Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Naked and Unashamed—Friendship and Dating

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve recently had the joy of publishing, along with Jerry and Claudia Root, a book on marriage called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). For the past fifteen years now, the material at the heart of this book has been shaping and nourishing my own marriage to Liesel. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to share its blessings with more people now.

Jerry and ClaudiaLiesel and I met with Jerry for five or six sessions back in 2003. We’d come over to his house, hang out on couches, and listen to him talk about marriage. Then, we’d stay afterwards and pepper him with further questions about life, marriage, parenting, and faith. It was a fantastic series of months. Those five sessions have now become a book of fifteen chapters, digestible, straightforward, and hopefully easily accessible to couples of all types and stages of life.

In today’s excerpt, we’ve got a passage on friendship and dating. As I said last time, please read! And be encouraged! Be a little challenged! If you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Friendship and Dating”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 4)

As we hope you can see, these shared interests become the basis of your ongoing friendship as a couple. And it is important to note that a couple with good experiences together, common interests, and positive regard, is significantly buffered against the everyday stresses of life in the world and life together. A couple who commit to being and becoming friends very nearly guarantees the success of their marriage as well as a high level of relational happiness.

Why should this be the case? Consider something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book on the four loves,

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. (The Four Loves)

The gaze at, while wonderful, is insufficient to keep a couple throughout life—there must also be a gaze alongside. In this, the couple strive to find places of commonality—shared books, shared experiences, shared interests—which will keep them fresh and interesting as the years progress. All too often it happens that couples neglect this critical aspect of their relationship, allowing work, then children, to crowd out their investment in one another. The result, tragically, is that at some point the children move out of the home and the husband and wife discover to their mutual dismay that they are married to a virtual stranger. If you would have love thrive in your marriage for the long term, you would be wise to seek to share passions beyond simply one another.

Many couples implicitly feel that dating belongs to the time before marriage, and that once they are married they no longer need to date. Indeed, many challenges begin to arise as life becomes more complex. Finances, children, hiring babysitters—these things can make dating your spouse seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But dating clearly is a key way to continue to develop friendship and interest with one another—whether it be eating at a favorite restaurant, or seeing the latest film together, going on a walk, attending a play, sitting on a blanket together in a park, or simply getting dessert and talking. A date is an activity which bridges the gap between the gaze which looks at your spouse, and the gaze which looks together with your spouse. In the words of the author of Ecclesiastes,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the third strand of the cord which strengthens a couple is their cultivated interest in subjects which bring life to their relationship—in their commitment to friendship, dating, and a life together grounded in a look alongside one another.

Eugene Peterson and the Smell of Barbecue

The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?

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I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.

Peterson_Pastor MemoirAt this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.

All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?

Peterson_Long ObedienceI can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.

In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?

Regent_Well

Regent’s Bookstore/Coffee Shop is a lovely place to visit.

I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.

I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”

Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.

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Naked and Unashamed–“Idiot Lights”

Naked and Unashamed CoverIf you didn’t know, a few months back I published (along with Jerry and Claudia Root) a book on marriage, called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). I’m immensely glad the book is in print, and immensely honored to have worked on it with Jerry and Claudia, who married Liesel and I almost fifteen years ago now. I honestly can’t wait for people to read it and (I trust!) be blessed by what’s in it.

Jerry and Claudia have performed premarital counseling for over 1500 couples over the past 40 years, and the outline of their material was chock-full of wisdom that we felt more couples needed in hand. In the years that I was a pastor, I had used the same material when counseling couples for marriage, as well as in encouraging the marriages in my churches. Wonderfully, our experience comes together in the book and forms something fresh. While originally the material in hand was targeted specifically for couples in preparation for marriage, in Naked and Unashamed we’ve expanded it so that it can be an encouragement for marriages of all stripes—a refresher course, if you will.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing a few extracts from the book on this blog. Read! Be encouraged! Be a little challenged! And if you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Idiot Lights”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 1)

In the Proverbs it states that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17). This is not a description of one smooth object gently sliding across another, but a process of one rough edge grating against another. The pressure of persons in close contact is the sharpening process by which we are made keen for use—by which our innermost persons are refined and made beautiful.

Conflict, then, does not mean you are a failure. When you own and operate a car, changing the oil every 3000 miles will make your car last for a long time. On many models, if the oil is not changed after a certain period of time, a light will go off on the dashboard—we call this an idiot light. When the light goes off, it doesn’t mean that the car’s owner is an idiot, merely that he or she is on the threshold of becoming one. Ignore the light, and in time you will become an idiot. Similarly, conflict in marriage simply identifies areas that require maintenance. Conflict doesn’t mean you are an idiot—but ignore the conflict, or refuse to attend to the work it asks of you, and in time you will become one.

Good marriages, you see, are never problem-free marriages; instead, a good marriage is one where the partners watch for the warning signals and grow by attending to them. A good marriage is not one where each partner has it all together, perfectly sorted, but one where they are secure enough in God’s love for them, and their growing love for one another, that they are not afraid to admit the limits of their capacities. Good marriages create space to be novices, to be awkward, to admit that none of us has very much life skill, that no one is ever ready for marriage, or children, or grows up without regrets. When a couple can operate through their conflicts from the perspective of that kind of security, then the result is always a high and steady growth curve.

We see this again in the words of Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi ben Ezra, the opening line of which romantically invites the listener to “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” Lines 31-32 have the following phrase, “Then welcome each rebuff/that turns earth’s smoothness rough.” It is easy to make judgments of simplicity—things often appear smooth. But further insight, greater perception, often challenge our initial perceptions. A cue ball to the eye and hand is perfectly smooth. Under a microscope, however, it appears pitted and mountainous. The couple that would take advantage of the opportunity offered by conflict in marriage will permit the new information brought by their spouse to alter their initial perception. Things which on one view appeared smooth on a further view become textured. Additionally, a field before being tilled is hard and smooth, but the rebuff of the spade turns its smoothness rough, preparing the soil for fresh fruitfulness. In the same way, the idiot lights of conflict, viewed properly, become opportunities for a harvest of good.

The good news, of course, is that you are never expected to resolve all of these difficulties on your own. When the idiot light signals in your marriage, seek help as soon as the need arises. Wiser people than you have covered this ground before you; call them to your aid. Consult books. Visit counselors, church groups, pastors, seminars, and conferences. Each of these is a resource—like tools and equipment in your gardening shed—that are available to help you grow, as well as heal, your marriage. Do this quickly because unchecked difficulties will compound over time. To humbly seek help is itself the process of developing life skill, and the best thing the unskilled can do is to surround themselves with wise counselors until they themselves have grown and matured in wisdom. The practice of regularly investing time and energy into this work is precisely the necessary work of your marriage.

Grace, Truth, and Kavanaugh

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” ~ Proverbs 18:17

Whenever big public hearings take place, whenever big political kerfuffles dominate my newsfeed, I am reminded of the Proverb above—that the first to speak seems right. Our media world is dominated by first impressions, and the first to speak, to get the scoop, to tell the story, has an ongoing advantage in public discourse. We humans are also, as a rule, quite bad at impartiality—when we tell a story we weight the evidence in our favour. But these first impressions always get a little rattled when “another comes and examines him.” We get to hear the other side of the story, and, the more we listen carefully, as often as not, that other person begins to sound plausible.

All of this has, of course, been rattling about in my head as I’ve witnessed the nightmare Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Christine Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 35 years ago. Brett Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegation. And at this point, things have boiled down to what amounts to a fairly straightforward he said/she said. What that means, in the briefest possible sense, is that the only sure conclusion we can draw from this stalemate is that somebody isn’t telling the truth. Either Blasey Ford, or Kavanaugh, is deceiving or deceived. And in such a climate both Grace and Truth are the real casualties.

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Before we wade into these complexities, let’s outline, for a moment, what I think are the only six options for what has happened. We’ve got three options each for Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford:

K1) Kavanaugh is innocent, and ignorant of this attempted rape because he didn’t do it.

K2) Kavanaugh not innocent, but is ignorant of this attempted rape because he doesn’t remember it.

K3) Kavanaugh is not innocent, and is consciously lying about it.

BF1) Ford was assaulted by Kavanaugh as described.

BF2) Ford was assaulted, but has misidentified her attacker.

BF3) Ford was not assaulted, and is accusing Kavanaugh out of malice.

In each case option one presumes honesty, option two considers the possibility of some form of self-deception, and option three presumes a kind of malice. I think it’s fair to reason, given their vivid public testimonies, that neither party is here engaged in malicious denial or accusation. The cost of leveling a false accusation (socially and politically), or of perjuring oneself before the court, is too high and improbable. That means that, most likely, some combination of options one or two for both Ford and Kavanaugh are probably the case—in other words, either Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Ford as misidentified her attacker (K1 and BF2), or Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh doesn’t remember (BF1 and K2). But how are we to determine the truth? What evidence will we gather that can effect a change one way or the other? And, in this politically supercharged scenario, does anyone even care about the truth at all?

Scale

An impartial scale doesn’t weight evidence unfairly ahead of time.

What has emerged, instead of a sincere desire for the truth of what happened, is a welter of politically motivated partisanship and of culturally motivated virtue signaling. Viewers, failing even an attempt at impartiality, have entered the foray of opinions with their pre-judged conclusions in hand, little ready to listen and readjust their thinking to the other who “comes to examine.” On the political right, Democratic tactics look suspiciously like a purely political smear campaign. On the political left, Republican tactics look suspiciously like a hastening to get Kavanaugh in place before mid-term elections (potentially) swing key votes in the Senate. On the conservative side, a good man is being destroyed because of his pro-life stance and what that means for the Supreme Court. On the liberal side, the ‘rights’ of women are being threatened by a man who appears to be himself the embodiment of white, privileged male power. On both sides, tribalism reigns, impartiality withers, and the truth suffers.

In this maelstrom, the tribalism of #metoo emerges as a particular threat to impartiality. For those of you who read this blog, you will know that I have been, generally, supportive of the aims of the #metoo movement. There is something vital, and deeply Christian, about listening to the voices of people who have suffered and seeking justice on their behalf. But in the present public displays we see some of the real ugliness of the movement as well. There is in its accusations an immediate presumption of guilt, a guilt by association, a condemnation by gender, and an abandonment of due process. The hashtag #believewomen is itself emblematic of this trouble. Women can be deceived as well as men. Women can be mendacious as well as men. Women can be malicious as well as men. An accusation is never in itself definitive proof of guilt, and the supposition that Ford, because she is a woman, ought to be believed outright is a distortion of the very justice #metoo claims to seek. In fact, these kinds of single-declaration accusations are not the stuff of American democracy, but of Maoist “Struggle Sessions” and of Stalinist “public denunciations,” where politically unfavorable persons may be publicly destroyed, without recourse, simply by the accusations of their peers.

Struggle Session

Struggle sessions, like this one, were a crucial factor in social control during the communist regimes of Mao and Stalin.

At the same time, as conservatives double down on their narrative of liberal obstructionism (whatever its political merits) they communicate to a host of women that women’s voices don’t matter. In the minds of many Republicans the primary story here is about the Supreme Court and the Democratic hatred of the Republican agenda. In their minds, #metoo has nothing to do with that process, and yet by ignoring its subtext Republicans appear to be callous and uncaring. These are the horns of the dilemma.

On both sides of the political divide, the truth plays a secondary role. Political or social aims are primary, and in the battle for the Supreme Court I think it fair to say that both Ford and Kavanaugh are reduced to pawns in other people’s fights.

But let’s imagine that we could, definitively, discover the truth. (This is, for the record, highly unlikely.) What if we discover that, indeed, Kavanaugh attempted to rape Ford in 1982 when he was 17 years old. Of course, if such a thing could be proved, Kavanaugh’s perjury about the incident would render him unfit for a seat on the Supreme Court. But laying that aside for the sake of argument, a bigger lurking question pertains to what is to be done about the past. Where is grace, accountability, and transformation? When the allegations about Bill Cosby became more than allegations, and as the scores of women emerged to accuse him of serial sexual assault, it was clear that in Cosby’s case there was a habitual pattern of predatory sexual behavior. The same was true of Harvey Weinstein, as the stories about his life emerged. But with Kavanaugh we have a different story. We have a lifetime of admirable service and (so far) impeccable character. So how do we judge a person’s past when the past is truly ‘in the past’? What do we do with the Jean Valjeans? With the Apostle Pauls? With the Chuck Colsons?

Cosby Mug Shots

I’m a pastor, and that means I’m in the forgiveness business—I believe in change, I testify personally to change. I am not (thank God!) the same person I was in high school. I am not, of course, a candidate for high office, but nevertheless I can’t help but feel that we’re in the grip of a world that is high on vengeance and knows little of forgiveness and change. John 1:17 records that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The law, with its dictates and death penalties, was the old order. The law provided a courtroom where the truth could be a thing that was distorted by the lack of impartiality in its witnesses. But with Christ we encounter both truth and grace—truth, in that Christ reveals the secrets of our hearts, the secrets of our actions, of our self-deceptions, of our sins omitted and committed. But in Christ we also encounter grace, the gift of a saving God who takes of our imperfect flesh and transforms it into something new, something fresh, something that restores.

We may never find out what happened in 1982 to Christine Blasey Ford, and we may never achieve full satisfaction with regard to the character of Brett Kavanaugh. If we listen only to our newsfeeds, then we will likely be mired endlessly in partiality, vengeance, and partisanship. I would hope, however—and speaking as a Christian—that we might take this opportunity presented to us as a Church and rise above our political and cultural turmoil to advocate for truth, justice, grace, and forgiveness. They are things for which our world deeply hungers. They are gifts that Christ has entrusted to us for his world.

The Sidekick and the Sexpot: “Decoding” Asian Stereotypes in Media

If you didn’t know, for about nine years I was a pastor to two Asian churches in Western Canada. Naturally, my time among those churches funded me with a lot of insights into Asian thinking and practice, but also, and perhaps more importantly, gave me an abiding concern for the issues that affect my many Asian friends. One of those issues is the issue of representation, especially in media. All too commonly, Asian characters in media are reduced to two stereotypes—that of the sidekick or the sexpot. Asian men are made sidekicks—they function as the friend, the asset, the teacher, or the comic relief. Rarely are they cast as the lead, and even more rarely are they viewed as objects of sexual desire. Asian women are made into sexpots—submissive, wild, and sexy, they are envisioned as the ideal prize to be conquered by the Western hero. The net effect of this distorted representation is that it distorts not only our (non-Asian) perception of Asians generally, but also distorts their perception of themselves.

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With this in mind, I recently watched with interest a six-minute video, produced by MTV Decoded, claiming to explain the nature of Asian sex stereotypes. While the video is certainly right to draw attention to the distortion, and indeed injustice, of Asian representation in media, I also think it failed to account, accurately, for the phenomenon. To put it briefly, their account was long on history, and short on anthropology. Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.

MTV Decoded_Weird History

“The Weird History of Asian Sex Stereotypes” begins by noting that on dating websites Asian women are the highest sought after, while Asian men are commonly ignored. Asian women, because they carry a cultural impression of “submissiveness” and “hypersexuality,” are ripe for a kind of fetishization. The roots of this, according to the video, begin in early trade between the West and the East, and is quickly shaped by the immensely popular story “Madame Chrysanthemum”—a story which features fetishized Asian women. In turn, this ‘narrative’ is reinforced by American occupation in East Asia (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), and the ready availability of Asian prostitutes for American servicemen. To quote the video, “The first interaction that three generations of American men had with Asian women was as submissive sexual objects.” Decoded concludes that this (combined with a passing mention of porn), is why the stereotype continues to exist so strongly today.

By contrast, Asian men are historically disenfranchised. Not only were they prohibited from owning property, they were forced to take on various “feminine” jobs such as cooking and laundry. These factors combined to make them appear more feminine. Added to this, various exclusion acts kept Chinese men from brides, and laws proscribed marriages between Asian men and white women. To seal the case, Decoded observes that this “history of emasculating Asian men lives on in Hollywood”—noting, as we did above, that Asian men are rarely viewed in romantic roles in media.

Dating Stats

I don’t know how these stats were calculated, but I’ve seen versions of this data before. Asian women are commonly the most desirable, while Black women are the least desirable. Perceptions of ‘submissiveness’ may determine how these stats rank.

The video is slick—watching it is likely to make you feel you’ve learned something. And yet I think it’s left out huge parts of the story. The first thing I want to note is that the argument Decoded makes focuses almost exclusively on events. The history of Eastern and Western encounter in trade, American military presence in East Asia, the Exclusion Acts in American history, and so on. All of these things happened, of course, and surely they contribute to the problem, but declaring the fact that they happened does not explain why they happened. Put differently, nothing can be done to change the history of Asian and Western interactions. We can’t undo the exclusion acts, or undo Japanese prostitution during the occupation. If we’re going to do something about how Asians are treated in media, then that something must target the heart of the matter. That ‘heart’ must give an accounting of human nature more generally. What is missing is an account of anthropology.

Orientalism_Cover2Let’s begin by taking a broad view of the matter. There is a discernable and oft-repeated pattern to what happens when one group encounters another group as an ‘other.’ Edward Said in his Orientalism has made this pattern abundantly clear. When I, from my comfortable sense of self, encounter someone who is sufficiently different from me, I begin to ‘other’ that person. I focus on the differences, and I do this in such a way that my awareness of those differences serves to reinforce my sense of self. This is fairly natural, and in many senses othering is a natural consequence of any two cultures meeting at the boundary. It’s a human property. But othering introduces difficulties that must be navigated carefully. A key example of this is in how Said describes the history of fetishizing. He notes that it begins in Orientalist literature, specifically, how Flaubert envisioned his relationship to an Asian female. For him, “The Oriental woman is an occasion and an opportunity for Flaubert’s musings; he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (emphasis added). The Asian female, in other words, by virtue of her otherness, can serve as a kind of blank canvas for the projection of sexual desire. This (if Said is correct), is the key origin of the myth of the submissive Asian female. She is perceived as submissive because she is different, because she cannot communicate with me, and that boundary of communication creates a space for sexualization. I can project on her my desires without needing to worry about those nagging features of her own, pesky personality.

In addition to ‘othering’ and its byproducts, we must remember also that humans are almost excessively tribalistic. We retreat to groups that are like us. We congregate around our similarities, within our comfort zones. I am reminded of the story from Trevor Noah’s fascinating autobiography where he describes a few days spent in prison. There, each inmate was expected, tacitly, to gather around his own tribe (literally, in South Africa). Trevor, as a multilingual half-white, half-black man, had trouble finding the right group he was supposed to join! The homogeneity principle, as this is sometimes called, operates heavily (right or wrong!) in Churches. With respect to this, all the data shows that churches grow along lines of homogeneity—are you composed of white, middle-class families? You’re going to grow as white, middle-class families. Are you composed of Asian, second-generation Canadian students? You’re going to grow as Asian, second-generation Canadian students. Simply put, people naturally gather to what they are familiar with—which means that it takes immense (and occasionally questionable!) effort to break the bonds of homogeneity. What makes a mess of this concept of homogeneity is the way it interacts with our cultural narratives of aspiration. Humans desire things, and they desire certain things more than other things based on their presentation in marketing and media. We want to live in certain neighbourhoods, and drive certain kinds of cars, and inhabit certain kinds of careers. Unfortunately, we merge these narratives of aspiration with our love lives as well, and so we pursue and marry people who fit our (subconscious!) narrative of what is desirable. What happens then is that our sense of homogeneity infiltrates our cultural desires—we, as a culture, can come to desire the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways. One of the things our culture tells us to desire is submissive Asian females.

Diverse Small Group

Churches often advertise the diversity of their small groups, but such diversity is much more difficult to achieve in fact. (Note: I’m sure the people pictured in the small group above are lovely.)

But this opens the door on a final, grave human consideration: sin. It is a sin to treat a person (such as an Asian female) as an object of desire in herself, because this is to reduce her to not only her appearance, but also your perception of her submissiveness and sexuality. Sin infiltrates our othering and makes it corrupt and go wrong. Sin infiltrates our sense of tribalism and homogeneity and makes us retreat and become insular. Sin infiltrates our aspirations so that we crave things not as they are, but as we would have them be. And throughout all of this, the nature of sin in sexual relationships cannot be separated from the issue of pornography. MTV’s Decoded makes a passing reference to porn as part of the problem, and yet we must note that the nature of pornography has the same characteristics as the nature of othering and fetishization—here are the images of women, they are available, they don’t speak, if they do speak they speak only in hyper-submissiveness. They are beautiful blank canvasses on which men are given permission to spill their every desire. When that recipe is applied to the pre-existent preference for a conception of a “submissive” Asian woman, then the result is a toxic and sinful reinforcement of the existing stereotype.

Asian Eyes_2

She has no agency or identity, no personality or will. She exists for another’s pleasure.

So far I’ve focused on Asian women, and while this might be because I feel that the greater injustice has been done to them, it is also because I think that the relegation of Asian men to the sidekick role is a product of the hypersexualization of Asian women. After all, if for an entire race of persons the females are viewed as highly desirable, then you have a cause and motive for trying to relegate the males to a second-tier status. They’re in the way. Their existence frustrates my fantasy of Asian-female availability.

Tales of Old Japan

A lovely and entertaining book so far!

Of course, the stereotypes are false. And yet they’ve been around for a long time. Not long ago I purchased a copy of “Tales of Old Japan” by A.B. Mitford, Lord Redesdale. Written in 1871, it contains the first version of the 47 Ronin story which has been so famous in cinema over the years. In one section, Lord Redesdale tells the story of a Japanese woman who becomes a prostitute. But at the end of that story, he stops the narrative to instruct the reader on the real nature of the Japanese woman. He writes, with fascinating foresight in 1871, that “The misapprehension which exists upon the subject of prostitution in Japan may be accounted for by the fact that foreign writers, basing their judgment upon the vice of the open ports, have not hesitated to pronounce the Japanese women unchaste.” In other words, don’t mistake the ladies of the night for the rest of the Asian women you meet! Oh that his warning had been heeded! And it is worth saying, aloud, that nobody who actually knows Asian women thinks of them as submissive—they are tough, smart, hard-working, clever, ambitious, and determined. Ask any Asian man if he ever thinks of his mom as ‘submissive’ and you’ll find out quick enough that it simply ain’t true.

The Hypersexualization of Asian women is a real problem, as is the de-sexualization of Asian men. Both groups, in North America, feel a lack of agency—I am not permitted to be who I am, I am who the culture around me tells me I am. The representation of my race in media distorts my agency and my sense of self in the eyes of others. Certainly, at least part of the existence of this problem today can be seen as a factor of our inherited colonial mindset in the West. At the same time, these problems cannot be simply explained, or explained away, by means of appeals to historical events. Decoded’s emphasis on the history of events consistently neglects human nature. The real problem lies in the human heart, and if we’re going to address it we’ve got to target our changes at the heart. To do that, we’re going to have to take a long look in the mirror of our tribalism, our othering, our aspirations, and of our sin, and within that we’re going to have to start listening to people who don’t look like us.

Toyohiko Kagawa, and Why You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of Him: A Warning for the (American) Church

When Toyohiko Kagawa visited America for a preaching tour in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people went to hear him speak. He would speak in multiple venues each day, while newspapers covered his travels extensively. For a time, he was a household name—a Japanese Christian of impeccable character and real, lived-out faith, who came to America to preach the gospel and share his passion for social change on the basis of that gospel. He was friends with E. Stanley Jones, and he met Gandhi, and he was regarded as one of the greatest Christians of his time. Why is it, then, that we’ve never heard of him?

Kagawa

Christianity and World Order

A short, fascinating little book.

I came across Kagawa when reading Bishop George Bell’s Christianity and World Order, a book published just before WWII that looked forward to the reconstruction of the world after another global conflict. Bell, well connected in the ecumenical movement, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contact in England, and friends to other German luminaries such as Martin Niemöller, and it was clear in his little book that he also thought very highly of this figure, Kagawa, of whom I’d never before heard. Especially since I’ve got an interest in non-Western Christianities, I decided to check him out.

Kagawa, illegitimate son of a samurai family in Japan, converted to Christianity at a young age under the influence of a few Western missionaries. An avid, prolific, and wide reader he dug into advanced books of Western philosophy and theology, even translating some of them into Japanese as a young man. Convicted by the Sermon on the Mount, he decides to go and live in the slums of Kobe in order to live a practical Christianity among the poor. His experiences there change him for life—not only does he maintain and carry a sincere concern for the state of the poor, but he contracts trachoma and is affected by spells of blindness for the remainder of his life. At this time Kagawa came to realize that many people, because of their social condition of extreme poverty, would not be able to accept the gospel as good news until there was a change in their economics. This conviction motivated much of what followed in his life. In the midst of his astonishingly busy schedule working in the slums, Kagawa begins to write books, and from this time on he publishes several books each year of his life. Extremely successful as an author, he donates all the money from the sale of his books to his projects to assist the poor in Japan. After several years he travels to America to attend seminary at Princeton, where he meets and befriends E. Stanley Jones. He returns to Japan, and becomes a strong labor advocate. This, of course, is the early genesis of the labor movement, when strains of it are threatening to move into communism or socialism, but Kagawa’s focus is on a deeply Christian call for fair wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable hours and pay. In the midst of this, Kagawa becomes enamored of co-ops as a model for bringing economic social change to what is still a feudalistically minded economic world in Japan. He advocates for better farming practices, teaching poor farmers about crop rotation and the planting of trees to protect against erosion. It is around this time that Kagawa comes to America for his national tour, and where he is so widely accepted and revered. In the following years, as the world began to gear itself up for another war, Kagawa advocates for demilitarization and peace. But this sets him against his own government quite starkly, and Kagawa’s calls for peace fall on increasingly deaf ears.

Kagawa_Schildgen

The biography I found was written by Robert Schildgen, a figure in the co-operative movement in America, who has written a somewhat hagiographical (with reference to early 20th century socialism) account of Kagawa’s life.

It is here that something startling happens. During the war, Kagawa was strongly censored by the Japanese government. Then, from within Japan, his tone began to change. He wrote, and spoke on radio, in defense of the Japanese empire. He began to speak about the war being rooted in “racial aggression,” by which he didn’t mean Japanese racial aggression against China, Korea, and the Philippines, but Western racial aggression against Japan. He became (and remained throughout the rest of his life) a strong supporter of Emperor Hirohito. The grim result of this period, of course, is the colossal loss of Japan and the unveiling of Japanese atrocities throughout East Asia.

After the war Kagawa became an advisor for Japan’s reconstruction, and he played an important role in advocating for the development of Japanese democracy. However, his name had been tarnished by his association with Japanese propaganda during the war, and at one point he was even considered by the American occupying forces for “purge”—that is, for the isolation and removal of those ultra-nationalists who had instigated the war in the first place. He avoided that purge on the merits of his pre-war work, but a shadow now hung over his name. In part because of this, a post-war American tour had little of the thrill of his pre-war efforts. For the remainder of his life Kagawa would advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1960.

Kagawa_Getty

The most fascinating moment in Kagawa’s life is his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. War is on the horizon, and Kagawa has explained to Gandhi that his opinions are not terribly popular in Japan—in fact, that he is a “bit of a heretic.” He petitioned Gandhi’s advice—what would he do? Gandhi’s answer is pithy and to the point: “I would declare my heresies and be shot.” This is an astonishing moment if only because this is precisely what Kagawa failed to do. When the crucial moment came, he capitulated.

Why don’t we know about Toyohiko Kagawa? I think there are two reasons. First, we don’t hear much about Kagawa because his version of Christianity is uncomfortably intermixed with early 20th century socialist politics. Now, from my (limited) read of Kagawa’s life and work, I think that those things for which he advocated are wholesome and good. He was possessed of a sincere desire to see the situation of the poor changed, and he saw in Christianity a model for that change which might give life to the world. He felt that a Christianity which didn’t address the practical needs of real people wasn’t much of a Christianity at all. To this, I give my full assent. However, the swing of labor movements away from Christianity in the intervening years makes it difficult to hear and accept his concerns today. Additionally, his presentation of Christianity becomes uncomfortably close to a political platform. The platform hasn’t succeeded, and unfortunately the Christianity has fallen alongside it.

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Second, I think we don’t hear much about Kagawa because of his capitulation during the war. Before the war, he had stood for Christianity, the gospel, and for peace. During the war, he stood for the political ends of his government—for Japan, for their advances into East Asia, and for military aggression. What is worse, Kagawa used (or allowed) his platform as a minister of the gospel to advance the political aims of the day. That intermingling is simply corrosive to gospel witness. It is difficult to recover one’s authority when it has been abused in that way.

So, what’s the warning for the (American) Church? It should be obvious. When Christianity is intermingled with a political platform, the end result, if the platform fails, is the discrediting of the Christianity. Irrespective of the truth of the Christianity itself, defeat of the platform brings about the dismissal of the faith that infused it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Second, when Christians capitulate with the propaganda and rhetoric of their nation it does irreparable damage to their witness to the world. Christianity does not and cannot stand in support of political aims. It is corrosive to our gospel witness.

Toyohiko Kagawa was a fascinating, influential, but flawed follower of Jesus. I think it would be wise to learn from both his successes, and his failures.