Saturday, November 2, 2013

Communication that changes lives (& gets great leaders killed)

I was taught (up through about 7th grade) that bias and subjectivity were to be avoided: All "good" journalism (and often writing itself) is "bias-free," we were told, and I remember even being graded down if I let subjectivity color my writing (unless it were a "creative writing" project, but that of course, was "play").  In other words, we learned to be rational expositors of knowledge that was "pure" and scientific (where was Polanyi in all this?).  But what we got was communication that was devoid of influence, and the people who's speeches changed the world (MLK, Roosevelt, Hitler, etc.) didn't fall for it...or at least ignored it when they were trying to call for transformative change.

As an example, Peter did this in his first sermon (Acts 2): He unpacked the significance of Pentecost using the signs/metaphors/codes his hearers knew well, but gave it new significance - i.e., re-framing.  His sermonic story journey begins with re-framing their misperception of drunkenness by explaining (& justifying) it as prophetic utterance (something they knew from their cultural religious codes).  Then he draws yet another connection to King David (again, a religious and cultural code of his audience), and more specifically, to their messianic hope (a sub-code), making the point via re-framing that the day of their hoped-for destiny had arrived.   Even with his use of strong accusatory verbage (essentially, "You just killed the Messiah you've been waiting for"), they got the message loud and clear.
RESULT: The audience begged, "what shall we do?" and 3,000 people got saved

Here in America we are so wrapped up in ordered rational modernist thinking and half-baked rhetorics (with just enough philosophy and quasi-structuralist thinking thrown in to make us sick) that we seldom distill the codes as they meant to the audience to whom they were first delivered; instead, we rush to "exegete" them (an important teaching function, but not a communication one). Ironically, I've even heard preachers and Bible college prof's suggest that Peter may have misquoted or distorted the OT!

Nor do we (preachers as a whole) very often communicate in the codes of our day like like the great rhetoricians of the past did - for example, check out the full text of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech - note the metaphoric language of promissory notes America had defaulted on, blank checks marked NSF, whirlwinds of revolt, the "summer of [the Negro's legitimate] discontent, etc.  He's basically doing the same thing as Peter did at Pentecost and Paul did on Mars Hill, doing a masterful job of connecting the biblical imagery and metaphors our culture knew well then with the "signs of the times" they were seeing in the early 60's.  And not only did it change the world, but it was a threat to the establishment, too.

What's really come alive for me in the last few months through my D.Min and exposure to several writers in the field of semiotics and narratology is the impact of the first part above...that to connect to today's culture, we have to understand the codes that were at play with the original audience.  I think we neuter our words when we skip that vital step, and then we wonder why they're not pregnant with meaning.  Peter knew exactly what he was doing; he was re-framing their codes & interpreting the events they were observing firsthand in a way that gave the words of Scripture immediate relevance and meaning.  The Word of God came alive for them!