This post needs a few disclaimers:
The purpose of this post is to encourage those who follow Jesus. If that isn't you, I'm glad you have stopped by. There are probably a lot of other places on the internet you could have ended up, so I'm glad you are here. You may find this post strange, but I am trying to help that obnoxious Christian in your life who doesn't quite seem to get it. Someone who is a bit abbrasive and certainly lacking in tact. The purpose of this post is to help Christians be kind and persuasive (you might want to send the link to that friend!).
The ideas discussed are incomplete. On its own, this could turn horribly wrong. My goal is not to present a truncated or diluted witness, but rather to present one that is compelling. I am more convinced that Christians need to be extremely thoughtful in order to be understood by our society. That's what this is all about.
Ok? Let's go.
I've been thinking a lot lately about a poem I read awhile ago.
Shoot, another disclaimer needed:
Before you think I'm super cool and arsty, I am not.
Poems aren't my thing. Frankly, I'd rather watch Monday night football, eat some wings and enjoy a delicious West Coast IPA.
However, I did come across a poem by Emily Dickenson entitled, "Tell the truth but tell it slant." I believe this poem was published posthumously somewhere in the mid 19th century. Dickenson, a renowned poet, says:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -
What does it mean?
Aided by others much more intelligent, let me summarize Dickenson's message.
Using artistic verse, she encourages messengers to tell the truth, but in a roundabout manner. She illustrates this with two images: looking at the sun and explaining lightening to a child.
Image 1: In the same way that humans are too frail to take in the sun's rays, we are too fragile to absorb all the beauty of truth at once.
Image 2: Similarly to how a parent explains lightening gently to a child, one must tell the truth little by little to avoid overwhelming others.
Her point is clear: truth cannot be accepted or grasped if told too directly.
Everybody has an opinion.
We draw these opinions from our worldview - or, our basis of knowledge about ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Just go on Twitter for 8 seconds and you will see different worldviews represented on a myriad of different (important) issues. There is, however, a problem with this approach because it lacks empathy, gentleness, and thought.
Instead of being driven by curiosity and desire to learn, we are driven by anger and a desire to be right.
In the end, we end up pushing people further away. This causes them to dig in their heels rather than compel them to understand the world in the same way as we do. We try to win the argument instead of winning the person (through love).
This is true whether you are an atheist, agnostic, or sadly, even a follower of Jesus.
A well-known Christian thinker and writer has just released a new book. Essentially, this book recommends a brute force approach to correcting the culture. From a place of fear, the author prescribes a megaphone for the church to announce all that is wrong and evil in society.
(Interestingly, Jesus' approach did not include a megaphone, but a towel).
The approach cited by our wider culture, and this Christian author, does not work if we are looking to persuade.
Dickenson's advice would be helpful to us:
We need to tell the truth, but tell it with a slant.
Dickenson to Today
Let's face it, the Christian message is difficult to accept. It doesn't need any more reason for offence. Yet it is not uncommon for us to be the source of people's skepticism, hesitancy, and even hostility due to our lack of tact.
Unfortunately we become the barrier to people grappling with the message of Christianity.
Our mistaken belief is that it is our responsibility to back-up the dump truck of Christian thought. We then release the lever, and let the truth pummel whoever we speak to.
Dickenson offers us a path forward: an alternative to yelling, dump trucks, and opining.
Rather, she offers another way: to enter into the lives of real people and communicate the beauty of love of the Christian message in an understandable and persuasive way.
Jesus as the model of contextualization
Already, I can hear the criticism:
"Why would you base your missology on a poem from the mid-19th century?"
Your point is well taken. It is dangerous to lay a foundation on something that is so central to New Testament Christianity based on a poem.
So instead of focusing on Dickenson, let's focus on Jesus.
Imagine moving to a country where English isn't the dominant language. How would you make friends? There are two options available to you:
1. You learn their language. You stumble and fumble over words and make a fool of yourself as you ask for toilet paper instead of a fork at a restaurant. Over time, the words come, and then the trust and connections develop.
2. You force them to learn your language. You wait for people to do the difficult work of coming to you and getting out of their comfort zone.
Making friends is obviously going to be easier if you adopt option 1.
The first option focuses on service and love of neighbour. The second option focuses on stubbornness and expectations that are centered around me.
Which option sounds more like Jesus: option 1 or option 2?
Did Jesus say to us, "I am not coming down to you. I am not becoming a human being - you have to come up here!"
Or did Jesus say, "I will come to you and speak to you in your own language. I will take on flesh and live among you!"
It's very clear.
The incarnation is a model in which the truth was given, but given in such a way that was understandable, relevant, and ultimately persuasive.
Think with me: Jesus, while with his disciples, didn't back the drump truck up and unload all of his teaching on the most critical parts of the faith. In contrast, Jesus spent three years with them, showing patience, grace, and understanding as they struggled to understand who He was.
Jesus is the model for faith-sharing in a secular age. By his sacrificial incarnation and life centered around loving others, He shows us how to become compelling instead of controversial.
How to make friends and influence people (for Jesus' sake)
You need to notice something about Dickenson's poem: she doesn't advocate for not telling the truth (as this could be another objection). She advocates for telling it in ways that are understandable and relevant.
Jesus did not hesitate to speak the truth. Jesus clarified various topics, such as salvation, the kingdom of God, hell, and money. His way of doing it was to take on flesh, enter the world, bring dignity and love, and allow His presence to make them consider citizenship in a different kingdom.
In a culture that is saturated with yelling, anger, and a respect deficit, we need to promote another way: the way of Jesus.
Simply put, we need to put down the megaphone and pick up a towel.
Maybe then our message will be not just put up with, but listened to from those we interact with and love.
So with the example of Jesus himself, and a beautiful poem from the 19th century, remember to tell the truth...
...but tell it with a slant.