I was a seventeen-year-old kid with no religious affiliation who just wanted to see Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I didn’t realize I’d have to walk through a gauntlet of Christians handing out pamphlets and trying to turn me away. The first woman who approached me (I would guess she was in her thirties) handed me a gospel tract and told me I was doing myself no favors by going to see this movie.
The movie had been out for a while, so I asked her, “Have you seen it?”
“No, and you shouldn’t either,” she replied.
“Oh?” I was pretty skeptical at this point. “What’s so terrible about it?”
“Well, it’s all right there,” she said, pointing to the paper in my hand.
“Who told you it’s bad?” I asked, and she replied: “Well, everyone knows. But My pastor has talked a lot about it.”
I wandered around the crowd of protesters and picketers and couldn’t find one person who had actually seen the movie. After I went home, I remember thinking, “Who spends their time protesting something based on second-hand presumptions?”
I can understand how one might skip entertainment on the recommendation of someone they trust. But as someone skeptical of Christianity, I was surprised that people would go out of their way to protest and communicate their displeasure based on someone else’s strongly held beliefs.
But as a teen in the ’80s, I’d experienced that a lot. Whether it was music or role-playing games, Christians were often speaking into my life based on the “expertise” of others. It can be pretty frustrating to defend something you love against people who are passionate it’s wrong, but only have a marginal, hand-me-down understanding of it.
Less than five months later, I was the guy blathering on what I’d learned from others.
I became a Christian at 21 and within a year or two was managing a Christian bookstore—right across the mall’s hallway from a New Age bookstore. This was the early 90s, and the New Age movement was evangelical Christianity’s public enemy number one, and I’d been fed a steady diet of information pertaining to this new-age tool of Satan to mislead the masses.
Terry, who owned the store, was an older, slender man who pulled his long, grey hair back into a ponytail. When it was slow, we’d sit in between our stores and chat. Terry was so incredibly patient while I, in my ignorant enthusiasm, said presumptuous unkind things. I’d read a lot of Christian books about the New Age movement, so I considered myself a bit of an expert. I wasn’t.
He knew way more about the Bible than I knew about any of the stuff in his store. He could have humiliated me, and he never did. As we got to know each other, we became friends. We would share books with each other and developed a appreciation for each other’s opinions.
The power of understanding
Here’s the thing, I gained so much more from reading Terry’s literature than he gained from reading mine. Being exposed to what was important to him taught me a lot about who he was. It added a huge missing element to the stuff I’d been taught about the New Age. These were often beautiful, sincere people who were trying to figure out life, too. Being exposed to things that were important to him gave me the ability to see areas where we shared common ground and life experiences.
I shed the reactive, accusatory posture I’d been conditioned to adopt.
One of the habits in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to seek first to understand, and then to be understood. This was the relationship where I truly experienced this habit’s value. As I really sought to understand him, I shed the reactive, accusatory posture I’d been conditioned to adopt.
This was the relationship where I first realized that I could build a friendship that didn’t have to have an ulterior evangelistic motive. I wasn’t befriending him for the purpose of sharing the gospel; I became his friend because he was a very sweet man. Learning to get to know someone empathetically isn’t a tool for evangelism, it’s something well-adjusted humans do. Building that kind of relationship does give you more influence, but you don’t do it for that purpose. You do it because people deserve to be appreciated and understood where they’re at.
Because he was my friend, I talked to him about Jesus a lot—and he listened, but I paid attention while he shared his thoughts with me, too.
Maybe we could be making more of an effort
In the last 20+ years, not much has changed. I’m still exposed to regular arguments, judgments, and statements made by people with only a cursory understanding of another person’s beliefs, theology, values, or ideas. Everything they know about the topic at hand has come from a hastily read book, thesis, or blog post written by someone else who may or may not have done the work to get inside the subject.
We approach each other in stereotypes and generalities because it’s just easier than investing the time in understanding contrary ideologies, thoughts, people, and literature.
I know people who would say, “I need to guard my thoughts, so I can’t go around investing time in reading things that I just don’t believe.” To this I would say that you’re actually doing yourself more damage with this mindset.
If you only read what you agree with, you never learn to read critically. You’re not really practicing discernment by ignoring contradictory ideas; you’re intentionally stunting your understanding.
Of course, you don’t have time to fully understand every opposing theology or philosophy, so what now? I want to let you in on a little secret . . . and it just might change your life.
You don’t have to have an opinion about everything.
Are you ready?
Here it comes . . .
You don’t have to have an opinion about everything. You don’t have to pretend like you’re an expert in every field. There’s no real loss of social standing or humiliation in not knowing what you don’t know. And if all you know about a subject has come from someone writing or speaking in opposition, you don’t really know it.
You’re not defiled by contrary information, and it just might be a benefit. So the next time you are tempted to weigh in as an expert based on second-hand information, think twice. You may be doing yourself, and others, a disservice.
Oh, and The Last Temptation of Christ? Super boring, with a few thought provoking moments. But the Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack Passion is still my number one choice for music while I am studying, praying, or meditating.