conversation is an engine

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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

Rob Bell and Our Costly Questions

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Conversations to engage a generation of questioners

There’s a telling line in the recent story of Rob Bell in The New Yorker (“The Hell-Raiser”), where the author Kelefa Sanneh conjectured that in writing “Love Wins,” Bell was “dreaming of a world a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth.” (60) Conjecture about what others are dreaming is often problematic. But Sanneh, like the rest of us, take our cues from what others say and write, which is standard operating procedure for human communication events. Conjecture is always fair game for conversation.

There’s a lot the author gets right in the article and there are a few places with loaded language and mashed-up history. For instance, the notion that the “church matured” (60) out of the notion of Hell as a physical place is too loose a summary to really work. Debates about interpretation rage today, from all quarters.

Sanneh’s focus on how a preacher became a questioner among a people who do not respond generously to larger questions makes for interesting reading. These are my people and I confess that I too have responded without generosity too many times. And yet these larger questions are exactly the conversational fuel that can help move forward this often awkward project called the church. Especially because the generations behind me are increasingly wed to questions rather than dogmatic answers.

Much of what Bell wrote resonates with me. In particular, I’m smitten by this notion that people can talk—even about very deeply held things—without demonizing or judging each other. The notion reminds me of those noble people who early in the history of the church were in conversation with the inveterate letter writer. They eagerly heard what he had to say then examined it on their own to decide whether it was true or not. I imagine them discussing with authoritative texts and possibly disagreeing, but maintaining their relationships.

Bell has done us a great service by voicing these questions, even though the penalties for him have been high.

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Image Credit: The New Yorker

Endo Brochure Silent on Vital Bits—2 Skills for Tonight’s Debate

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Read the White Space. Hear the Silence.

Campaigns, Inc.: My Antiheroes.

MedCity News reports on an Endo Pharmaceuticals brochure under scrutiny by the FDA. The problem was a lack of transparency about the dark side of the therapy—a therapy designed to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells, namely:

  • paralysis that may result from the risk of spinal cord compression
  • the increased risk of diabetes/heart attack/sudden cardiac death/stroke

In a lively debate in comments section of the Pharmalot blog, the consensus seems to be that the FDA made a good call. Commenters began by speculating this was likely more than just a slight oversight as the Endo communicator skipped regulatory/legal review in a rush to meet a deadline. Then commenters started tracing the language to the Vantas Implant website and began speculating on the rest of their messaging and promotional literature.

The debate amuses me because it is the rare product brochure that is read outside of a sales presentation. And it is even rarer for a brochure to withstand extended exegesis. That the FDA does this regularly earns my respect/awe/fear. Love them or hate them, the FDA’s dogged attention helps medical copywriters and marketers hew to the high road.

The debate also serves as a reminder of the skills needed for watching tonight’s presidential debate. It’s the white space and silence that may be most eloquent. The skill of reading the white space and hearing the silence means the audience must be equipped with the fuller argument. The FDA certainly was. But to read Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker essay (“The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” Sept. 24, 2012) is to come away with all the history and reasons as to why the American populace remains a happily uninformed audience. Whitaker and Baxter of Campaigns, Inc. helped set the stage for the current state of our spectatorship:

“A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”

In tonight’s debate, I’m trying to break free of my usual indolence to hear between the lines (as it were).

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Image credit: The New Yorker

The Moving Horizon of Engagement: The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller on TED

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How to Boil Down Levinas?

help find a way

A recent issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent article on TED talks. On his way to explaining why the talks are so popular, Nathan Heller stumbles onto  the differences between our rituals of learning in college and how college is set up to support those rituals, and compares that with the kind of learning people need outside of college—the kind that keeps expanding rather than narrowing. Along the way he mentions in an offhand way how Levinas does not lend himself to a quick recap. One must do much preliminary work to begin to understand Levinas. Philosophy, especially phenomenology and theology are useful backgrounds to begin to understand Levinas. But only as a beginning.

The author of Conversation is an Engine is well familiar with this. As he tries to explain Levinas from time to time, blank stares and hasty retreats to other subjects are typical reactions. The French philosopher and apologist for The Other is famously obscure. And fascinating. But obscure.

Heller’s offhand remark reminds me that the bigger challenges ahead of us as communicators have to do with how we let people in on the details that engage us. Over at Big Picture Leadership there was a discussion recently about what it means to witness. That discussion reminded me of an ongoing conversation a few of us have had about what makes something remarkable, as in, making me remark out loud to another person because it was that important to me. In both cases there has to be an intensely personal connection for it to bubble up through our conscious mind and cross our lips.

If we are intent on rhetoric that draws others in (and I believe it is a most excellent thing to be a passionate booster for what we love and understand), than we are constantly providing low-hanging fruit for newcomers to grab and taste so they too will become enamored by the taste and want more. This is the horizon of engagement. That horizon is growing shorter and getting closer with every Google Search.

More sophisticated discussions will always have their place among practitioners and experts. But we’re quickly moving to the point where we each need to have a ready answer about our work, or firm, and what we believe.

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Image Credit: Martin Morazzo via thisisnthappiness

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