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On the (Im)possibility of Communication

There are times when I despair at the possibility of human communication. In the last few weeks, this despair has often been triggered by opening up my computer each morning and discovering a fresh stream of vitriol and righteous indignation associated with a piece I recently wrote about Christian discourse around the Syrian refugee crisis that generated a fair amount of heat (and considerably less light, I fear). So many angry people that seem so resourcefully determined to interpret my words in such bewildering ways.  The picture of me forlornly sitting, chin in hands with a furrowed brow peering confusedly at my computer screen is probably the enduring image that my family will remember from the past few weeks.

But there are other sources of my pessimism as well. Here in Canada, we’re in the middle of an election campaign, which means that every day we are treated to the spectacle of adult human beings shouting above one another, and regularly characterizing their opponents and their views as the very embodiment of all that is stupid, harmful, and evil in the world. The same is undoubtedly true south of the border, if on a different scale (everything takes place on a different scale when Donald Trump is [incredibly] involved). Political discourse seems often to be taking on the shape of so much human discourse—it is becoming cruder, more sensationalistic, and more obviously tailored to the imagined needs of a public whose views are increasingly pieced together from scraps and fragments of information assembled from the self-reinforcing social media silos that we create and maintain for ourselves.

But even on the level of interpersonal communication, I have been struck recently by how difficult it is to communicate well, how easily words are misconstrued or misunderstood or misspoken or misdirected. So often, I have found myself scratching my head, thinking, Well I didn’t mean thatOr, How could you possibly interpret this sentence in that way? Or, But I didn’t even say that! Or, Did you even read what I wrote? Or, I think you missed the most important point of the sermon!  Or, But I texted you and told  you where I was going to be!  The gap between “what I said” and “what someone else heard” often seems like a gaping chasm that is virtually impossible to cross.

On whatever level—in blog posts and emails, in coffee shops and church sanctuaries, on social media and in political campaigns—so many of our words seem geared not toward anything resembling mutual understanding or edification, but a noisy and belligerent reinforcing of our rightness. The response to the encountering of views different from our own, whether it’s political discourse or a blog post, seems so often to be to shout louder and to use more insulting language. A few days into the comment maelstrom from the aforementioned blog post, I decided to block one particularly offensive commenter. He has since poured forth over twenty comments into my spam folder, still blissfully pounding out his anti-everyone-in-the-name-of-Jesus views. I don’t think he even realizes that his comments aren’t getting through. This guy has become symbolic, for me, of so much of our cultural discourse. There he is, hammering away on his keyboard in the service of truth, not even noticing that literally nothing he is saying is getting through.

The irony of our cultural moment is, of course, breathtaking. Never have words been so ubiquitous and accessible. But it seems like the words just buzz around our heads, never landing, never connecting, never sticking. They are eminently manipulable, and easily discarded. We like our words like we like everything else in our impatient, fast-food culture. Quick, disposable, cheap, and convenient. And, as it turns out, not very healthy.

And yet, despite the bleak picture I have just painted, I was struck in a new way this morning, as I was riding my motorcycle in to town on a glorious, colour-drenched fall morning, at the absolute miracle that the bare possibility of human communication really is. These things called “ideas” begin with an electrical storm in this chunk of meat in our skulls, and then move through mouths and tongues to create sounds that then bounce off membranes in people’s ears which then travel the electrical highway in other chunks of meat in other skulls where they are somehow decoded and interpreted as words and sentences that are apparently meant to represent actual things about the real world and what it is like and about what we should or shouldn’t do within it. Or, ideas make their way along the nerve highway to our fingers which (incredibly) press little keys with symbols on them, creating representations of words and sentences on screens or pieces of paper which then find their way through the wonder that is the human eye back to the brain where they are translated into ideas. Somehow, against all odds, all these symbols and sounds and words and sentences keep bouncing off auditory membranes and flashing through optic nerves into all these chunks of meat where something called meaning is made.


The gospel of John begins with the well-known words,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

These words echo other words from Genesis 1. In the beginning… God said, let there be… and there was… God spoke. And then a world. The world is a result of a Word. The world is because someone spoke. And that someone, apparently, expects human beings to be able to listen, to understand, to respond.  Somehow, at the heart of reality itself, there is speech, words, listening, responding. Somehow, communication is at the very heart of God’s nature and purposes in the world.

Maybe this makes things seem even more hopeless. We so often can’t (or won’t) understand what we’re saying to each other. How on earth could we possibly hope to understand what God might be saying?! But evidently God trusts us with words. They are, like all of God’s good gifts, meant to be stewarded wisely. Not used as weapons, not used to selfishly prop up the idolatrous self-worship that we are such natural experts at, not wasted on the addictive noisy clutter that distracts and degrades. No, words are far too valuable and laden with potential for any of these smaller ends.

Words, like hands and feet and hearts and minds, are to be subservient to the demands of love.  Because if we take the story of Scripture seriously, we know that whatever else we might think the Word is trying to say to us, love is at the centre of it.  Love is what the Word has always been trying to say.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sometimes I am just awestruck by the clarity of your vision and your succinct ability to communicate it. As long as you write here, I will read here. 🙂 Not without some discomfort, especially today. I can be a poor listener….Love listens….. Christian discernment requires calm, patience, prayer and time. Forgive me for the times I have violated these principals.

    September 29, 2015
    • I can be a poor listener too, Paul. Ask my kids. 🙂

      At any rate, thanks for these kind words. Sometimes the pathway between the meat in my skull and the symbols on the keyboard isn’t the smoothest or most straightforward one. I’m very grateful for patient readers.

      September 29, 2015
  2. I was moved by your writing and only sorry that I did not say so earlier.

    September 29, 2015
    • Many thanks, Carol, for these kind words.

      September 29, 2015
  3. peter klassen #

    For me the role of a pastor is expose the nuggets of truth that a person such as myself will miss. This is a pastor’s gifting which I am blessed by to receive, through blog sites such as yours. Peter K.


    September 29, 2015
    • Thank you, Peter.

      September 29, 2015
  4. jschmidty #

    Well said. This resonates with me. I just went to a workshop on communication. It was actually quite good. Now lots to implement! Such a difficult task.

    September 29, 2015
    • A difficult task, indeed. Great to hear from you, Jon!

      September 29, 2015
  5. Rod Black #

    You have described the wonder of communication so well. And none of us are perfect at communicating, as you noted. I don’t know if it is a comfort to remember that the very Word of God incarnate experienced difficulty in communicating with people of opposing views, and even with (and most surprisingly with) his closest friends. I have found that the harder I try to communicate the mystery of the good news, the more likely it is that I am going to encounter misunderstanding. Keep up the battle.

    September 29, 2015
    • Great point about the Word Incarnate being well acquainted with the limitations and frustrations of communication! Thanks, Rod.

      October 1, 2015
  6. You put it well Ryan. I can relate, and I have been watching – as you noted -“So many angry people that seem so resourcefully determined to interpret my words in such bewildering ways.” Here is my attempt “to understand each other” -

    September 30, 2015
    • Great piece, Rusty. Thank you for sharing it!

      October 1, 2015
  7. Michelle #

    First, let me tell you that I was wonderfully moved and lifted by your article “I’m sorry, Christians, but you don’t get to make that move”…. Thank you for posting it. I too have been bogged down by the negativity and misunderstanding that seems to be everywhere especially surrounding the current refugee crisis. I would read the negative comments to a wonderfully positive and progressive article and feel deflated and alone in a world of anger, cruelty or at the very least indifference. And then my 17 year old son told me to stop reading the comments and let the words of encouragement and hope in the original messages be my focus….I did it and it worked. I found strength in the hope and positive energy within the articles I read and I wasn’t bogged down by the people who gushed anger, hurt and misunderstanding. Suddenly these negative comments had no power over me. As my focus changed I started to experience more and more positive and hopeful people and writing all around me. So that’s my advise. Don’t read the negative comments. Fear and negativity only serve to pull us down; instead surround yourself with those things that pull you up, challenge you and add energy to your life. Remember, that the negative commenters are reading what you write, who knows when your positive energy just might pull them up…

    September 30, 2015
    • Thank you, Michelle. I very much appreciate these words.

      October 1, 2015
  8. I do not agree with you on anything in this article, considering we are taking in Syrian Refugees maybe not as many as most people would have us do, but we also have to be careful , on who we let in, other wise we end up with people like Omar Khadar

    October 7, 2015

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