Cool Hand Luke contains one of the most epic movie quotes ever when Strother Martin said: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Unfortunately, he was wrong. He should have said: “What we’ve got everywhere is a failure to communicate.” Apparently, a failure to communicate is a sign of our times. For instance, here’s a sign from a furniture store with a very interesting marketing campaign: “Buy this bed and get free one night stand.” Here’s a lecture slide gone awry: “The average North American consumes more than 400 Africans” (I must be below average because I haven’t consumed even one African!). It is seen in signs around swimming pools: “The pool is closed until further notice. Sorry for the incontinence” (I’m blaming autocorrect here). It is even seen in signs behind other signs! One company was advertising for new employees with a sign saying: “Help Wanted.” Behind this sign was another sign saying: “If you do drugs, don’t even think about stopping.” I don’t think that was what they meant to convey. If you are still not convinced, here’s a sign from a Burger King. It reads: “SpongeBob is here hiring managers.” Either that should be two separate statements or it explains a lot!
Let’s face it, communicating clearly and effectively is hard work. That is why I am so thankful for Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016) because it communicates Kierkegaard’s thought clearly and effectively, even if you have struggled to understand Kierkegaard’s thoughts the previous dozen times you’ve tried to read him (would I lie to you?). And today, we want to turn our attention to Kierkegaard’s take on what it means to be a witness for Jesus in a secular world. What does it mean to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ effectively?
Now, communicating the gospel meaningfully to one’s neighbor is already difficult, but now we know it is doubly so because, as we have seen, we can’t even properly communicate who is hiring our managers at Burger King. Given all the difficulties in communicating anything to anyone, how can we ever hope to communicate Christ to our neighbors? Kierkegaard’s answer to this Christian conundrum was to use humor, satire, and irony as often as possible. And if he needed even more impact, Kierkegaard believed in the power of stories and parables. And if he really needed to tackle an opposing viewpoint, why not pretend to adhere to that position and show its weaknesses from the inside out using a pseudonym? Forgive the violent analogy, but Kierkegaard believed in hitting his audience hard and fast without first alerting them it was coming (thankfully, most of the time, he only hit them with words and ink). In short, Kierkegaard believed that the best way for us to communicate our faith was indirectly. Now, that is not completely true. Kierkegaard also believed in the power and necessity of direct communication. But there was something uniquely powerful about indirect communication because it was an evocative form of speech, meaning it sought to draw out from the listener some response or emotion. Kierkegaard wasn’t interested in simply transferring information (a “communication of knowledge”); instead, he wanted to speak in such a way that he made people act and/or do something (a “communication of capability”).
And remember, Kierkegaard was not against direct communication. Hardly. He believed that direct communication was absolutely crucial because Christianity is rooted in truth claims (doctrines like the incarnation and the goodness and grace of God), truth claims that we must wrestle with intellectually and accept. However (and here is Kierkegaard’s point), it is never enough simply to assent to these truths. Instead, we must live out these beliefs in our own lives. As a result, we need both direct and indirect forms of communication because true faith is embodied in both knowing and doing. As we saw last week, this was Kierkegaard’s argument against pastors; perhaps, they were good at direct communication, but their lives seldom matched the depth of their sermons. As “direct” communicators, they were fine, but their skill in preaching often made them hypocrites indirectly. But before we cast too many stones at our pastors, perhaps we need to look at our own issues as Jesus’ witnesses. And there are several.
Problem One: we regularly divorce our words from our lives. Unfortunately, we think that our witness involves nothing more than us speaking; but being a witness for Jesus, first and foremost, involves us living out our faith and letting our lives speak (and not just our mouths). As Tietjen says:
“Indirect communication through lives rather than words is far more gripping and possibly more effective and, in the case of Christianity, necessary.”
Why? Because our actions speak far louder than our words or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
Kierkegaard would most certainly agree here, but he would want to add a comment–this is especially true when words have become so familiar that they have lost their meaning.
Problem Two: We often think if we say the right words, our audience will respond with right actions (a full-orbed faith). But that is not true. If you speak only in words and in concepts, our audience, more than likely, will respond in kind and treat the gospel as if it were purely an intellectual category. But if you speak indirectly through deeds of love and mercy (and with a minimum number of words), then the response (again, most likely) will involve the whole person (intellect, emotion and will). To reach our neighbor’s whole being, we must speak with our whole being.
Problem Three: We often think that we have witnessed to our neighbor when, the truth is, we have done nothing more than to communicate facts and propositions. And facts and propositions, while good and necessary, don’t save. Suppose that way back when, a gazillion years ago when I was in college, I believed in my heart that Jo (now my wife) was the one. And suppose I compiled a list of reasons in my head that we should get married. And suppose I knew we would be perfect together, but never once spoke to her or asked her out on a date. Would my “belief” that she was the one save me? Of course not! And suppose after I had compiled all this information about what a great couple we would be, that one day I cornered her so that I could introduce myself and share with her all my findings. Would my reasons and arguments save her? Of course not. She shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) accept any of it. Instead, she would see my “conversation” with her as creepy and weird (as she should). And yet, this is how we often go about witnessing to the people around us. Faith without works is dead as is witnessing without living out the truth in front of the other person.
“Christianity is something lived, and Christianity is something communicated (or witnessed to) through life. This implies that Christianity is not something primarily to think about or to ponder, nor is it something primarily communicated through words. We forget that Christianity is a lived thing and not merely a known thing. [And then he quotes Kierkegaard] ‘Truth in the sense in which Christ is the truth is not a sum of statements, not a definition, but a life.”
And if that is true, the way we live shows what we believe. To make the argument Jesus makes in the Lord’s Prayer, if we truly believe we have been forgiven of our sins, we will forgive those who sin against us. And if we don’t forgive those who sin against us, then we are living proof that we have not grasped our forgiveness.
Problem Four: We forget that Jesus is not only the life, but he is also the way. In other words, to be a Christ follower does not mean we just follow the teachings of Jesus; instead, we follow Jesus or as Kierkegaard says:
“The object of the (Christian) faith is not the teaching, but the teacher.”
Let me restate the problem: we often think we can follow Jesus who is the life in our own way, but the truth is we can only follow Jesus by following his way, the way of self-denial, the way of sacrifice, the way of humility, the way of love, the way of forgiveness and the way of suffering. Tietjen explains:
“Kierkegaard conceives of the true church, not as triumphant, but as ‘militant.’ A militant church is a church of warriors and fighters whose lives are characterized by struggle against the sinful nature, who long to follow Christ and know that to do so is to share in the ‘fellowship of his sufferings.’ More importantly, to speak of the church as militant does not entail a wholesale antagonism toward secular culture, as some Christians suppose. Rather, it is to recognize the never-ceasing fight against placing ourselves above Christ and his reign in our loves and on earth.”
We are a militant church, not because we fight against those people out there who are bad and evil and immoral, but instead, we fight against ourselves as we strive to put to death our sinful desires and our selfish greed. That insight alone is worth the price of admission. Why should we spend all our time fighting against the world when the real enemy is us?
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- What statements do you find essential to your Christian witness? What actions?
- What are some ways you might communicate the gospel without words?
- In your opinion, what are some of the most difficult aspects of sharing the gospel effectively?
- Do you feel you can share the gospel without hearing the charge of “hypocrite” being thrown at you (even if you are the one making the accusation)? What can you do about this?
- Kierkegaard argued that the church in his day could not divorce their words from their lives because they had become too familiar with the gospel and the words they used to describe it, so that those words had all lost their meaning and impact. How has our age lost the meaning of the words we use to describe the gospel? What can we do about that?
- Kierkegaard argued that “the object of the (Christian) faith is not the teaching, but the teacher.” How should that quote affect how we approach being a disciple?
- If you truly believed Jesus was the way, how would you live differently than you are currently living?
- How does Kierkegaard’s definition of the militant church differ from the definition that you (more than likely) have heard about the church railing against the secular world? What does Kierkegaard’s definition encourage you to think, to do and to feel?
(Note: If I was honest, I would admit that questions 1 and 2 were taken directly from Mark Tietjen’s book. If I was less than honest, I would say they indirectly influenced me to pose these two issues.)
I leave you with these three Kierkegaard quotes to ponder:
First, “The essential sermon is one’s own existence.”
Second, “To reduplicate is to be what one says. Human beings are therefore infinitely better served by someone who does not speak in all-too-lofty tones but who is what he says.”
And last, “No one teaches joy better than one who is joyful oneself.”
Next week, I want to share one of my favorite Kierkegaard parables. Thanks for reading. And remember, it is not, “Commas are important people!” Instead, it is “Commas are important, people!”