The Importance of Conversation
- 2009 23 Dec
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6,7)
The art of conversation is in a rather deplorable state in our day. At least, that’s the argument of Stephen Miller in his interesting and timely book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. While he’s not persuaded conversation is dead, Miller agrees it is languishing, and very near to complete collapse.
Many things have conspired to throttle good conversation, both throughout the course of America’s history and today, when technology can discourage in-depth involvement with others, preferring more shorthand and arms-length kinds of communication, and when people seem more to enjoy watching a conversation on TV than engaging in one with friends. Nevertheless, conversation appears to be making something of a comeback — cafés and coffee houses, book and poetry groups, and so forth, on the rise. Yet one of its great enemies, religious enthusiasm, threatens to shut it down altogether. Miller writes, “Fundamentalist Christians are enemies of conversation insofar as they continually refer to the Bible and they often say that there are only two sides to a question” (p. 302).
Enemies of conversation? That seems pretty harsh to me, especially since, at least in my experience, it can be very difficult to get Christians to talk about anything. Anything of substance, that is. Christians will happily jabber on about their children, last night’s game, some work-related opportunity, or even some current issue or event. Yet they very rarely talk about these things from anything even vaguely resembling a biblical point of view.
When it comes to conversing with others about almost anything, Christians more often seem to leave their Bibles out of it and just follow the conversational trail wherever it may lead. Of course, there are a few highly visible Christians auguring for all manner of views and policies according to their biblical understanding of truth. But we’re mostly content to let them do all the talking. We don’t seem to have much to say to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues that would cause them to believe the Bible speaks about anything more than a fairly narrow range of spiritual and moral concerns.
And as for the Gospel — its proclamation and defense (Philippians 1:15-18) — we are in danger of becoming a generation of non-evangelistic evangelicals. We have bought into the “come/see” model of “doing church” and have decided to go along with our unbelieving world’s insistence that we keep our faith to ourselves and that, if they want to hear about it, they’ll let us know. So even if we were inclined to inject the Gospel or any aspect of biblical truth into a conversation with others, out of politeness (or is it fear?), we simply decline to do so.
And so the conversations of our day — over all manner of personal, social, cultural, and moral issues — go on without the benefit of biblical insight. We hear certain Christians espousing biblical ideals in various parts of the public square, but they are increasingly resented by all other disputants and encouraged to keep their “private” opinions to themselves. That’s not real conversation. And although the reviving of conversation as an important human function proceeds apace, there seems to be no room for Scripture or the biblical worldview in the agenda.
Can we be content with this situation?
A Word Fitly Spoken
The Bible has a good deal to say about the tongue and how we use it. The Lord gave us our tongues, at least in part, for the purpose of conversation, and His Word is filled with rich insight into how to make conversation a positive activity, even a Kingdom endeavor. The key to becoming an effective Christian conversationalist seems to lie in two disciplines: First, in understanding the people with whom we are conversing, and discovering their interests and needs; and second, in fashioning our words with such grace and care that people will find them thoughtful and interesting. If we can practice these two disciplines more consistently, we may find that people are willing to engage us in conversation, and to give fair hearing and due consideration to our biblical worldview.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). It must be possible for believers to develop the art of the fitly-spoken word. We can’t do this without practicing courtesy toward those with whom we would speak, or being willing to hear and understand their views (Colossians 4:6; James 1:19). And we can’t do this if we’re just going to pound people with Bible verses or refuse to discuss the reasons for why we believe the way we do. Conversation involves give and take, questions and answers, sympathetic listening, careful choice of words, and a reluctance to ridicule or merely dismiss all views not favorable to our own. Good conversation takes time and depends on relationships of mutual respect. We won’t be invited to share in any of the great conversations of our day if we cannot develop these two basic requirements.
But for our conversation to be genuinely Christian, we must not be reluctant to insist on our views as these are informed and shaped by the study of Scripture. Contrary to Stephen Miller, we are enemies to real conversation when we leave the Bible out, for conversation without the salt of truth quickly becomes tasteless and non-nourishing.
Talk about These Things
God’s instruction to His people that they learn to talk about His law in the everyday situations of their lives was intended both to help them learn the law, and to encourage obedience to it in themselves and their neighbors. Our text suggests that God delights for us to talk about His law throughout the day, at every opportunity, and with a view to letting it capture our hearts, minds, and lives ever more completely.
The law of God makes for excellent conversation. It speaks to every area of human interest or concern — matters of war and the economy, personal morality, the education of children, the role of the arts in society, and the nature of civil authority being just a few of the many topics broached in God’s law. If Christians would take up the discipline — highly recommended in Scripture (cf. Psalm 1) — of meditating on portions of the law each day, they might be surprised to discover how truly relevant to contemporary issues and events it is, and, thus, what a powerful resource for interesting and effective conversation it can be.
Just to cite a few examples: The law of God can guide us through the coming political season (or the perpetual political season, as politics has lately become). It takes into its purview such timely matters as immigration policy (Exodus 22:21-24; Deuteronomy 24:17-22); wages and wage earners (Leviticus 19:13; Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:14,15; Deuteronomy 25:13-16); the exercise of justice (many, many citations); even matters of decency and privacy in sexual morality (again, too many to cite). The law of God even glances at matters of environmental stewardship (Deuteronomy 20:19,20; Deuteronomy 22:6,7), the conduct of war (Deuteronomy 20:1-18), and various kinds of corporate and white-collar crimes (Exodus 22:9; Leviticus 6:1-5; Leviticus 19:35,36).
Now don’t rush to your Bible to look up these passages expecting to find wording like you might in some Congressional bill or contemporary case law. These Old Testament laws encode what the Westminster Divines referred to as principles of “general equity” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX.iv). These laws must be considered and applied with the wisdom that comes from waiting on the Holy Spirit and comparing Scripture with Scripture (Ezekiel 36:26,27; 1 Corinthians 2:12,13).
However, by meditating on the law day and night, as the Scriptures recommend, we may find some surprising applications to contemporary situations — and, hence, interesting items for conversation. Who would have thought, for example, that the ancient law forbidding the muzzling of an ox as it treads out the corn (Deuteronomy 25:4) would have anything to do with fair compensation for workers? Apparently Paul did, so much so, in fact, that he cited it twice in arguing for just wages for ministers of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:3-12; 1 Timothy 5:17,18).
Or who today would appeal to some Old Testament law in order to hold civil authorities accountable for decency and civility in the conduct of their duties? Both John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul didn’t hesitate to do so (Matthew 14:1-4, cf. Leviticus 20:21; Acts 23:1-5). Or which contemporary pastor would dare to chide the wealthy members of his congregation for failing to pay fair wages, and refer to some Old Testament civil statute to make his case? James did it without even blinking (James 5:1-6; cf. Deuteronomy 24:14,15).
Clearly there is much gist for meditation and conversation within the Old Testament laws. Not all of these laws are still valid or still apply, of course (the argument of Hebrews 7-10), and some — especially some of those requiring harsh punishments — have been mitigated by the Kingdom context in which we now live, and the requirements of grace that context entails (cf. Matthew 5:38-48; also, 1 Corinthians 5, cf. Deuteronomy 22:30 and Leviticus 20:11). The challenge to believers in every age is to understand which aspects of the law continue as resources for holy, righteous, and good living (Romans 7:12) and how we must interpret and apply those laws in order to realize the promise of life they encode (Leviticus 18:1-5).
As we meditate on the law of God and practice, obediently, the mandate to talk about it with one another throughout the day, we may find that the law is truly relevant in surprising and very interesting ways. This can then equip us to be more effective and consistent as Christian conversationalists with our unsaved neighbors, friends, and colleagues.
Please do not misunderstand what I’m arguing for here. In no way do I mean to imply that believers ought to take an interest in the law, and begin meditating on and conversing with one another about it, as though in some way this would contribute to or accomplish their salvation. The only obedience to the law that can achieve this is that which Jesus perfectly fulfilled. Rather, I want to argue, with Paul (Romans 3:31), that, while Christ has established the legal foundation for our justification, the law of God provides the moral guidelines and trajectories for living the life of Jesus Christ, the life of loving God and our neighbors (cf. 1 John 2:3-6; Matthew 22:34-40).
Filled with the Holy Spirit, we may expect the Lord both to lead us into the truth of His law (John 16:13; John 8:32) and teach us both to see God’s love revealed in His law and the way of love to which the law unswervingly points (Romans 5:5). And that should give us plenty to talk about, both among ourselves, and with our unsaved neighbors and friends.
Scripture commends the person who meditates in God’s law (Psalm 1). Do you do this? Why or why not?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics, (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.