people saying about me?"  They dutifully report what they've heard, "Some say you're Jeremiah, some say John the Baptizer come back from the dead, others say you're the reincarnation of somebody famous, like one of the prophets."  To which Jesus makes no reply other than to ask, "What about you?  Who do you think I am?" (again my paraphrase).  And in Matthew's version, when Peter blurts out the right answer ("you're the One"), Jesus falls all over Peter as if he's just won the final question in Jeopardy.

One moment, Jesus is convinced nobody understands him.  Later, he wants to know what people think.  At first, Jesus doesn't care about his reputation.  The next he seems to act like a nervous teenager, obsessing over what others are saying about him.  Or, another way of looking at it, in the beginning Jesus didn't care what people thought.  But, toward the end, he seems oblivious to the implications of how wrong people can be--even when it comes to their opinions about him.  In other words, I don't understand Jesus' response to these two episodes regarding public opinion.  Rather, I would've expected something like this:

1. What Jesus should have said was, "You don't know me now.  But one day you'll understand."

2.  What Jesus should have said was, "How ridiculous is that?  Now, you all know by now that I'm not Jeremiah, or the Baptizer, or even one of the great prophets reincarnated, right?"

Which got me to thinking:  is it possible that Matthew 11:27 is still true today, that none of us really get him?  Is it probable that our ideas about him are just as ludicrous as the scuttlebutt reported by the twelve at Caesarea-Philippi?

On the one hand, I want to say, "no," because we have the Spirit to guide us in all truth.  On the other hand, I'm wondering if our view of Jesus, our perceptions of "who he really is," are in fact skewed, slightly off, a bit over-worked, a little myopic, perhaps even provincial.  In other words, we may not know him as well as we think.  Maybe there's a part of him we'll never know, never figure out, never understand.  And, perhaps Jesus, knowing our misperceptions, would say the same thing today, "Nobody really gets me."

That sentiment certainly cuts against the grain of our inclination to speak infallibly about him, as if no one understands Jesus like we do--especially when someone tells us their ideas about Jesus that sound so wrong.  Indeed, we tend to think we've got him right and many others don't get him at all.  And, I wonder what Jesus would say about that.  Would he encourage us to pray, "Father, no one understands Jesus and therefore no one understands you."  Or, would he remain silent when we tell him how wrong people can be?