Posts Tagged discourse

The Soul of American Discourse – The Rev’d Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt – Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

German notion of Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times” was first promulgated as an alternative to the theory that great men and women are the ones who shape our history.  There are difficulties with both theories, of course. On the one hand, influential figures can make a dramatic difference.   Witness, for example, the sweeping impact of people like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, or Eleanor Roosevelt.  It is also true, however, that talented people are themselves a product of their times.  World War II decisively shaped Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, for example, and it is difficult to imagine a biography of Roosevelt without the crucible of that war.

The debate over whether history is shaped by Zeitgeist or great women and men is, then, really a false alternative.  Individuals do have a decisive impact on history.  No individual makes choices that are not conditioned by the “spirit of the times,” and no one exercises freedom in a vacuum.  But there are also times when our leaders and the spirit of the times are all but indistinguishable in their temperament or soul, leaving us to wonder whether the climate in which we live has shaped our leaders or our leaders have shaped the times.

We are living in one of those moments, in part perhaps, because we now live in such instant connection with one another that neither our culture, nor our leaders possess enough distance from the other to recognize both the influence of our times, or the contingent nature of the choices that individuals make.  Things could be different, but we don’t seem to possess the will to make them different.

The result is a presidential election in which narrative is more important than fact, in which falsehood and distortions are a regular feature of both candidates’ campaigns, in which a discussion of issues has taken a backseat to a conversation about the personalities of the candidates, in which the language of division has supplanted language about shared goals, and in which the issue of looking presidential has taken precedence over the question of being presidential.

Similarly, although reporting on the election has occasionally touched on the issues, a far greater amount of time has been spent measuring public opinion.  Reporters give very little attention to the nature of the challenges that we face, the complexities involved, the facts that are available, the policies we might pursue, and the intended, as well as unintended consequences of the choices we might make.

Sadly, however, we can hardly blame the candidates and the press alone.  Check the comments section on any article, follow your Facebook feed, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or any of the social media and it is clear that the conversation among those of us who are mere voters is much the same.

From the vantage point of the question, “What drives history?” our leaders and the tenor of American discourse seem to be on the same page: The candidates do not offer an alternative to the spirit of the times.  The media does not press for something different, and we as voters do not insist that our leaders function differently.  It is tempting to conclude that it is not just the spirit of the times, but the soul of American discourse that is in peril.

There are things we can do to save that soul:

  1. We can insist on integrity and take the candidates to task for lying and for behavior that disqualifies them.
  1. We can insist that they discuss the issues.
  1. We can drill down and examine the intended and unintended consequences of the policies that they recommend.
  1. We can abandon an exclusive commitment to the special interests of the tribes to which we belong and pay attention to the greater good of all Americans.
  1. We can remind the candidates (and their parties) that we are electing a leader for the entire nation and not just the voters that they believe they will need to be elected to office.
  1. But if any of those remedies are to take hold, we will also need to be even handed in our insistence that both candidates, not just one of them conform to those expectations.

If we do, we might find that groups of people can both save the soul of the times and nurture a new kind of leader.



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Grievous Words – Dr. Molly Marshall – Baptist News Global

The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech.

By Molly T. Marshall

“A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1, KJV) was one of the first Bible verses I learned as a child. Not only were we instructed to memorize this instruction, but to practice it, even with brothers at home. Not being a very quiet little girl, I was glad when I learned one could translate “soft” as “gentle.”

In a political season nearly devoid of civility, many need to return to Sunday school (or attend for the first time!) so that this wisdom might be inscribed in their hearts. The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech. Gentle answers are rarely heard.

Bullying by name-calling is acceptable neither for children nor adults. To be called a loser, weak, ugly or disgusting repeatedly, is more than disrespectful. It breeds contempt, one of the vilest human emotions. Hate-speech kindles rancor, which often escalates beyond words to acts of violence.

Certain conventions of speaking are becoming more acceptable, seemingly necessary. It appears that in debates, pundit exchanges and town hall conversations, speakers not only interrupt their interlocutors, they over-talk them and sometimes actually yell at them. The most persistent voices drown out the others, and listeners are assaulted by the cacophony.

Private communication is no less fraught with discord. We have all read about the harmful things posted through social media that have led to devastating consequences for victims. The critical tone of emails and texts can spawn misunderstanding, and often recipients return in kind. Who among us has not wanted to use more caps and exclamation points when responding to an untoward message? Perhaps the buffer of technologically mediated communication leads persons to say things they would not say face to face.

Has it always been this way with humans? Apparently so, but grievous words are circulated more widely in our day. One of the foul fruits of the “fall” is the poisoning of the great gift of being homo loquens, the “speaking animal.” Even the remarkable scholar Martin Luther preached and wrote perniciously about the Jews. His inflammatory words detract from his stature as a reformer and theologian, and some have suggested added fuel to Hitler’s fiery denunciations.

Scripture offers a breadth of guidance on godly speech, probably because we humans fall so short of this practice. Here is a brief sampling from each testament.

From the Psalter we hear:

“The one who walks with integrity and works righteousness … speaks truth in the heart. This one does not slander with the tongue … (15:2-3).

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).

“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).

Proverbs is replete with instruction:

“There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword. But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).

“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable. But the mouth of fools spouts folly” (15:2).

“She opens her mouth in wisdom. And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).

From the Epistles we receive these exhortations:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29).

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

“Know this, my beloved: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger …” (James 1:19).

The Gospels also offer a pathway to follow:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).

“The good person out of the good treasure of his or her heart produces good, and the evil person out of his or her evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart one speaks” (Luke 6:45).

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11).

In this new year of mercy, so designated by Pope Francis, we have the opportunity to revise our speech. Rather than echoing the visceral and heated rhetoric that presently reverberates, we can use prudent and restrained language. Rather than derogatory pronouncements about those with whom we disagree, we can practice gracious words that build up others, for the common good.

For some of us, it may mean that we listen more and speak less. As the sages remind us, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he or she closes his or her lips, that one is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). That is surely a worthy pursuit!


Molly Marshall is president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Shawnee, Kan. Her weekly blog “Trinitarian Soundings.” Dr. Marshall was one of the favorite speakers at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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Why Christians Must Seek Civility in Communication –

Mitch Carnell Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 6:18 am

Why Christians Must Seek Civility in Communication | Mitch Carnell, Communication, Respect, Unity, Speech We must withhold our judgment of the message until we have fully heard it. Christian communication places a high calling on both our expression and our reception of the message, Carnell observes.

A group of 25 religious leaders met in Washington, D.C., recently to promote civil discourse. They wanted to turn down the harshness of the rhetoric in our nation’s capital.

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, told the media, “Faith leaders have a remarkable opportunity to shift the conversation, but it’s very challenging, particularly in a larger society that wants to understand everything as a battle, as engaging the enemy, rather than with someone who might have something to teach us.”

This group wants to establish a National Day of Civil Discourse.

Christian communication differs from ordinary communication in its attitude toward the other.

As a practitioner in the areas of interpersonal and organizational communication, I adopted as my definition of communication one that I found many years ago.

“Communication is the transmission and reception of thoughts, feeling and ideas either verbally or nonverbally in order to secure a response.” It is the best definition of communication I have found.

To cast it more for Christian purposes, I insert the word “respectful” before transmission. Communication is the respectful transmission and reception of thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Christian communication strives for the best results for those it affects. We must be careful not to distort the message. Christian communication must be honest; however, honesty alone is not enough. Attitudes of love and faith must be bound into the interaction.

Although I may be communicating a message that is painful or even one that includes unpleasant consequences, it must recognize the ability of people to change. Our communication should reveal the unity within the Christian community.

Christian communication is not a weak, watered-down version of the message. It must be a bold statement of the truth, as we know it, but delivered with a deep respect for the other and the message.

The message should contain no barbs, no hidden agendas, no gossip and no “got-yous.” It should map the territory as accurately as possible. It must be uplifting, encouraging and full of grace.

According to the psalmist, our words and the meditations of our heart from where those words spring must be acceptable unto God. There cannot be a hint of evil or guile.

“Let your communication be yea, yea and nay, nay” (Matthew 5:37). If we are to be ready to give an answer as to the hope that we feel, we must have thought our faith through so that our response is properly seasoned (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Few people have someone who really listens to them. When we truly listen, we give the other person the most valuable thing we have – our time.

Active listening is a true gift of caring. As listeners, we must work hard to hear the message with as little distortion as possible.

We must hear what the speaker is saying and not what we wish he were saying or should be saying. We must not allow our like of the speaker or our dislike of him or her or our favor or disfavor of the subject to cloud our hearing.

We must withhold our judgment of the message until we have fully heard it. Christian communication places a high calling on both our expression and our reception of the message.

Reading also demands that we approach the text with the same respectful attitude. There should be no barriers as to what a Christian is permitted to read, but much that he or she chooses not to read.

We must be careful not to misinterpret the writer’s message or attribute meanings that he or she did not intend. What we read or do not read reveals a great deal about us, as does what we watch or do not watch.

Our nonverbal communication requires our attention as well. Body language is everything about us except the actual words we use.

Our actions, manners, dress, posture, hygiene, facial expressions, vocal tone and loudness either confirm or negate our message.

As our mothers told us, the company we keep sends a message. Our reputation often precedes us and contributes to a positive or negative reception of our message and us.

What is Christian communication? Christian communication is anything we say or do that advances the message of Christ.

Mitch Carnell is the founder of Say Something Nice Day and Say Something Nice Sunday. He and his wife, Carol, are members of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C. He blogs at

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That Which Divides Us

Guest Post by Dr. Ircel Harrison

In many areas of contemporary life, civility seems to be a thing of the past.  Whether in politics, religion, academia, or economics, the opportunity to engage in respectful, informed discourse is decreasing.  The only true learning comes from stating, clarifying, and discussing alternatives but this is more difficult to do.  Rather than fostering dialogue and discovery, we seem to want to draw lines that will divide rather than unite. A key tactic in this “uncivil” discourse is fear.  Although fear if not necessarily a negative emotion, it is a useful tool to divide and polarize people.  Healthy fear is a reasonable motivator, but unhealthy fear has the potential to be destructive.  If a leader or opinion setter can identify what people fear, he or she can use it to further their own agenda.  We may be dealing with such diverse topics as the debt ceiling, sexual ethics, or religious practice but fear can quickly divide people into different camps that not only cannot talk with one another but refuse to do so. 

Why is fear such a powerful instrument for division?  A primary reason is that we don’t have to dig too deeply to find something that each and every one of us fears—failure, deprivation, loss, embarrassment, or “the other.”  Fear takes hold of our vulnerabilities and prejudices very quickly, often in an irrational way. How can we overcome the fear that blocks civil discourse and real dialogue?  If we will take the time for some reflection, we can break the grip of fear and find freedom.  Let me suggest several ideas. 

First, we must clearly name and acknowledge our fear.  Of what are we afraid?  Do we really understand what motivates our fear?   If we can name it, we can face it.  If we cannot, then what’s the problem? 

Second, we might also think in terms of who benefits from our succumbing to our fear.  Is someone using our fear to manipulate us for their own ends?  If so, let’s call them out and refuse to be controlled. 

The third question we should ask ourselves is, “What is the worst thing that could happen if this fear is real and the unwanted becomes a reality?”  Are the consequences physical, emotional, or simply inconvenience?  What is the real harm that will occur?

Fourth, if what we fear does happen, how can we deal with it?  We are not powerless in the face of fear.  Can we prepare so that we can thwart our fear or mitigate the consequences in some way?  What are our alternative responses in this situation? 

In responding to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Although this may seem to be too simplistic to some, the truth is that fear only has the power we give to it.  Allowing fear to demoralize, divide, and incite us is a matter of choice.  We must make the decision about what to do with our fear or we will not be able to face the challenges that life and society throw our way.

About Ircel Harrison: I consider myself an itinerant educator. My time is spent in encouraging and equipping ministers through my work with the Central Baptist Seminary site in Murfreesboro and Pinnacle Leadership Associates. I also do volunteer work with my church. Other time is devoted to reading, writing, traveling, and spending time with grandchildren and my wife, Rita. our way. 

Ircel Harrison blogs at


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