On further reflection, I think I figured out why I was saddened by my class yesterday. For those of you who haven’t read my previous post, here it is in a nutshell: when the professor asked a class of twenty-five undergraduates what evangelicalism was, the words that ended up on the board were ones like “extreme” and “pushy,” not “Jesus,” “the Bible,” or “salvation.”
I understand the negative public image of evangelicals, who yes, are often quite pushy and judgmental (believe me, I know it!), but what frustrates me is that I realized in that class that the average person has no real understanding of how the evangelical thinks or understands the world. And upon further reflection I realized that the exact opposite is true: evangelicals have no idea how the average person thinks or understands the world. In a sense, evangelicals and average Americans are speaking two completely different language, and neither can understand the other.
It’s this lack of mutual understanding that makes actual discourse difficult or even impossible and can stymie the political process completely. I get frustrated by the lack of understanding and the amount of miscommunication that occurs – on both sides.
I am not an evangelical, and I don’t sympathize with evangelical goals at all. However, I am a scholar, an academic, and as such I seek to understand. In another class yesterday a group of graduate students discussed how we deal with people who believed in and supported abominable things in the past, such as slavery or apartheid. The consensus was that we don’t have to agree with our subject’s views to understand why they held them and how they saw the world. The goal should not be to stereotype or condemn, but to understand and empathize, because even historical actors who did or supported horrible things were people, not some sort of inhuman monsters. And it strikes me that when it comes to each other, neither evangelicals or other Americans do that. Instead, both sides stereotype and condemn.
To average people, evangelicals are pushy and judgmental. To evangelicals, average people are selfish and hedonistic. You see what I’m saying?
I disagree with my parents a lot, but at the same time I understand how they see the world and why they do what they do. I get it. I may think they’re wrong and that some of what they do is harmful and that their view of the world doesn’t line up with reality, but at the same time I understand. I’m saddened by it all, and I wish things were different, but I understand. Why? Because, in a sense, I am bilingual.
Unfortunately, my parents don’t understand me. At all. In their eyes, I am following after my own pleasure, trying to drown out the things I hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit telling me through engaging in hedonism. I am selfish, I am rebellious, I am ungodly, I am unhappy. You see, they don’t understand the language I speak or live at all. They are not bilingual.
Instead of stereotypes and judgment, I would like more attempts at understanding, from both sides. We can’t have productive discourse or effective political discussions without being able to speak the other’s language, or to at least understand it. We may still disagree, but at least then we would each understand where the other is coming from. I know that I’m asking the impossible, but then, I’ve always been an idealist.
Or perhaps I should go to Washington and offer my services as a translator.