Supportive Engagement

“Your indiscretions are worse than mine ANY DAY!”
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When Christians Simply Yell

On behalf of the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation (IABC)
The parent of Coffee With Paul  (CWP):

A chief goal of our gatherings (live or online) is to promote intelligent Christian conversation about our ancient sacred writings. We are pursuing the opportunity of an incredible, lively, open, generous, electrifying, and thoughtful atmosphere of the discussion of biblical texts, concepts, and ideas.

Unfortunately, that is a rare thing among Christians. Far too often, “Christians” won’t sit down at the same table with each other–they just yell across it at each other. Instead of setting an example for the world, they follow the pattern of political radio talk show hosts or of presidential debates—–which in recent times are national scandals, disgraceful, and a sign of baby-rattling self-centeredness on the part of all involved. So Christians end up either fighting or refusing to talk about anything important (thus creating a culture of mindlessness that  is unworthy of the name Christian).

The inability or unwillingness of Christians (often even within their own churches!) to be able to talk to each other and to challenge each other with an open spirit of grace is both longstanding and reprehensible.

What follows are the guidelines (not rules) we have in place for ourselves.  Not because we ourselves feel in any way superior to anyone else;  but only because we feel this is a far superior way.  We commend these kinds of guidelines for all kinds of Christian groups around the world.

What is “Supportive Engagement”?

“Conversation” for us implies a “give and take” among people of good conscience in an atmosphere that we call “supportive engagement.

Supportive Engagementhas two main elements which work together: (1) challenge, and (2) support.

  1. CHALLENGE: Many faith environments avoid “thinking” together because thinking promotes dissension!  However, in our groups we intentionally pursue a thinking environment in which we study together and engage each other for the sake of “iron sharpening iron.” In our group, you are free to advocate any belief or position you like; but you had better be ready to get challenged by someone. Challenge is not only acceptable, it is welcomed. Challenge does not imply being “argumentative” or “obnoxious.” Rather, “challenge” means the intelligent exploration of ideas with one another, especially when we disagree over one or more issues.
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    1. This implies that the challenger is mature enough so as to always try to show appropriate respect to the person he or she is challenging. It is never permissible for a challenger to attack, demean, or impugn the person whom the challenger is approaching. (This is not a presidential debate, and the disgraceful tactics used by childish candidates will not be tolerated here!) Any such attack will be stopped promptly in its tracks, and anyone who will not cooperate may be ushered out of the group altogether. Personal disputes do happen, and those disputes will need to be handled personally off the community discussion board–like two grown-up Christian people. This is a place for invigorating discussion. Mud slinging will not happen here. Following are some examples:
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      1. Appropriate: “I find your argument lacking coherence, especially at two points: (1) . . .”
      2. Inappropriate: “You are obviously incapable of thinking through a problem with any coherence . . .”
      3. Inappropriate: “You’re an idiot!” (Anything close to this will certainly get you called on the carpet, and it will possibly get you thrown out of the group.)
      4. Inappropriate: “You are trying to say . . .” or “You feel x . . . ” or “You think X . . .”  (Don’t tell people what they they think, feel, or are trying to do. Speak your own feelings and let others do that for themselves. This is good manners and it shows respect.”)
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    2. This also implies that the one being challenged is mature enough to know the difference between a personal attack and an appropriate challenge to a position or approach. Misunderstandings can occur, of course, even among mature participants, and sometimes confusion sets in. But being able to receive a challenge with grace is part of what we are about. As long as we keep in mind that we are challenging “issues” and not “people,” we will be able to resolve any misunderstandings and continue.
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    3. This also implies the acceptance of three basic principles of communication:
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      1. The sender always must take responsibility for what he or she says/writes. He or she must work to write/speak in such a way that deals with issues rather than personalities, always in an attempt to respect and NOT to offend another person. It is always appropriate if a sender chooses to reword a statement based on a perceived offense.
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      2. The receiver must take responsibility for how he or she decides to read/hear a statement. He or she must work to not “over-read” any received statement. The fact is, absolutely anything can be misunderstood and inadvertently twisted into something it was not intended to say (even this statement). There is clearly a point at which a sender is not responsible for how a reader may twist or distort a received message.E.g.: The statement: “Offensive comments are not allowed” can be interpreted: “You are accusing me of writing offensive comments!” But it does not even come close to saying that. To assume such a thing may be an aggressive and unwarranted reading on the reader’s part.
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      3. In all cases, it is legitimate for a receiver to ask a sender what is implied by a statement. In this environment, once the sender clarifies the intent, that is the end of the matter. Any response by anyone questioning the sincerity or honesty of a discussion partner will be regarded as a personal attack on that party (for calling that person a liar). This has no place in mature Christian discussion.
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  2. SUPPORT: No matter whether the sender and receiver end up agreeing, in this environment, they make a commitment to end up supporting each other for the sake of community harmony—–even if they disagree in good conscience. (And it is perfectly legitimate for them to state it as such.)
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    1. Appropriate: “Jo and I disagree with one another, yet I respect and laud her attempts to search the scriptures and to explain her position.”
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    2. At all times we resolve to interact with each other openly and honestly in a spirit always of Christian love. We offer support of each other despite particular disagreements over one matter or another.
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    3. We grant to each other that we are all doing the best we can do to understand the scriptures and be honest with ourselves. We grant that it is possible for intelligent people of good conscience to diligently study the Bible and then honestly arrive at different conclusions. We accept that it is NOT a requirement that everybody has to agree with each other in order to support each other.
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WHAT “SUPPORTIVE ENGAGEMENT” IS NOT:__

  1. It is not “agreeing to disagree.” The latter is where all tend to believe whatever we want without any need to discuss or support it.
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  2. It is not any kind of formal debate. (We are not a debating society!)
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  3. It is not a Sunday school class, a counseling session, or a feel-good session where participants tiptoe around each other so that no one will “feel any challenge.” This is honest discussion where we do not wear our feelings on our sleeves and where we support the other in challenging us. There is no promise, here, that you won’t get your feelings hurt! It depends on where you wear your feelings and what you decide to do about it that is important.
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SUMMARY: We advocate an incredible discussion environment! “Supportive Engagement” is just that: Engagement! It refers to an active and willing challenge to one another to sharpen each other. Such an approach is only possible among mature Christian adults who can and do distinguish between (1) intelligent, pointed, and direct challenge (as an actual goal), as opposed to (2) personal attacks, dismissals, or name calling (as is found in presidential debates, a thing of disgrace to everyone and which brings shame to a nation). Christians are to walk by a different set of principles.

Again, these are not rules, but guiding ideas that flow from a principle desire for something better than what the popular political arena offers. What we follow here is a kind of mindset that asks:  “What can we do to engender valuable conversation? How can we help create that and pursue that?”

I do not suggest that this is a perfect outline;  I do suggest that this kind of approach can work. As always, it depends on the people involved.

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

 

Heart Prints

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book:  Engaging Paul:  Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians.  Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014).  The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation.  Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is.  This book will challenge that notion.  The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4:  “Text and Conversation.”

Heart-Prints and Texts

More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.

This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.

So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:

Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.

A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.

Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)

Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”

It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.

So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apart from emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.

heartprints2Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.

In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.

Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.

So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.

Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.

When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.