There’s a huge, huge difference between listening to someone and really hearing them. Today I’ll show you what I mean, how to tell when someone has no ears to hear what you have to say, and how Christians like Preston Sprinkle are being dishonest with the people they are pretending to love.
“He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear.”
In the Christian world, the phrase “having ears to hear” means a lot more than just hearing someone talk. It means to deeply understand what was said, to heed it, and to get down into the trenches with it and learn the lessons brought with it. Jesus was quite fond of the phrase and often used it at the end of his nonsensical little stories as a way of marking off something that–by intent and design–only his mystery cult members would really grasp but which outsiders probably would not understand at all.*
Those modern Christians who imagine themselves as mini-Jesuses are also fond of the phrase and use it in much the same way, especially after saying something that non-Christians would profoundly disagree with. The general idea is that Christians, who are possessed by their god’s spirit, can understand deeper spiritual truths than unwashed heathens ever could, no matter how much better and broader those heathens’ educations and experiences might be.
I’ve never seen any indication that their certainty is based in reality, but then again very little else in the religion is, so that might be a minor point. Reality smacks up against Christians’ quiet assurance that their beliefs give them greater wisdom and discernment than other people have, and nowhere does reality smack harder against that assurance than in what they’re saying lately about LGBTQ people.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote “Listening but Not Really to People to Be ‘Loved'”, in which I explored the author’s stated desire to really listen this time to the people his tribe is currently persecuting. Unfortunately, he wasn’t hitting that mark.
He was sitting there week after week in interminable coffee dates with LGBTQ people, sure, nodding and smiling along with them and maybe even squinching up his preacher eyebrows from time to time in sorrow. Gosh, there might even have been some godly TRUE CHRISTIAN™ tears over what his tribe is doing to LGBTQ people. Yes, I can absolutely picture some tears. He does seem pretty upset about the situation, as well he should be.
But then something weird happens.
He comes out of these conversations exactly the same as he was before them.
It’s hard to imagine that someone who has “enjoyed countless hours of conversations with gay and lesbian people,” as Dr. Sprinkle claims to have done, hasn’t picked up on LGBTQ folks’ heartfelt desire for Christians like himself to leave their rights alone, get out of their lives, stop treating them like DIY fix-it projects and second-class citizens, and let them go about their business in peace without fear of Christian harassment and discrimination. They want what pretty much all of us non-Christians want, and they are not shy about expressing their desires. It’s hard to imagine that not one person communicated something like this to him, given how easy it is to find many thousands of LGBTQ people saying exactly this on Christian forums and blogs.
But when those coffee dates were done, Preston Sprinkle dried his tears, unsquinched his eyebrows, and pounced on his keyboard to tap out a book that came out sounding an awful lot like his tribe’s party lines about LGBTQ people instead of anything that reflects reality.
(I can hardly even imagine how frustrating this perception would be to the people who have given him so much of their time, if I’m as frustrated as I am right now by just reading about it second-hand.)
He came out of his coffee dates with anecdotes about reparative therapy being effective (sometimes, he thinks, at least–which is enough for him to recommend it), about gay people not caring about churches’ bigotry as long as they’re filled with loving Christians who’ll treat them nicely, about LGBTQ people being “hungry for the word” and aching for Christian hugs–but seeking validation and affection from anonymous sexual hookups, about a man who decided that he simply had to be gay because his hypermasculine church had made him feel too effeminate (yes, really; I’m not exaggerating), and about various gay people who are totally diggin’ their celibate lives because ministry and platonic friends totally make up for never, ever having a single romantic relationship forever. It certainly reads like the LGBTQ experience as filtered through a fervent fundagelical’s mind–but it does not sound like reality.
You might remember that apologetics book we looked at a couple years ago, the one by Shane Hayes where he claimed he’d been totally for sure an atheist for a few years–but his version of atheism read like the fundagelical party line about atheists rather than what most actual atheists would say about it. Yeah, People to Be Loved really reminds me of that book. (Man, that was a fun series. We should do that again–oh wait, we are, aren’t we?) The point is, this kind of thinking isn’t unique to Preston Sprinkle. It’s part of his entire culture.
Preston Sprinkle, like Shane Hayes years ago, might have heard the words coming out of people’s mouths, but he didn’t have the ears to hear what they had to say. He had the conversations, but he didn’t comprehend the words. He either couldn’t, or he didn’t want to.
And sitting there, nodding, smiling, and sometimes grimacing doesn’t do us a lot of good if we’re not learning the other person’s truth and communicating back and forth. Especially when the conversation centers around stuff that our tribe is doing that is very wrong and ways in which we are demonstrably hurting someone else, we need to be doing better than that. We need instead to be practicing what is called “active listening.”
If you’ve ever had a conversation where it became very apparent very early on that the other person wasn’t really paying attention to you, then you’ve had a brush with distracted listening. Most people have no idea how to hold a proper conversation. They fiddle with their phones, or they smile and wave at other people in the room, or they read magazine articles, or they’re interrupting you every five seconds to tell you about some witty anecdote of their own.
Worst of all are the people pretending to listen because they want you to feel like they’re friendly toward you so you’ll be more likely to give them something they want. Acting attentive toward other people is one of the oldest and most tried-and-true sales techniques in the book. It builds a shockingly high amount of affinity and goodwill in a shockingly short amount of time. A very skilled salesperson can seize upon some disclosed detail by listening and asking good questions, and then use this gleaned information to personalize a sales pitch to an unwary mark.
The results don’t vary much, though, whatever the motivation is. Once the other person has gotten what they wanted out of you, be it your attention or your money, or else has determined that they will never get what they seek from you, they vanish from your life and you are left holding the bag and wondering what happened to all that wonderful friendliness.
After this experience, you might feel frustrated, used, disrespected, confused, or even upset and angry by the other person’s behavior. You were taking the time to share something that was of at least marginal importance to you, and the other person was acting like it didn’t matter at all–like their desire to use you mattered more than your consent to be used.
That’s not listening. It’s certainly not genuine communication, nor even a conversation. That’s just coaxing the other person into being an unwilling audience–because the person doing it knows that target wouldn’t listen to the sales pitch otherwise. Such one-sided and dishonest behavior is, to use Neil Carter’s term, a nonversation. Many non-Christians have experienced exactly the situation I have described, and it seems like the practice is only becoming more popular as Christian leaders and teachers get more frantic to stop the tidal wave of losses their religion is experiencing.
But they don’t tend to realize that non-Christians can generally tell when Christians are only pretending to listen to us in order to evangelize. Some of us might be fooled once or twice, but it doesn’t take long to recognize the signs and then forever after steer clear of people who utilize this dishonest tactic.
Active listening is the complete opposite of distracted listening or listening with an eye toward making a sales pitch. When someone is actively listening to us, we know immediately that something different, unusual, and really nice is happening. They lean forward. They look at us. They give what those in the communications biz sometimes call “verbal head-nods” by affirming with short, friendly noises that they’re with us. They’re not fooling around with their electronics or looking around for someone else to interact with. They’re not waiting for us to feel at ease so they can launch into a sales pitch. And they’re not waiting for us to draw a breath or pause for two microseconds so they can leap into the lull with their own witty anecdote, which is burning a hole clean through their tongue.
One site calls active listening “listening with all senses.” To me, active listening is like a ballroom dance: the people involved are focused on each other to the exclusion of others, and they’re both working together to give and receive from their partner. Active listening is like an investment made into a relationship. It takes time to learn and time to do, and the only payoff it seeks is the improvement of the relationship between the participants–which may include the righting of wrongs.
When a conversation with an active listener is concluded, we feel like we were heard. We feel like what we communicated got taken on board and truly understood. We feel accepted, and if we do not already feel loved, at least we feel that a loving event just took place. If we were discussing a wrong that was done, then we feel like the wrong will be addressed and made right at last. We come out of the experience feeling validated and accepted.
But that’s not what happens to us after we have a nonversation with a toxic Christian.
Why Preston Sprinkle Can’t Hear Anyone.
Fundagelicals don’t have a really firm grasp on what people are actually like. Such Christians have built up a huge body of folklore about how people operate, folklore that is supported by friend-of-friend anecdotes and breathless testimonies spread around from person to person. Occasionally, because people are incredibly varied in their personalities and responses, you might run across someone who actually fits into the bubble’s mythology and confirms it–which is more than enough for the Christians who subscribe to this thinking to apply it to everybody.
But their mythology sounds like it was created by space aliens who only know about human beings because they watched a few episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. That’s why, when non-Christians hear ourselves described by fundagelicals, we often feel like they’re seeing us through fun-house mirrors. What’s really happening is much more complex than that, though.
It has to do with the criticism-averse nature of fundagelicalism.
Criticism avoidance is a term that describes a whole series of psychological mechanisms that really dysfunctional people use to protect themselves from any and all criticism. Once you know what you’re looking at, you’ll easily see when Christians engage in these habits. Here are some of the mechanisms involved that were named by the inestimable Issendai in that linked series of blog posts:
• inability to remember criticisms
• minimization of criticisms [they] do remember
• unwillingness to repeat criticisms
• refusal to accept criticisms that they themselves do not agree with
• hypersensitivity to negative emotions aimed at them
Criticism avoidance guarantees that people will have strained relationships. No one wants to be around someone who can’t bear to talk out problems, who can’t remember being told anything she doesn’t like, who goes around saying she has no idea why people are so mean to her. It also guarantees that if the solution to a problem is “See what you’re doing wrong and fix it,” the problem will never be solved. It’s no surprise that criticism-avoidant people end up divorced and estranged more often than the general populace.
I could not possibly have described fundagelicalism–and its current cultural problems–better than Issendai has here, though she’s talking about a slightly different (but frequently overlapping) group of people. Nor could I better describe fundagelical Christians’ relationship with those outside their culture than she has with the phrase “divorced and estranged.” Very few people actually want to be around people who are criticism-averse.
Criticism avoidance also predicts that when such a dysfunctional person does finally perceive a problem, their answer to that problem is usually “I’m doing everything right so I don’t have to change at all, but everyone around me is wrong and has to change.” In Preston Sprinkle’s world, this aversion to criticism manifests in his ideas around how to fix his tribe’s eroding credibility and roll back its stream of losses. His studied opinion, after spending half a book on a careful study of the vocabulary of first-century Christians and Jews, is that everything his tribe preaches is correct but that they just need to say it better in order to succeed.
And thousands of LGBTQ people and allies pound their heads on their desks and perhaps wonder what magical words they’ll need to find before Preston Sprinkle, who–remember–positions himself as the nice Christian bigot-for-Jesus, finally understands what’s wrong and what needs to happen. (Spoiler alert: those words do not exist.)
The First, But Not the Only Step.
Listening isn’t enough. It is never enough. It’s a nice first step. But it is not the last step. And if someone is going to oppress another person, and then allow that person’s words to reach their exalted ears, and then simply continue doing what was always being done, then they’ve just made the situation far worse than it already was. They’ve just let the oppressed person know that this behavior isn’t an accident of any kind, and that even knowing how much it hurts that other person, it isn’t going to be changing. They’ve just announced that doing this wrong to the other person matters more to them than anything that person feels as a response.
And that message is being received loud and clear in the case of Christian bigotry-for-Jesus. Not that it matters. Christians have got a nice, shiny new toy in their grabby little hands that they think will solve their problem. Not the problem of their outright hypocritical bigotry, no; the problem as they see it is not being able to make sales pitches as often and as successfully as they think they should.
The toy is a new way of faking true communication, and its use will (they hope!) accomplish what many of them call “earning the right to be heard.” This bit of Christianese translates to gaining a shot at making an evangelistic sales pitch. I’m sure that Preston Sprinkle thinks that his ideas will lead to Christians gaining a shot at making their sales pitches to a world that has already heard–and rejected–all the Christian sales pitches it wants to hear. He is, however, wrong. The only thing that is going to fix the situation at this point is not a cosmetic change in “posture,” as he calls his ideas; it is a complete renovation of the message itself.
The message is the problem here, not how the messengers are conveying their message. The message is rotten. There is no salvaging it. It hurts people rather than heals them. And Preston Sprinkle has just ensured that his readers will only hurt LGBTQ people worse by trying out his suggestions.
If he wasn’t so fixated on being correct and he wasn’t so intensely averse to criticism, chances are he could take a chance on opening up his listening ears to hear what people are really saying.
But he is, and he is, and so he can’t. It’s a shame that he wants to desperately to be more loving toward persecuted people, and yet can’t break out past his bubble’s confines to see that what he is suggesting is only causing more harm.
We’re going to be talking more about one of his more reprehensible suggestions next time–see you then!
* “Ears to hear” is kinda ableist. I’m using the terms here because I’m riffing off of specific Bible verses. I’m just putting this note here so y’all know I wouldn’t normally phrase it that way.
Also, wow, gang, you really put paid to the stream of trolls we got on the last post. I’m sorry you had to deal with any of them, as well as super-proud of how you handled them. I ended up banning 13 people (so far), which is double the blog’s entire previous history of banninations up till this week. Thank you for bearing with the situation, and for voicing such strong support for Martin Hughes and the black community itself. #BlackLivesMatter.