One-Sided Conversations

One-Sided Conversations September 25, 2012

I suspect many who fly frequently share one secret fear: that the use of cellphones will be permitted after take-off.  Picture the scenario: stuck in a middle seat between two people who are carrying on conversations on either side of you. Both use loud voices because of ambient noise. The phone calls consume the entire flight time, other than take off and landing.

Are you nuts yet?

All of us have been exposed—and probably exposed others—to the discomfort of overhearing phone calls in public places. Occasionally people respond with rage to such infringements on their hearing space.

Once this past summer on a packed evening train coming out of London, a woman spoke at length on her phone in an otherwise silent car (Londoners are pretty darn polite people.) I admit it: after about ten minutes, I wanted to yank the phone from her hand, stomp it senseless and toss it out the window.  Too many “simply splendid, ducky’s” for my peace of mind.

Research suggests that being forced to listen to one-sided conversations is far more irritating than overhearing two people talking.  When both sides of the dialogue are present, the brain can tune out the voices nearly completely.  But disconnected one-sided words bring significantly more mental disruption to the unwilling eavesdropper.

Now, should we stop speaking into our mobile phones in public? Well, yes. We should. Or if absolutely necessary, our words should be EXTREMELY BRIEF.  But that’s not the real point.

I was considering these one-sided conversations—and the irritation with them—when I was pondering the difficulties in reading and understanding the Bible.

The writers were not in conversation with us.  They are part of of an exchange with a completely different group of people. We can’t hear or read the other side of the exchange.  What makes perfect sense in the original context comes to us as fragments of dialogue where the other parties words are unintelligible, invisible.  And we all hear and see these fragments differently.  The interpretations that seem so right to some seem impossibly wrong to others.

A couple of people from my church were recently asking about the developments of various denominations.  As we discussed the varieties of Christian beliefs, we talked about the revolutionary nature of Gutenberg’s movable type printing press.  Because of that invention, the Bible, not to mention other important works of literature, very suddenly became far, far more widely available.

Up until that time, books were either hand-copied or laboriously printed from blocks with the letters carved out.  Books and literacy were rare and the few books available extraordinarily expensive. An extensive library might have two hundred books.  I have more than that waiting for me on my e-reader right now.

Wider availability of books led to wider literacy. Wider literacy led to more widely shared knowledge and the breakup of intellectual monopolies.  The church and other formerly authoritative institutions began to splinter.

Readers formed differing opinions on the interpretations of sacred texts.  What Gutenberg began has now only increased dramatically in intensity and speed with electronic dissemination of information.  We know more.  We question more.

This is bad if only one interpretation has validity. But what if we are simply learning that God is far bigger than a book? What if the nature of God and God’s mercy is so wide that multiple interpretations are not only possible, but also mandatory?

What if we form our religious communities less around “This is what I believe and you’d better believe exactly the same or you will suffer eternal torment” and more around, “As I read the Scriptures, here is what I learn and experience.  Tell me what you learn and experience.  Let’s see if we can fill out each other’s understandings and know God better.”

Just my hopeful thoughts in a world of religious riots and hate speech.

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