Maybe it was the parenting book loaded with cliches written by someone whose oldest child was 6 years old. Or it could have been a Biblegateway.com concordance word search of strung-together topical verses masquerading as a sermon. Or perhaps it was the blog post that was nothing more than regurgitated words the author parroted from his or her favorite superstar teacher/preacher.
The content of each was solid enough, I suppose. But in each instance, the speaker’s words came across as an echo of someone else’s authority, like listening to the chatter of a well-trained parrot.
When we attempt to speak or write about matters of faith, how can we move from echoing the words and experiences of others to speaking with the kind of authority that is our birthright in Christ?
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:21)
These ‘teachers of the law’ were doing what generations before them had done: learned and taught the 613 Rules as the way God’s beloved Chosen People could attempt to live a righteous, abundant life. Some of these teachers did possess a limited measure of influence, as they would gather a small band of disciples around their particular interpretation of this rule or that practice. This rabbi prescribes prayer garment tassels should be x-inches long. That rabbi disagrees, and so his disciples sport slightly shorter tassels. The focus was on how to obey.
Jesus embodied those rules, moving beyond checklist and into a perfect, purposed relationship with them. His authority was evident because he was not parroting the how the generations before him had parroted. He lived a holy life, and when he spoke, he helped his audience hear the heartbeat of those rules, illuminating the why behind the call to holiness with his words and his actions. He himself was the how.
Part of our journey to maturity as communicators is the recognition that we, too, must move past the mimic stage. All of us start there, as author Dorothy Sayers explained in her seminal essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning“:
Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognize three states of development. These, in a rough-and- ready fashion, I will call the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic–the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Fourth Form. The Poetic age is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.
I understand the spiritual “Poll Parrots”, the believers who reverently quote every gem from their pastor’s lips (or Charles Stanley or Joyce Meyer or Brian McLaren or Martin Luther or whoever). These people are serious about learning to walk in the way of Jesus, and latch onto a teacher who can help them make sense of where to step next. There have been Poll Parrots from the beginning, and even John the Baptizer had his own dedicated tribe after Jesus stepped into active ministry. I was a parrot for a time in my life, and needed to be so I could learn the sound-patterns of faith.
We do one another no favors if we do not spur one another toward spiritual maturity:
Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death,and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. (Heb. 6:1-3)
I believe we all must parrot the words of others for a time before we can sing our own new song to the Lord. My compassion ends when I see someone position themselves as an authority (the parenting book full of other people’s ideas, written by the mother of a young child) during that parrot period.
Each one of us should be attentive to our own thoughts and speech in regards to spiritual topics. A few guiding questions for self-examination in this area might include:
- Do I find myself quoting my favorite pastor or teacher so I can respond without anxiety to questions and challenges in my life?
- Are those not on a favorite teacher/preacher’s “approved” list of resources theologically suspect in my mind, too?
- Do I take at face value what your favorite teacher tells me about Scripture, or do I prayerfully investigate it for myself?
- Does doubt frighten me?
- Do I find a sense of security in trusting this human authority’s voice in my life?
If you are a friend or mentor to someone nested comfortably in the parrot stage, here are a few questions you might be able to ask in God’s gift of a tender moment in order to help him or her learn to fly, not merely echo:
- What does the Bible say to support your favorite teacher’s position on _______? Are there passages that may shed a different light on the subject? How do you reconcile the tension between the two?
- What is one idea you’ve had about God that has changed or been challenged since you first came to faith in Christ?
- What have you learned recently from someone you don’t agree with?
- What theological/spiritual questions most frighten or trouble you? What do you do with those unsettled feelings?
- In what ways is your favorite teacher or “camp” most like Jesus? Where do they seem to fall short? How do you reconcile this dissonance?
What would you add to either list of questions? What helped you move beyond the “Poll Parrot” stage in your own faith development?