Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chasm

Communication is something we often take for granted. We tend to assume that the meaning of what we say will be conveyed accurately to the recipient - and indeed, without such an assumption it would be virtually impossible for us to hold even a simple conversation with another person.

The modern world, however, has taught us that it's never quite that simple. Even among those who share a common language, culture and history there can sometimes be a signficant disconnect between individuals over their understanding of different words and phrases. The further separated those individuals are in their life experiences, the greater that gap becomes.

On the internet we see examples every day of such miscommunications, where an idiom used by, say, an American from Texas might be misconstrued by a reader from Canada (not to mention those from even further away).

The church learned this lesson a long time ago, at least as far as foreign missions goes. Early missionaries who tried to superimpose Western assumptions onto potential converts in Africa, India, China and elsewhere met with limited success, while those who took the time to really get to know the culture in question all the way down to its nuances, and who adapted their message to a context that their audience could connect with, were able to make much deeper inroads.

Unfortunately, while missionary organizations have come to understand how people groups with similar languages can nonetheless be light years apart in what they will respond to, the church has largely failed to apply that concept to what it considers its home turf. The American Evangelical church has developed a subculture that is imitative of the broader culture around it, yet sharply distinct from it. Value differences aside, evangelicals speak their own language with a complex array of idioms and theological terms that mean next to nothing to those outside of the subculture (and even to some within it).

Despite this rift, most evangelicals continue to engage with the outside world the way they did 100 years ago, back when they still spoke largely the same language as the rest of American culture. They have become more savvy about employing popular forms of media and even using current slang terms, but they continue to make the error of assuming that, because both they and the culture around them speak English, a 1:1 correlation still exists between what they are trying to communicate and what the outside world is hearing them say.

That is beginning to change as the emerging church seeks to define Christianity within the context of a postmodern culture, but many in the larger evangelical community look on their efforts as heresy and stubbornly insist on trying to make the rest of the world come back to them on their terms.

We see a similar language gap within the ex-gay movement, which has its own set of terminology ("freedom from homosexuality," "change is possible," "ex-gay," etc.) which is very internally consistent, but which communicates something very different in meaning to those on the outside. To those who are adequately steeped in the evangelical subculture, it makes perfect sense that an exclusively same-sex-attracted individual might identify as a "former homosexual" or even as "straight" while admitting to still experiencing "temptations," due to the unique (if not necessarily biblical) way evangelicals define identity. That the rest of the world (and even some evangelicals) interpret those catchphrases as a claim that the individual has actually shifted his or her attractions from the same sex to the opposite sex is irrelevant, since the ex-gays' use of those terms is the correct one and everyone else is just playing word games around what they naturally understand deep down inside to be "the Truth."

But it's not word games, and it's not rebellion - it's a different language altogether. And so ex-gays get accused of dishonesty, a charge that's difficult to avoid when political activists use ex-gay testimonies as "proof" that gays don't really exist and therefore need no legal recognition, but one that merely exacerbates the situation, since what those ex-gays say about themselves is true within the context of the language they speak. Those accused of dishonesty feel persecuted and lash back at their accusers, who in turn see the retaliation as proof that their suspicions were correct.

Of course, the debate over homosexuality runs far deeper than misunderstandings over word usage, but speaking a common language would be a step in the right direction. The evangelical church may feel that it's the rest of the world that needs to accept their definitions, but the simple fact is that the rest of the world feels - and in truth bears - no such obligation.

If the leaders of Exodus believe they have a positive, redemptive message to communicate, and don't want to be seen as cynical shills for a political agenda, it's up to them to translate that message into terms that clearly convey the correct meaning to their intended audience. Just as the burden lies on the advertiser to make sure they don't inadvertently tell their audience to bite the wax tadpole, so Exodus - and evangelicals in general - cannot expect others to do their job for them.

3 comments:

Peterson Toscano said...

Bite the wax tadpole! I haven't heard that in some time.

Yeah the linquistics behind the church and the exgay movement create spiritual problems, namely dishonesty.

"I am free from homosexuality" cming from thr mouth of an exgay testifying in from of a crowd of mostly hetero Christians is normally interpreted, "Oh this brother or sister n longer is gay, no longer feels attracted to people of the same sex. Praise God! I must tell my gay loved one that s/he can change too and live right with God."

But most likely that is NOT what the exgay really is saying although s/he may bank on the vagueness to gain acceptance from a church that doesn't abide by exgays who continue to have same-sex attraction in spite of the blood of Jesus and the working of the Holy Spirit.

Once again you inspire me.

Don Livingston said...

Nice point. I hadn't thought about the "linguistic subculture" aspect of the ex-gay movement.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you did a good job of explaining an aspect of the ex-gay movement that always made me feel puzzled. There are many other religious movements & political persuasions who are guilty of this sort of exclusive language as well. This subject is timely for me because I am currently reading a book which also frequently mentions misunderstandings (or a conscious unwillingness to understand) as the basis for a the failings of a specific ministry. (The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, an excellent read so far). Thank you for the illumination!