Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stop Being a Christian Jerk

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of humility and receptivity to diverse perspectives of God. Today I’m broadening the topic to all of life. I’m challenging us to be open-minded thinkers and learners.

            One of the books I’m currently reading is The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris. So far I’m thinking Paris' book should be required reading for every Christian. Dr. Paris has some amazing things to say about sexual identity that I hope to write about in the future.

            I mention Dr. Paris’ work because she includes a stellar vision of how opponents should dialogue. Paris introduces a concept from Harold Heie, a Christian scholar who has written several books about peace making and the interaction between Christianity and culture. Heie posits what he calls “respectful conversation” (Paris 21). Essentially saying we need another option besides “fixed positions and relativism” (Ibid). Paris asserts that all humans, including Christians, have set ways of looking at every facet of their lives. It takes a whole lot of effort and proof to shift a person’s opinions and beliefs. The other extreme is to copout on absolute truth and say all positions are equally true. The typical disagreement involves belligerently debating without reaching a consensus or carelessly affirming anything that is said.

Heie’s concept of respectful conversation presents a different way to dialogue. “Respectful conversation includes personal, face-to-face dialogue between people who disagree. It invites risk-taking, not just posturing, making yourself and your views vulnerable in encounters with others, anticipating growth and learning” (Paris 21)). This kind of conversation admits differences, but examines where our positions can grow through discussion and reorienting our perspective with new information to see if our view of truth may have shades of error.

Sadly, many Christians have an “it’s my way or the highway” attitude about their beliefs. Usually our positions come from scripture and historical church writings and teachings. Truth certainly never changes, but as I wrote yesterday, we should be humble enough to realize our perceptions may not be fully accurate. As broken human beings, we cannot know everything. God alone can sort through the ambiguity of life. We have been given principles, but scripture does not address everything. This gap reveals the importance of the Church Fathers and the literature that has been circulated in the church throughout Christian history. God gave us brains and community to connect the dots.

It’s easy to get stuck in a ditch trying to maintain a position. We become so determined to defend our beliefs that we may even go to extremes to hold on to them. But we should have open hearts to stay grounded. When we face criticism, defensiveness should not be our first reaction. We should be willing to listen and not just preach our viewpoint. As Paris noted before, when we respectfully communicate with others, we are transformed by these interactions. We all learn something new. There are reasons why people reach their own conclusions. Some are valid, some not so much. We can be perspective-takers and empathize with others. If we can understand why someone thinks as they do, perhaps we can elevate the conversation (as Andrew Marin from The Marin Foundation likes to say) rather than giving a black-and-white statement that offers nothing new and kills the dialogue.

Christians have a bad record of being “Bible-thumpers,” self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. Culture no longer wants to hear our input because we often act like jerks. If we really want to engage culture, interacting with those in our sphere of influence, we need to be willing to listen and walk in someone else’s shoes—mentally picturing how someone reached an alternative perspective. We’re not perfect, so we shouldn’t pretend to be. Our understanding of scripture may be on the right track, but we always have room to improve our perspective. God daily shows me there are so many details or elements that I didn’t see before. We should live life as students. We must open our hearts to begin learning. Respectful communication will be an instrumental aid to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Church will begin to impact society and bring Shalom to the nations.


Paris, Jenell Williams. (2011). The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Intervarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL.

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