Saturday, January 27, 2007

2007 Anglican Blog Award for "The Kew Continuum"

I walked into our diocesan convention the other afternoon to be greeted by one of the more exhuberant members of our diocese who wrapped her arms around me and said, "We are so proud of you."

I looked quizzically at her. I had no idea what this effusive congratulation was about. In the conversation that followed I finally was able to work out that this blog had been given an award.

That, I thought, was nice, because I am paranoid enough to think that throughout life I have received far more raps than accolades. I also wondered who on earth would even think about doing such a thing.

It's Saturday. This afternoon the convention now over, a new Bishop of Tennessee consecrated this morning, a nap having been taken, and the dog given his statutary walk around the field behind our house (in the company of the cat on this occasion), I decided to log on to see what I could find out about this miracle that had come to pass!

Sure enough, there on the Stand Firm site ( was the announcement that The Kew Continuum has been voted as having the Best Focus on Theology in the Anglican Blog Awards for 2007 -- amazing!

This got me wondering how I should respond. More thinking time was needed, so I tuned into the latest episode of This Old House while drinking my afternoon cup of tea, and I pondered. A builder's son, I have always loved houses, so watching an old East Boston home being renovated is right up my alley, and much more exciting than any serialized thriller. But it didn't help me with a response.

Well, these aren't the Oscars, so there's no red carpet to sweep down with my wife on my arm dressed in the most expensive outfit she is ever likely to buy. Neither is there a chance to strut myself before a crowded theatre, weeping profusely, and oozing "Thank you, thank you, thank you" to my peers. All I have received is a nice little logo that I guess I will find some way of putting somewhere on the blog.

So, to the folks who voted The Kew Continuum the Best Focus on Theology let me in true English fashion, quiet and restrained, to be grateful for such a vote of confidence. I will try in the coming year to keep up the standard.

It was only while trying to work out how to download the little logo that I discovered people were actually commenting on these awards, and would you believe it, someone accused me of rigging the result! What audacity! Now how does a soul answer such impugnities? I guess the only thing is to shrug, reckon that you are never going to please all the people, look at your watch and realize it might soon to time to break out the bubbly -- or at least, if there is nothing from the Champagne district of France in the house, another strong cup of well-steeped Yorkshire tea.

Obviously I am surprised that my scribblings have received such attention, but let me end on a more serious note.

I don't profess to be a great theological brain, but I have been puzzled for years now that we are in the midst of one of the biggest struggles in the church's life for generations, and there has been so little legitimate theological reflection on what is going on, and how our faith interacts with the culture that has played a part on bringing this about. While there are many reasons for this, the fact is that discussion polarizes and turns political or personal long before anyone really engages the profound theological realities that should be behind what is going on.

I guess I wish there were more sites out there that were doing a good theological job, for that would mean that the meagre gruel that I try to dish up would be put in its right perspective.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Words That Word -- A Review

Words That Work by Frank Luntz (New York: Hyperion Books, 2007, US$24.95)

Over the last couple of days my movements have been severely restricted as I have undergone one of those unpleasant medical procedures that is fast becoming a rite of passage into one's more senior years. Work has been almost impossible, and at times even reading has been difficult. However, I did manage to complete reading Frank Luntz's book, Words That Work.

Luntz is a bright spark with the kind of gifts that are valuable (and obviously profitable) in an information and knowledge-driven society. The sub-title of his book is It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. This isn't a book that I would have even have known about, let alone picked up if I hadn't seen Dr. Luntz on C-SPAN early on Christmas morning after the cat had awoken me from heavy slumber demanding to be let out.

As Luntz says in his introduction, You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs. It's not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart. How that person perceives what you say is even more REAL, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself (Page xiii).

All this is just plain common sense. After having introduced the idea he then sets out to clarify and illustrate from his experience as a consultant and pollster to politicians and commercial interests. I am not sure that if I were to know him that Frank Luntz would be exactly my cup of tea, but he is certainly a gifted communicator who has important lessons that all other communicators need to either re-learn or learn for the first time.

Luntz, who holds an Oxford doctorate, is a master at taking someone's message and helping them put it in words that speak to the people they are trying to reach rather than not be heard, or worse, be turned off altogether. He claims to be the one who guided the Republicans away from talking about Estate Taxes to Death Taxes, thereby gaining support for their policies, and to talk of Climate Change instead of Global Warming.

He is known among those who despise him, or have absolutely no time for him as an unrepentent spin meister, but that is not how he sees himself. As he says, I do not believe there is something dishonorable about presenting a passionately held proposition in the most favorable light, while avoiding the self-sabotage of clumsy phrasing and dubious delivery (Page xix). This is a fair response on his part.

The battle, he says, is about comprehension, and that means getting over ideas in the best possible way that we can, for all human enterprises involve ideas and the communication of ideas. The truth is that if your audience does not hear (or understand) what you are saying, then you are not going to win an election, sell a product, or enable someone to get excited about Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

I have spent my whole life falling in love with words and struggling how best to use them as a servant of Christ. While there is a lot that Frank Luntz says that I have discovered myself by trial, error, or study over the last few decades, it is always good to see these spelled out clearly and put in order within the context of the present cultural challenge as he does. I would say that Luntz's lessons are extremely helpful to just about anyone who has a passion to get across the message of the Gospel as well as those who want to sell more potato chips.

He begins by outlining ten rules of effective language, which means successful communication and he begins with simplicity. You can argue all you want about the dumbing down of America, but unless you speak the language of your intended audience, you won't be heard by the people you want to reach (Page 5).

I don't know how many sermons and how much Christianspeak I have heard that fails just on this ground alone -- and some of those sermons have probably been my own! To be honest, some of the worst communicators of what are in reality dynamic ideas are to be found in pulpits on a Sunday morning.

The he talks about how essential is the credibility of the communicator. Credibility is established very simply. Tell people who you are or what you do. Then be that person and do what you have said you would do. And finally, remind people that you are what in fact you say you are (Page 11). Much Christian failure in recent decades stems from the fact that we are not who we say we are neither do we seem to mean what we say, and you can point your finger at any Christian tradition for loads of examples illustrating this.

The saddest cautionary tale I know is of the man who was beginning to show and interest in the Good News and is invited by a friend to come and share in the life of his church. "Good heavens, no," the man responds, "I've got enough problems of my own already, why would I want to be part of the church?" The tragedy is of such a cautionary tale is that it is uncomfortably true.

But the fact is, Luntz tells us, even with the best will in the world we all have a tendency to make message mistakes, and often this is by making calamitous assumptions about where our audience is coming from. While Luntz does not accept the postmodern premise that words change their meaning depending on what the receiver of them is hearing, he does warn us that if we are to persuade then we should use language to inform and enlighten rather than obscure and exclude.

Our listeners' preconceptions through which they filter what we say are influenced by their gender, their education, their political affiliations and biases (or lack of them). It also depends on ethnic background, national origins, cultural and generational conditioning. These all need to be considered when we are about the business of trying to communicate. So he tells us to ask ourselves what we want the result to be and then to use language to aim at that outcome.

And we should not forget that as culture changes so do words change their meaning. This man has a good feel of youth culture, which is shaped by the streets and hip-hop, and also invites us to remember that email and the Internet have also played a role in coarsening our language.

We may deplore such a thing, and throw up our hands in horror, but the fact is this is the reality and we are called to communicate into this reality. Because many of us within traditions with an elistist bias do deplore such things, we ignore the reality on the ground and end up by being terrible communicators.

A number of years ago, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was in Moscow with Orthodox friends and broached the question of the Russian Orthodox Church's use of Old Church Slavonic rather than modern Russian for their liturgies. Old Church Slavonic is the Russian ecclesiastical equivalent of Chaucerian English, but several hundred years earlier. I suggested that it would be increasingly difficult to hold onto the hoards of young people thronging the churches because they did not understand what was going on. "Ah," I was told, "If they want to be part of the church then they will be willing to learn it." Old Church Slavonic might not be our problem, but there's a lesson here that we need to learn even as the liturgical revision language of the mid-20th Century ages while we use it.

Words That Work is readable and has lots of fascinating case studies from politics and commerce. It isn't difficult to see how Luntz's lessons translate into the language of the faith. As far as I have been able to discover there is absolutely no mention of faith and spirituality even when the author talks about morals and values. This should remind us that a huge proportion of the movers and the shakers do not have much interest in who we are and what we are about, especially when the message we proclaim is one thing, and then the way we live and behave directly contradicts it.

Words That Work is a helpful tool and its lessons can be applied in all sorts of settings. For a start, preachers and speakers would benefit from reading it, giving clues as to how they should project their message. It would be good to look at the contention in the church through its grid because I am convinced that a lot of the time we determinedly use words in such a way not to communicate with "the other side" but to deliberately rile them.

It should also be a challenge to us to keep studying language, studying the culture in which we use the language, and being prepared to make changes in order to communicate more effectively.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Blink or Think?

I had been intending to review of Michael R. LeGault's interesting book, Think!, a response to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which I drew attention to several weeks ago. However, the more I have looked at the two productions together the more I realize that what we are seeing here is the delineation of the two radically different ways of thinking that have emerged. As I have thought them over I realize that what we see here is the competing mindsets that underlie the crisis in the church today.

Michael R. LeGault challenges the increasing dominance of the intuitive way of thinking and decision-making that Gladwell highlights. Furthermore, LeGault believes this is doing untold damage in the western world, particularly North America. He argues that Gladwell's thesis that the mind possesses extraordinary power to absorb information and sensory data, correctly size up a situation, and then solve problems without ever having to lean too heavily on formal thought just does not stand up under examination.

Gladwell's book, Blink, fills "a growning market niche, a new-age, feel-good pop psychology/philosophy" that has "sprung up to bolster the view that understanding gleaned from logic and critical analysis is not all that it's cracked up to be" (Page 8). While I think that LeGault is being a little too hard on intuitivity, his rejoinder to Blink certainly stands up under careful prodding better than Gladwell's thesis. As one who has a highly intutive side I think I understand very well what Gladwell is trying to say, but having said that I am profoundly grateful that I was in my formative years equipped with a good set of critical tools that enable me to think rationally and with logicality.

LeGault's 300+ pages can be summarized in a statement to the effect that the seeds of terminal decay are to be found in taking our feelings and intuitions so seriously that we end up avoiding difficult thinking and hard reasoning. His Chapter 11 is worth the price of the book alone(US$13.00). Entitled Hearing the Harmony of Reason: Embracing Objectivity, Thinking Critically, he starts out by saying, "Both history and daily experience have confirmed time and again that critical thinking is a vastly superior method of solving problems and making decisions than an intuitive random approach. It sometimes relies on number crunching, and statistics, but the basic elements are the same for all the criticial-thinking approaches used to write a report, figure ways to improve sales, of fix a jammed garage door. These elements are the use of empirical evidence (gathering data, knowledge), logical reason, and a skeptical attitude" (Page 274).

This illustrated the manner in which the book is written because it applies solid critical, empirical thinking to the alternative approach to thinking that Malcolm Gladwell so winsomely champions in Blink. LeGault's book not only has more far substance, but his careful thinking and writing lay the axe to the roots of the edifice that Gladwell tries to construct. However, I suspect that when the sales and influence of the two books are measured against one another, Blink will have won hands down.

Part of the reason for this is that most people today are conditioned to think with their hearts and not their heads, and this is encouraged everywhere from the media to many parts of academia. They have been taught to treasure feel-good intuitiveness that does not require much in the way of intellectual heavy lifting. Gladwell's insights are certainly going to ring more bells with an instant, easy-come, easy-go generation. Logical, rational thinking is not something that is caught but needs to be taught -- and it is a long time since anyone was seriously teaching it to anything but a handful of people.

I believe that the hardest classes I took were Logic and Philosophy, but as I soldiered on with them for several years they bore fruit that I have carried with me for the rest of my life. I am not a great philosopher or logician, but what I have gained have helped me better assess what is going on inside my brain, as well as ideas others are presenting to me. I might be emotionally swayed by someone's argument when they present their case, but after the emotions have died down I know how to intellectually pick through it and work out whether it was built upon rock or sand.

The Greeks and Romans took rhetoric seriously as a subject, coaching those who will communicate in ancient society to speak wisely and well, framing their arguments rationally, yet we no longer do this and we are poorer for it. I have listened to a huge number of sermons in my time, for example, and I shudder to think how many of these productions might succeed emotionally, but then fail miserably because the case being made is built either on froth or feelings, or has no logical and rational consistency.

The way in which the churches in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, have been shepherded along the road that they have taken is that they have followed this intuitive, feelings-driven approach to thinking and have shut out the more traditional, rational, logical way of handling facts and ideas. Having read both Gladwell and LeGault, I would say that those on the progressive side, the left, or whatever you want to call them, lean heavily in the direction of being Blink-ers.

Because of the absence of objective, empirical, critical reasoning across the board, the Blink-like mindset and approach is also displayed by those who are more conservative, yet unlike their leftward brothers and sisters the presuppositions of their positions are rooted in theological presuppositions shaped by Scripture, and the minds of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calivin, Edwards, and a host of others -- which means that rationality takes precedence over uninformed intuition. When it comes down to it there is probably more Think than Blink on the right, but it sure lacks the intellectual rigor that it needs.

The fact is that every grouping lacks the rigor of approach that will enable us to build the case for our beliefs upon the deposit of knowledge and observation. We need to know how to think our way to sound judgments and good decisions that are rooted and grounded in an objective, revelational understanding of the Truth. We are never going to think our way constructively forward unless Logical reasoning is at the core of this process. LeGault gives us a very good summary of the principles of elementary logic that have more or less been lost and need
to be recovered.

Almost everywhere we look we see the stand-off between Blink and Think!. Several years ago on Mars Hill Audio there was a piece by a legal scholar bemoaning the demise of logic and reasoning in the courtroom. He said that takes its place is emotional manipulation and storytelling as each lawyer tries to trump the other in performance in order to psychologically win the case for their client. Here we see the Think of the old way of doing law giving way to the new approach of Blink! The same is true in marketing, and an entertainment-driven culture has more or less disconnected us from higher logical and the rational side of our minds!

Yet it is to the life of the church that I want to apply this thesis. Other than Columbus 2006 I have attended just about every General Convention in the last twenty years, and have watch the standard of debate (which was never great) spiral downward. The last so-called debate of the House of Deputies to which I listened was, quite frankly, more postmodern theatre than it was rational discussion. The same is true of the preparatory hearings.

The Think approach to reasoning and theological deduction was absent, and those who applied such an approach were hardly listened to and certainly not heard. Blink, with intuitive stories about relationships feeling good and right, ruled the roost. In such settings it was increasingly difficult even to enter into discussion with those with whom you disagreed because Blink-ers and Think-ers function so differently that they talk past each other and end up merely shouting at one another.

What is more disturbing is that words and knowledge seem to have become the victims. While language always changes and grows, in the deconstructionist world (of which Blink is at least a reflection) words are reworked then given the meaning we want them to have. A recent example of this is the blatant redefinition of the word "evangelism" by the Presiding Bishop and her entourage.

When rational objectivity is replaced by reader receptiveness, then we are set free to diddle with meanings to suit own subjectivity as well as sitting loose to fact. Taking the human sexuality debate as an example, I have sought the best I can to keep up with all sides of this conversation, and hear those on the left presenting as indisputible fact certain statements about sexuality for which there is at least at present no scientific or factual basis. Then when something has been repeated enough such a notion become accepted more and more as factual.

What I find more disturbing is the unwillingness of most people on every side of this Blink/Think debate to even consider looking at data that comes a position with which they disagree. This means that all cases end up being one-sides, and polarization that does every kind of damage is the outcome.

A traditional way of approaching ideas and circumstances is to gather as much information as you can from across the board, to analyze it with care, sifting and discarding that which does not stand up under scrutiny, and then building a case from what remains. This is hard work and it means delving deeply into positions with which we disagree or may find unpaletable. One of the benefits of having studied theology both at an undergraduate and a postgraduate level in places whose preferences were at odds with my own was the value of learning to see a question
from all sides in the process of discovering the truth.

This kind of discipline is virtually absent and needs to be recovered post haste. This is what Michael Legault advocates in Think!, and it is an approach to learning and thinking that we need to recover. Certainly, it behooves those who are concerned for the future wellbeing of the Christian faith in this land and in the West generally, to get back to the hard, hard work of the logical, rational, empirical measuring of thought.

Are we willing to live in the world of Blink, or are we willing to graduate into a world of Think!?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Meditations on a Bible Study

Yesterday evening we had a wonderful conversation at the bible study I lead each week. Since the beginning of December we have been working our way through Paul's Letter to the Romans and have just got to the tail end of Chapter One where Paul is talking about the whole raft of sins that separate us from God, with a particularly strong reference to sexual sins -- especially those of a same sex nature.

The group of thirteen or fourteen people was well-educated and made up of folks like a printer and a psychiatrist, a retired school superintendent and a college professor. This is not one of those hop, skip, and a jump studies through Paul's magnum opus, but is an attempt to take the text seriously within its original context so that we can then work out what it is saying to us today. It is a joy for me to be leading such a group as it is a long time since I have had the opportunity to work with the Greek text of Romans in this detailed way.

Within the context of studying a particular passage of Scripture must always come the business of application. Last night this happened toward the end of our study after we had worked hard at dissecting precisely what the Apostle was saying. At first the conversation was slow to develop, but after a few minutes it took on a life of its own, full of sensitivity and fluency that I had not expected.

This was a pretty orthodox bunch of people, some of them deeply distressed by the actions taken by the Episcopal Church in recent years, the kind often represented as hard and inflexible when it comes to dealing with such issues as these, but there was none of that. Yes, there were expressions of distress at the positions taken by the likes of the General Convention, but there was also a genuine desire to reach out in love to those who have a particular struggle with their sexuality.

Stories were told that were intensely moving. While there was no attempt to walk away from the clarity with which Paul deals with the issue of same sex relationships, there was also a yearning to work out how to be pastoral and caring without any desire to walk away from what the Scriptures say in their plainest sense.

Little has been gained as we have polarized during the last few years and at times shouted at each other until we are hoarse. Yes, theology, values, ethics, and morality are vitally important, but equally as important is the manner in which we talk with one another about such things.

As we move into 2007 I guess I find myself asking is there are ways that we can discover how to handle the crisis that has burst over us graciously and gracefully. I don't think I am even seeking agreement and I am certainly not asking that we try to find some way of finessing away what Scripture says, but to ask if there is a way beyond our present pouting polarization so that we can start demonstrating in the debate attitudes with which the Sermon on the Mount might feel at home.

We didn't get very far in our conversation last night, but the mood and the comments led me to believe that perhaps there are a goodly number of folks out there who passionately yearn to move beyond our present destructive stuck-ness.