Well Isn’t That Special?

Irony sometimes cracks me up. I belong to several email lists (loops, whatever) and on one of them recently I wrote a comment about Christians who claim to read fiction, but who actually seem to enjoy it mainly for the chance it offers to be offended. Most novelists working in the world of Christian fiction have received outraged letters from these people. In my email comment I referred to them as “dreaded blue haired church ladies.” Of the 1,000 or so other people on the list, most understood exactly what I meant (probably they were Dana Carvey fans), but a tiny and very vocal group took me to task for using that phrase. They responded to the entire loop, saying one should not reinforce negative stereotypes; one should be more sensitive to other people’s feelings. Oh, you would have thought I’d called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton the “N” word!

One of the funny things about irony is the way it’s usually lost on those who need it most. How I laughed when I realized these people had been so easily offended by words I used to describe people who are easily offended! But then I started getting private emails. People I had never heard of wrote to say they had stopped speaking their minds on the list out of fear that they too would be slapped down. Soon I realized there was a deeper problem than simply a few folks who wear their feelings on their sleeves. The situation wasn’t funny anymore. To understand why, I think we have to start with this:

The Bible is not a rulebook for life; it’s a book of higher principles, which are illustrated by examples we too often mistake for rules.

Consider the Internet and especially email, for example. They can be wonderful things. I don’t know how I got along without them before. (Just think of how much money it would take to buy a stamp for every note you email today!) What a blessing to be able to fire off notes so quickly...and what a curse. Sometimes emails can be as difficult to control as our tongues.

Take a moment to read what the Bible has to say about this problem, and notice that it offers no rules about emails. Instead it gives a principle which applies perfectly to a technology the author never dreamed possible.

This can cut both ways. I believed my words were innocent, of course. I believed the offended people were just oversensitive. But what if they were right? Should I have been more sensitive with my words, in case they reached some actual old lady with blue hair and very strong church affiliations, who might have had her feelings hurt because she thought I was referring to her? Well, maybe. Humility is not thinking less about yourself; it’s thinking more of others. So maybe I wasn’t thinking enough about the real “blue haired church ladies” out there.

If so, it leads to another principle that applies.

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17) NIV

If we are offended by someone’s words in an email, taking them to task for it and copying an entire list of others is like stepping up behind the podium in a church sanctuary and accusing someone by name of a sin before the entire congregation. How strange that people who would never dream of doing that except as an absolute last resort can be so quick to do it via email. What a shame we don’t apply Jesus’ principle instead.

Similarly, in any public exchange of ideas such as an email list (or a blog comment), we Christians ought to guard our words as closely as we ought to guard our tongues. While the Bible says a lot about controlling speech and nothing about how to write an email, the principle applies equally to both. “In your anger, do not sin” as Paul commanded the Ephesians. He might just as well have written, “In your offense, do not email.”

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21) NIV

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:48 AM  


Kay Day said... February 17, 2010 at 12:13 PM  

very good post.
It's so much easier to say things via e-mail. Both positive and negative. Some kind of feeling of anonymity, I suppose. This is the second blog post I've read this week on this topic. A warning to us all.

arlee bird said... February 17, 2010 at 12:14 PM  

Speaking from the keyboard in the comfy seclusion of one's own space makes it very easy to sometimes say what would never be expressed in public or to another's face. Especially with the modes like twitter and texting I think an awful lot of people just shoot off whatever is on the tip of their tongues because somebody can't punch them or respond immediately.

You are so right that biblical directives concerning speech are equally applicable to e-communication and we should all think a bit before expressing ourselves.

On the other hand, I do think some people are too easily offended and need to lighten up some. And certain stereotypes do clearly define certain groups of people -- it's easier to use a broadbrushed generally understood stereotype than to go into detail trying to carefully define and delineate who one is addressing. It's just economy of words.

You've given us some good food for thought.

Mark Young said... February 17, 2010 at 1:43 PM  

As one who read those email exchanges, Athol, I just shook my head and started deleting. Life is too short to waste on trivial matters. Paul wrote, "Love is patient, love is kind ... is not provoked." I took no offense to what you said, knew in what context you were writing, and I thought your message well stated.

We need to focus more on loving our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and less time on thinking about where they've stumbled. Many of these misunderstandings can be averted if we simply choose to give each other the benefit of the doubt and choose to think the best of others.

Forgiveness and love is a choice.

Nicole said... February 17, 2010 at 1:58 PM  

Where or where has the humor gone? My goodness. If we can't laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?

I've been ripped over book reviews and for (what I thought were) light-hearted pet peeves. Anyone who had spent any time at my blog knows I wouldn't intentionally hurt, or criticize to hurt, anyone. Sometimes I just have to shake my head. The legalism and judgment roar out of some Christian's mouths/fingers before considering the individual. It's amazing and sometimes . . . disgusting.

mrs k said... February 17, 2010 at 3:21 PM  

"YES!" times a thousand, Athol! If only we who call ourselves Christian could see the hypocrisy in a heart that attempts to hold love and contempt at the same time! Nowhere have I seen this play out more than cyberspace.

Athol Dickson said... February 17, 2010 at 4:44 PM  

Love the quote from 1 Cor 13, Mark. It's perfect for this conversation. Thanks!

So many other quotes apply...for example I was thinking of Jesus' teaching, "But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.'"

We could translate it, "The things that come out of the fingers on the keyboard come from the heart..." In this context, it's yet another reminder that the principles of Scripture are timeless, even if the laws (about being "unclean") are not.

Eddie Snipes said... February 18, 2010 at 9:00 AM  

I was surprised to see your posting go viral. I had to laugh when someone posted a request to give the topic a rest, and that sparked another string of emails from people saying that we should stop talking about it. I have no idea how the topic ended. Once the horse was dead, I didn't feel like watching people poking at the corpse :)

It's an unfortunate fact that email (or anything in print) can be misunderstood because the reader applies the tone. If the reader is expecting to be offended, they will apply a harsh tone. Once, I emailed a lighthearted joke in response to a topic, and someone took offense, thinking I was being sarcastic toward them.

Writing publicly is like walking on eggshells. Sooner AND later, you will crack one.

Yvonne Anderson said... February 18, 2010 at 10:45 AM  

Interesting discussion. It occurs to me that we could perhaps be a bit more concerned with what offends God than with what offends us personally.

But then we'd argue over what things offend God the most. Sigh. All this makes me marvel anew at God's patience and forbearance. We surely don't deserve His grace.

patti said... February 19, 2010 at 11:54 AM  

Athol, I never really saw the comment that led to the falling domino contagion of posts. The saddest thing is that organizations and loops should be united under our premise of writing for God and pretty loosy-goosy about everything else. Better said, a free-for-all for exchange of ideas.

Oh, well. Tisn't a perfect world.


Meg Moseley said... February 20, 2010 at 7:57 PM  

I love your honesty, Athol. Thanks for being real.

Lori said... February 23, 2010 at 7:09 AM  

"One of the funny things about irony is the way it’s usually lost on those who need it most." AMEN.

People feel the freedom to slap some words down and hit send, without considering the words they are communicating. Most of the time they are words they would never utter in person.

That is one of the downsides of this technology.

I recently wrote a blog post about the power of words, I always ask myself would I say the same thing if the person was standing right in front of me. If I say no, then I don't send it.

Great thoughts.

Allie said... February 24, 2010 at 12:28 PM  

On a whim I asked some friends about the blue-haired church ladies and found that most of them thought like I did - only one that it would be considered offensive.

That was a trying few days and I am so glad its finally... finally over!

Bonnie Heather said... February 24, 2010 at 12:31 PM  

Good post Athol. I appreciate the reminder. I'm very thinned skinned but I still forget and say things that hurt others. I'm so grateful for grace.

Buckley Wheatish said... March 24, 2010 at 12:36 PM  

Parting thought:

"...and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Hmmm. Did some self-righteous, politically correct or well meaning(?) tax collector in the crowd jump up saying, "Now wait just a minute there, Bub!"?

Thank you again, Athol. I suspect I may know quite a bit about this topic.


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