Listening to the Unlikely

Here is an incontrovertible truth: I enjoy expressing my opinion. Anyone who blogs joins me in that category, as does anyone who tweets or updates his or her Facebook page; or teaches, or preaches, or otherwise speaks in public; or writes journalism, or scholarly articles, or books; or broadcasts, webcasts, podcasts, and otherwise -casts….

Here is another incontrovertible truth: I sometimes learn things by writing or speaking. The act of consolidating my thoughts, compressing them into the space allowed by the medium I’m using, ordering them for intelligibility, and even presenting them with what I hope is a little élan often clarifies, sometimes expands, and even occasionally outright changes what I thought.

But here is the last of the axioms for today: I learn most of what I learn not by communicating my own thoughts, but by attending to someone else’s.

Nothing novel here, of course. But what challenges me today is Proverbs 18:2: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” And I thought immediately of the online world of discourse. Didn’t you?

How many times have you finished a provocative weblog post or column or article and sought out the Comments section only to be dismayed, even repulsed, by the horrible goings-on therein? The ratio of “pleasure in understanding” to “expressing personal opinion” is shockingly small. So few people apparently willing to consider an alternative. So many apparently quick on the draw to once again smite Evil in the name of Good.

Yet so much of what I have learned, I have learned not by warring with, but by listening to, people I initially thought to be contemptible, either morally or intellectually disqualified from any respectful attention:

Friedrich Nietzsche: violently anti-Christian

Simone de Beauvoir: worldly feminist

John Calvin: promoter of a God who enjoyed damning people

F. D. E. Schleiermacher: father of liberal (= heretical) theology

Augustine: very old Catholic

All nineteenth-century Bible critics: highfalutin’ enemies of Scripture

Pentecostals: hysterical, superficial, spiritual chauvinists

Karl Marx: reductionistic religion-hater

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: extreme idealist turned confusing worldling

Reinhold Niebuhr: chaplain to power

Mennonites: old-fashioned, irrelevant bumpkins

The entire discipline of sociology: elaborate proof of the obvious

Well, that uses up all the humility I have, just to list those few prejudices and stereotypes that kept me from learning—and for quite a while, in some cases.

But I did get over those barriers, began to listen, and learned a lot.

I wonder, then, whom I am tempted to write off today and thereby stop my ears to anything useful, let alone true, they might have to say.

The Tea Party?

Richard Dawkins?

Joel Osteen?

Fox News…or CNN?

Mark Driscoll…or Rob Bell?

Deepak Chopra?

Lena Dunham?

The Parti Québecois?

Marine Le Pen?

I should at least be asking why so many people find these people interesting and even inspiring. What is going on here, and what can I learn from that? What do they know that I ought to know? What are they saying that I should be saying?

It’s easier, and often more fun, to express my personal opinion about such obviously mistaken people. I might learn something in that process . . . but probably not as much as I will learn if I listen, hard, instead.

(Don’t worry, loyal readers: There’ll be more personal opinion coming your way soon…)


9 Responses to “Listening to the Unlikely”

  1. Donna-Jean Brown

    Hear, hear! Wondrous what God can teach us through our “enemies”.

  2. Robert Stroud

    This certainly is a humbling truth. I could easily compose two such lists of my own. (In fact, there would be quite a bit of overlap with yours.)

    Knowing how shallowly some people read posts, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn you “offended” some readers in various camps because of your past prejudices… such readers will have missed the fact that the problems caused by such stereotyping are actually what you are describing, and regretting.

  3. Mark

    Yes, well said and true. And (not but!) I hope you will continue to contribute penetrating public criticism of parties such as those listed above. (Of course, the best criticism comes from one who has taken her/his opponent seriously. Point taken.)

  4. Victor Robidas

    I think, as Christians, it is important that we keep our eyes on God and His inspired word! Since God is not a respecter of persons, it is important that we keep to the task at hand! Clearly, we are asked to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” {Mark 16:15}, I suggest that what any of these groups or persons have to say are irrelevant!

    Prophecy is such that everything will fall into place to fulfill that which is word speaks of! Let there be no doubt, God is in control and His will, will be done! With the rapture of His saints (1 Thess 4:16) fast approaching, so subject will matter more than who has accepted Christ and who has not! Let us focus on making sure that others are brought to Christ…..

    As Christians, if we learn anything from our enemies (also enemies of God), it should be to never take our eyes of the Lord!

    • John

      Brother Victor, this is the kind of sincere, but extremely narrow, understanding of our mission in the world that I grew up with among the sincere, but extremely narrow, Plymouth Brethren of that place and time. (Not all Brethren thought that way, I hasten to say.)

      Keeping your eyes on God and the Bible is a bad way to drive a car or pilot a plane. It’s a bad way to herd sheep or to babysit children. It’s a bad way to run a business or to even to run a missions agency. God gives us knowledge and wisdom through a wide range of media–from personal experience to science, from history to art–and to ignore such knowledge and wisdom in the name of getting souls saved in the light of the imminent Second Coming is to radically reduce the message of the Bible about what evangelism means and what the abundant life is all about.

      May I recommend that you consider looking at my last book, “Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World” (Oxford), and see if its teaching–resting soundly on Scripture, I trust–will open up a wider world to you as it was opened up to me by other teachers. I hope you never lose your zeal for Christ and his gospel, and that these ideas will instead channel them more helpfully.

      • Victor Robidas

        I appreciate your thought Brother John! Certainly, over 38 yrs of being a Lord’s Servant, I’ve had many opportunities to learn. Yet, there is so much more! I will, in fact obtain your book.. you gave me sound advice and I appreciate it….. God Bless You for your work over the years in studying so many area’s of the worlds belief systems…… and it is just the tip! I’m convinced we’ll know more in heaven!!!

        • Victor Robidas

          I wanted to add Brother John that in today’s world we find ourselves with over 3500 different denominations or religions (A word which is grossly misused and frankly shouldn’t be since no New testament Assembly bares any resemblance to what we find in many places today… The worst being the Roman Catholic organization, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on! This is the result of getting one’s Godly teaching from any other source than God’s Word… In fact, denominations all have one thing in common; They answer to a central location such as Main Office, etc..

          Plymouth brethren were strict, but existed primarily in early 1900’s.. In US, they continued longer…. There is closed table brethren and open table brethren who have some differences, but the results are very obvious…..

          As soon as we allow men to replace what God teaches with their own ideas, we now have the Church which is His Body in division.. What I mean, is that locally, each “church” has its own set of doctrines and traditions…. Certainly, God did not intend for us to live in division, but such has been the devils plan all along…

          I know all Christians will be called up to heaven one day.. Of course, time is short.. “Behold I come quickly, now is the accepted time” makes it clear e have a message to pass on… But all this can be done while living a Christian life which would include the ideas you passed along… I minister God’s word although I have no title such as Reverend or Father (all contrary to God’s word), I am a Christian only, for “there is none other name, under heaven, given amongst men, whereby ye must be saved”..

          In conclusion brother, I have a lot of respect for the work you have done! But as a part of His body which we both are, we have different missions.. (i.e. we can’t both be legs). What you have chosen or perhaps been led by the Holy Spirit to do, may not be what I was led to do and in fact, it isn’t… Yet, we are both training for Reigning! I look forward to that day when all of His own will be gathered at Jesus’s feet to cast crowns and forever be with the Lord.. God Bless!

          • John

            Thanks for your kindly spirit, Victor. You and I don’t see denominations the same way, nor Roman Catholicism, nor… well, a bunch of things. But we do love Jesus and we are trying to be faithful in our respective callings, as you say. I do look forward to our eventual Reunion, as you do. May it be soon!

            • Victor Robidas

              “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” {Acts 2:41,42} and “And they, continuing daily with ONE ACCORD in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, {Acts 2:46)

              These two verses are very important in understand the fundamentals of a true “church”. It includes the birth of the Church which is His body (includes all believers, dead or alive wherever they are.) And also includes the local church where local baptized believers meet to remember the Lord’s Supper, pray and study His word (only believers who are alive, baptized and “continuing stedfastly in the Apostle’s doctrine (or teachings)) You see that is the definition of church whether the body or local assembly. It was never used in God’s word to refer to a building…..

              The other important thing is that the saints there were said to be in “ONE ACCORD” in verse 46 of chapter 2. Why? because they accepted teaching from only one source. Since God’s word was not yet available in print, of course, it came from the Apostle’s. Today, we have only one source for “Apostle’s Doctrine” and that is God’s inspired infallible word… John, I am not surprised we would disagree on many things, certainly not in One Accord since you take your teachings from a number of sources…. Why do you think there are so many different denominations, or off shoots of these denominations? Man’s opinion as to how things should be done…..

              As for the catholic organization, (not really a church is it), the 3 verses above go against at least 8 of the organization from Rome’s own doctrines. But to understand the catholic organization, you must not only read their bible which includes the Apocrypha, but the Catechism, Church Fathers as they see it and a few others…

              So, my dear brother in Christ, the evidence against taking men as a source of authority over the bible or with the bible is a huge gamble and as the bible says, will lead to their own destruction… Because I grew up Catholic, was saved at 15 (1975) I had a family which were primarily or that organization… I have spent 30 yrs studying the Catholic Faith to prove it as the biggest hoax perpetrated by the devil. Purpose: to lead souls to Hell! Imagine considering the “pope” as being at the same level of God. (Pope Pius IX was referred to as Lord God the Pope by a Cardinal, he worships an image of Mary (see the 2nd commandment about what God has forbidden when it comes graven images — but did you know in the catechism, the omit the second commandment, divide the 8 commandment into two–that’s how they make it legal as it were) Of course we know its history from Constantine to the present.. It speaks for itself…. and all denominations of this organization answer to the Vatican.. In fact most denominations answer to a body of people (men & women) at a head office who dictate what each will practice… There is the problem…

              I have no doubt you are very intelligent, in fact you have impressive credentials!, but as you know, it matters not to God, what matters is that you accept God’s sacrifice and that you follow His word. I’m convinced brother He would prefer we are in ONE ACCORD as opposed to having different views on these subjects…. God Bless, as always…


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