Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Word Craft

I admire people who are good with words.  Those who are reckless with words, on the other hand, I don't respect at all.  Even though I may not agree with the content of what someone is saying or writing, I enjoy good word craft.  I listen to them carefully.  (And, the converse is true: even though I may agree with the speaker/writer, if they're using crass, inflammatory words, I don't appreciate their comments.  But I still listen to them.)  And, in light of the rancorous political scene of late, I've come to realize (even more than I did before) that some (many?) people don't have the ability (or desire?) to discern the difference between what is being said and how something is being said.  And, I wonder why?  What makes me different?

For me, it goes back to my college days, hearing things in class that I'd never heard before (or strongly disagreed with).  And, since we were often discussing the Bible (I was a double major:  religion and speech), it was unsettling to listen to someone who was obviously "wrong." Now, even though I didn't know exactly why they were wrong (except that what they were saying didn't sound like what I had always heard), I tried to enter the fray and defend the truth.  When I encountered arguments that I hadn't considered before, I realized I was in trouble.  I didn't know how to assess an opposing argument.  I didn't know how to consider another perspective.  All I knew to do was either raise my voice or attack the person or walk away after I'd launched a dismissive jab.

Then I took three classes that rocked my world:  philosophy, advanced public speaking, and hermeneutics.  Philosophy taught me how to break down an argument, analyzing first the premise (is it sound?), then how the argument proceeds (logic).  We also studied logical fallacies (tricks that debaters use to throw off their listeners, like ad hominem and non sequitur).  Advanced public speaking taught me the power of rhetoric, and why carefully crafted speeches are desirable.  How occasion is just as important as purpose.  How style and delivery matter as much as diction and structure.  Of course, the course that affected more than even these mind-blowing classes was heremenutics:  principles for interpreting biblical literature.  Realizing that none of us read the Bible as a dispassionate (read:  "objective") observer but invested "believer" opened my eyes to the reality that the Scriptures are not a literary "flat-land."  The mountains and valleys of biblical genre require travelers to read the literary landscape before making sense of where they are, what they see.  We come to the Scriptures as visitors and take with us only what we want.  That is a very troubling, ominous, sober reality.

There have been other factors, influences in my life that have shaped me to try to listen to an opposing opinion charitably.  For example, doing Ph.D. work in biblical studies forces you to read a lot of stuff you don't agree with.  But that's never enough.  You need to know why you don't agree with certain parts of a scholar's work--even appreciating their line of thinking, wearing their perspective, using their method.  That's why I've never been satisfied with a lazy, "all-or-nothing" approach--those who dismiss that scholar as "liberal" or that one as an "unbeliever."  For, I've discovered that sometimes the liberal, Jewish scholar is paying closer attention to the Scriptures than the conservative "believer" out to defend the faith at all costs.

I've also been a pastor--an office that compels you to listen to (and care about!) people you don't agree with (that, in and of itself, was an eye-opening experience.)  I wish lay people had to be "paid professional" ministers at least one time in their lives.  Then you'll know what Jesus meant when he said, "love your enemy"--yes, your pastor has enemies in your church.

Which brings me back to what happened last night on Facebook.  Even though I didn't vote for President Obama (and often disagreed with his policies), I have great admiration for his ability as a public speaker.  I said as much, offering a little note of appreciation for his farewell address. Most of the comments revealed they missed my point, attacking the President with reckless abandon, snide remarks, and caustic asides.  Most of my "friends" are Christians, but a few comments revealed a pure hatred for Obama. It was breathtaking.  One wonders what they think Jesus meant when he commanded us to "love our enemies."  Does that include words too?

Yes it does, which is why I plan to listen to our President-Elect carefully and charitably--even though at times he is reckless with his words.