I just read this fascinating New York Times article about missionaries to Islamic communities. There is a dispute about whether it is deceptive to present Christian beliefs about God and Jesus using concepts of Allah and Isa from the Koran. Those who use the strategy believe that it explains our beliefs about God in a context that makes sense to its audience. Those who disagree say that it ignores important differences between the character of Allah in the Koran and God in the New Testament.
It reminded me of a discussion I had recently with a friend about another article Shane Claiborne wrote for Esquire. My friend seemed to think that Claiborne took too casual a tone about the serious topic of salvation, and ignored the very real nature of sin and judgment. I disagreed, because I thought an approachable, love-centered gospel is the most efficient way to explain the benefits of life with Jesus to someone who is put-off by judgment from those who are also sinners.
In both of these cases, it seems, the conflict is between a desire to present a gospel that appeals to a certain kind of audience and a concern about emphasizing some aspects of our gospel over others. As you might expect given my story, my rhetorical training lands me firmly on the side of audience sensitivity, for a few reasons.
First, all presentations of the gospel select aspects to emphasize and aspects to de-emphasize. Claiborne believes, for example, that some Christians over-emphasize judgment at the expense of love. While the theologian who is skeptical of introducing the gospel through the Koran is right that it de-emphasizes differences, he misses the fact that, as language theorist Kenneth Burke says, all language selects, reflects and deflects.
Second, I think Jesus provides an extreme example of audience sensitivity. The NYT article talks about some missionaries growing beards and giving up pork as extreme; how about the incarnation? God became a Human to communicate with us. That is a pretty extreme example of adapting to the culture to get your message across, don’t you think? And within Christ’s incarnation, he had different ways of approaching different people. Of course, our adaptation will be less perfect than Jesus’ were. We make mistakes, we misunderstand each other, we assume things that aren’t true. Nonetheless, I think Christ’s example, in addition to Paul’s suggestion that we be all things to all people promotes audience adaptation.
My sister made fun of me last week because I said I was conducting an audience analysis before composing thank you notes, “you are such a rhetorician.” Perhaps it is my particular professional oddity that I am especially sensitive to questions of audience, but I think it might also be something we should all consider. Who you are speaking to should change how you speak, because conversation happens in a relationship, and relationships are different. Just as I don’t talk to my students the same way I talk to my mother, my relationships with others changes how I explain my faith, and I think that’s good.