It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true – a mark of a good Christian communicator is exposure to ideas you don’t agree with.
As we’ve written before, and discussed on the podcast, if we want someone to respect what we have to say, we have to respect what they have to say. This requires more than listening when conversations happen to arise. It includes an all-encompassing attitude of listening to a diversity of ideas, and wanting to understand them.
I recently wrote about the practical value of imaginative apologetics. I argued that understanding good storytelling can make us better communicators and more effective apologists. In like manner, I will argue that understanding views we disagree with applies to how we approach story, not just conversation. Here are the benefits.
It Challenges Our Own Views
A friend and mentor I know frequently says “The truth fears no investigation.” It’s curious that Christians sometimes say things similar to this when it comes to particulars about Bible doctrine, but shy away when it comes to stories critiquing Christianity. It has too often been the approach of cultural Christianity to reject anything that runs contrary to our teaching. When The Da Vinci Code puts forward a particular understanding of the Gnostic gospels, for example, some cry to boycott.
And yet, if our views are correct, should we fear the challenge? There is a fine line between a story offering another interpretation and performing a hit job (The Golden Compass, for instance). But value can be found from examining the former. When engaging with The Da Vinci Code, one finds that the historical case for the church rejecting the Gnostic gospels is quite strong. And if we find points, arguments, or other story elements that lead us to see a flaw in our own positions, we should be encouraged as seekers of truth.
It Helps Us Understand Others
One of the reasons we frequently find ourselves in frustrating conversations is that we’re talking past each other. Often, we do this with the depth of knowledge of a single Wikipedia article, rather than taking the time to really understand someone’s view. Every person’s views are different and deserve our attention. However, being acquainted with other views on an ongoing basis helps exercise critical thinking skills, and helps us understand those views when they arise.
This is why I subscribe to Sam Harris’s podcast. It’s why, despite my traditional view on Hell, I watched a film with a positive view of universalism. Understanding where these people are coming from helps me understand how best to approach them.
It Helps Us Save the Baby without the Bathwater
It is sorely tempting to see the world in black and white. We sometimes tend to see stories or people as being on “the good side” or “the bad side.” I remember once as a child I was watching news coverage of a political issue, and I asked my parents, “Is he on our side?” What that question really meant was, “Do we like the letter next to his name?”
Humans are constantly looking to categorize people in order to shortcut thinking. This is something communications scholars call “cognitive shortcuts.” There’s nothing necessarily insidious about this; we do it subliminally as well as intentionally. But if we make an active effort to see the world less as a matter of our team versus theirs, it allows us to learn from “the other side.”
For instance, Martin Scorsese’s film Silence follows a pair of devout priests who journey into the hostile land of Japan. The film ends with a sympathetic look at the persecutors of Christianity, although the persecuted Christians are also portrayed as virtuous and brave. The main character, played by Andrew Garfield, continually struggles with seeing himself as Jesus, and that pride is his greatest weakness. It would be easy to write the film off as simply anti-Christian, but this approach demands more. Instead, we can appreciate the bravery of the persecuted Christians, and endorse the critique of one seeing himself as Jesus, without accepting the film’s final conclusion.
The benefits to seeking out arguments, ideas, stories, and messages we disagree with are valuable. It helps us to be better communicators, more empathic listeners, and more critical thinkers. And if more Christians did so, we might find ourselves in the midst of a more understanding, and more effective, Christian culture.