Tag Archives: communication

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”

The other war on Christmas

When I was a kid, my friends and I would occasionally hear adults talk about the pagan origins of Christmas trees. In our Christian homes, churches, and schools, such talk was not merely chat. It was actionable language. Within those overheard snippets was an implicit threat: possibly an end to the Christmas tree at home, and by extension,  possibly an end to all those great things kids love about Christmas.

The anti-Christmas tree mentality never took root in my home or many other homes (although if memory serves, there were rumors some classmates’ parents had forbidden having a tree).

And I think I know why, at least in a broader sense: holiness movements and purity movements and other moralistic movements seem concerned with things the members should not-be and things they should not-do. Rarely is there a concrete, image-based sense of what is being substituted for the not-ness. (By image, here I mean anything that appeals to the perceptions of the five senses.)

The calling in those holiness, purity, and otherwise moralistic movements seems to be to achieve something more or less invisible and essentially unmodeled. Even the word “holiness,” an abstract concept, is hard to experience. But as the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum.

So people remain under control of the images and symbols to which they attach (on varying levels, within community as much as within an individual) significance and meaning.

In most areas of life, abstract ideas cannot drive culture out of a community.

Culture is embodied in things and in relationships.

Indeed, a family Christmas tree, with its handed-down ornaments, can be both an embodiment of the holiday and a symbol for the way a particular family joins together at the same time, year after year.

To change the culture, create new, concrete images with subversive intent, and find ways to embody whatever you might be teaching or communicating.

Following yesterday’s protest against Pastor Mark Driscoll, an analysis & critique of the video behind the uproar

First, here’s some context and news from yesterday’s post on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s Strange Bedfellows blog:

In a reversal of what normally happens inside a church, about 65 people stood outside Mars Hill Church in Bellevue on Sunday and called on the pastor of the mega-church to acknowledge his sins and repent.

The quiet, peaceful demonstration — “It’s very unusual to have evangelicals protesting,” said participant Jim Henderson — was directed at the church’s controversial, authoritarian and domineering co-founder and senior pastor, Mark Driscoll.

Driscoll claimed in a video last week that his critics had chosen to remain anonymous. The central message of the protest: “We are not anonymous.” On Sunday, ex-members outside carried signs of what they were not permitted to do inside Mars Hill: “Question Mark.”

“People have been harmed, hurt,” said 17-year-old Bailey Strom, who passed up a day of lifeguard duty and drove over from Yakima with his family to join the protest. Strom’s parents were married by Driscoll. Now, said father Gerd Strom: “Suddenly he became very important and disconnected. Nobody can talk to him.”

The protest came hours after the second resignation of the week by an “outside” member of the church’s Board of Advisers and Accountability. The departure of James MacDonald followed that of Paul Tripp, although both will keep ties to the church.

So now let’s look back at part of what caused the flareup: the video, which was actually released two weeks ago now.

The video of July 18 (posted on Mars Hill’s The Weekly blog for the July 21 slot), was entitled, “Church Family Update From Pastor Mark.”

Having watched the video, I was drawn to the tone and sincerity of Pastor Mark’s message.

I also appreciated some of the things he claimed about himself, which I’ll get to in a minute.

However, in light of the many recent controversies surrounding both Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, in light of some seemingly dishonest or surprisingly ignorant statements made on the video, in light of the video’s introduction and presentation, the message feels like spin-doctoring and damage-control.

In other words, the video makes yesterday’s protest understandable.

(Less understandable is why anyone remains in the Driscoll audience.)

The video seems designed to make a close listener skeptical. Let’s look at a few issues.

The Elements of Propaganda

The video was embedded in a blog post with this introductory text:

We started the Mars Hill Weekly to increase our communication to you. With that in mind, before Pastor Mark enjoys some much needed annual vacation time with his family, he sat down at Mars Hill Bellevue and recorded a video update for you, our church family. Please take a few moments to hear from Pastor Mark about his heart for Mars Hill Church.

If you’re older than 30, you ought to recognize that introductory text as corporation-culture, public-relations-speak.

I’ll note some specific aspects that were like fingernails on the chalkboard.

1. The attempt to be generous backfires (probably because it’s a self-conscious attempt to be deliberately generous when an ongoing lack of generosity has been publicly exposed).

In the introduction, the mentality I hear is something like, “The king has stepped down from his throne to speak with you.” How kind and noble of them to increase their communication, as if the members are serfs, not vested interests.

2. Despite the Mars Hill Church motto “It’s All About Jesus,” notice it’s really about Pastor Mark and his heart for Mars Hill Church.

Anyone who genuinely wants to hear about Driscoll’s heart right now has been thoroughly hypnotized.

Forty-plus elders have left the Mars Hill Church organization within about 3 years.

So maybe Pastor Mark’s heart is especially, uniquely, directly the problem.

How much of his humble pie will you eat?

Let me use a hyperbolic analogy. I’ll overstate my case for the sake of illustrating my point.

An abusive husband is always an ace at apologies and promises after the punches have done their damage.

Again, it’s an exaggerated analogy, but it’s something to think about while watching the video: a lot of damage has already been done (witness this incredibly thorough blog).

So, we get to hear about his heart just before he leaves for some “much needed” vacation (from multiple self-inflicted crises) time — he’s squeezing us into his busy schedule.

He recorded this “video update for you, our church family.”

For you, dear ones — gather around and Father will speak to you!

(Better yet, Captain von Trapp is going to put the kids to bed and give Maria the evening off. What an amazing man.)

The entire text introduction screams calculation and manipulation.

3. Now, roll the tape.

Notice how the video opens with an empty chair.

Then, as Driscoll steps into the video shot and sits down, a Bible is the first thing we see, pages shine with a flourish in front of the lens.

Consider: If a political candidate or a president had done that very move, and a Bible with shining pages was the first thing we saw, we’d know it was a carefully crafted, timed, and rehearsed symbolic and propagandistic move.

The Christianity Today and Patheos.com blogs would overflow with commentary on the politician’s conspicuous possession of a Bible.

Is it fair to use a similar standard for a minister? Maybe; maybe not. After all, shouldn’t we expect a minister to carry a Bible? So I’m not sure if that was meant to suggest something to the viewer or to motivate the viewer’s point of view.

Wait — I spoke too soon.

Then, like the dog in President Nixon’s “Checkers Speech,” the personally significant Bible and the personally significant chair — both with specific histories in his life and his church — become props for Driscoll’s description of Mars Hill Church growing from a little Bible study in his little house to a big church today.

As Warren Throckmorton noted, Driscoll excluded two other founding members from his Checkers Speech-like narrative of the church’s history.

Maybe the Checkers Speech reference is a stretch. (Feedback? Comment below.)

Either way, holding a Bible and saying good scripted things for a camera are not indications of a healthy leader.

But to encourage members to stay on the boat (which is suffering from bailing leaders and sinking donations), he calls them “Some of the most lovely, generous, resilient people” — although what’s doubtful is whether Pastor Mark has been as loving, generous, and resilient toward them, as the next major heading below might demonstrate.

5. He says some locations of Mars Hill Church have wanted a lot of information about recent crises while others have requested very little, so Driscoll and the leadership had to figure out how to best communicate.

That sounds like crisis management in a political campaign’s war room. “How do we managed this?” leaks through the spoken words.

Solution? Just tell the truth to everyone — be as open and honest as possible — and if major legal considerations prohibit full disclosure, say so.

(When I was a member of a very large church in N.C., the pastor screwed-up, and the church leadership did just that.)

What should really be disgusting — and should really be a thing of the past — is a belief that church leaders ought to withhold organizational information from a congregation.

Outright Dishonesty or Staggering Ignorance?

6. Warren Throckmorton excerpted the following segment of Driscoll’s video:

As well one of the things that has been complex is the fact that a lot of the people that we are dealing with in this season remain anonymous. And so we don’t know how to reconcile or how to work things out with people because we’re not entirely sure who they are. And so that has made things a little more complex and difficult as well.

That statement is a major problem. It’s at the heart of yesterday’s protest, which featured the sign, “We Are Not Anonymous.”

Throckmorton makes a two-point reply to Driscoll’s outrageous statement. Part of the second point reads:

I have interviewed over 50 former Mars Hill leaders and members who have made their concerns known to the executive elders with full identification. I have seen some of the formal charges and reviewed emails from executive elders and members where there is full identification of the former member’s identity. However, according to the former members, the leaders have not followed up on the issues.

Love your enemies, but hate your former church members?

Throckmorton says a woman named Bina E. is one of the former Mars Hill members who (with her husband) wrote Driscoll a letter in 2008. According to Throckmorton, Bina E.’s comments on Friday’s video are in part as follows:

The comments about anonymous concerns are amazing to me. We wrote Mark [Driscoll] personally with our concerns in 2008– a gentle, truthful, heartfelt plea with our names on it. We received no response from him except from other pastors who said Mark was rocked by our letter, but that we burned our bridges with him. That was a sad thing to hear about the pastor who helped lead my husband to Christ and who married us. We also spoke directly with pastors, face to face, about our concerns before leaving– and when we left, we were dropped as friends by them after leaving; some more gradually and some more violently. (emphasis added)

Furthermore, a former close associate of Driscoll’s, Mike Anderson, posted this telling essay on why he left Mars Hill Church after about 10 years as a member. The essay was posted on July 1, three weeks before Driscoll’s video went live.

Driscoll knew nothing of Anderson’s departure?

But Driscoll says, “…we don’t know how to reconcile or how to work things out with people because we’re not entirely sure who they are…”

If he’s not reading the reporting and blogging about him, he needs to be.

We’ve all admired political leaders who’ve said, “I don’t look at the polls.”

We’ve all, on second thought, suspected they were lying, but never mind.

Sometimes you have to know exactly what’s being said about you. It is relevant to Driscoll’s career and his admirable claim, made in the same video, that he is willing to learn from anyone.

Actually, he used the royal “we” — We are willing to learn from anyone, apparently speaking for his entire leadership team. That is the right attitude.

Love-bombing / love’s bombing

7. Driscoll ends by saying, “I love you.”

Oh, this ought to be a good thing. It really should.

But, again, it feels manipulative, and not only in the context of the text introduction and the rest of the video.

As Driscoll gets to the end of his message, he begins to talk more and more about love, before he finally says, “I love you.”

In the study of cults, or at least controlling and abusive organizations, some researchers have identified “love-bombing” as a recruitment tactic.

While love-bombing is a one-on-one persuasion, seduction, or recruitment strategy, it shares with Driscoll’s mass-message a critical feature: the use of “love” in a manipulative manner.

In light of that, consider the evidence against Driscoll loving his followers. It’s above, it’s on Throckmorton’s blog, it’s in the Post-Intelligencer blog linked at the beginning of this post, it’s in other accessible places.

Is this unfair? Well, let me try a new angle on a cliche’. We have evidence of a duck’s foot. We have evidence of a duck’s bill. We have evidence of a duck’s feathers.

Do we have a duck?

I don’t know for certain, but in his essay, former Driscoll colleague Mike Anderson included a link that read, “warning signs that help identify if you are in a cult.” Should that count as evidence of another piece of the duck?

The Age of Mass Messaging

As I’ve tried to bring my mind to the Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll crises, I have continued to recall a thought from Jacques Ellul’s book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.

I can’t place the exact quotation in the book, but here’s the gist of it as admittedly filtered through my memory:

Propaganda has become such a normal mode in our time and its techniques have become so internalized in our psychology, people do not even realize when they are being propagandists.

Essentially, no other mode of communication is available to them naturally or intuitively.

The Driscoll video was propaganda. Former leaders and former church members have seen through it.


The problem with the ‘here’s what you need to get right’ approach to feedback

“I don’t know anybody who thinks that feedback conversations work,” says Shelia Heen.

Before you watch Heen’s brief video presentation, I’ll just say it also reminded me of the way some preachers, politicians, and corporate leaders sometimes use the “royal we.”

Here’s a fascinating overview of the difference between learning to give feedback versus learning to receive feedback:


If you forgive someone, do you have to hang out with that person? Continue reading

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov’s short fiction was undergirded by a spirituality and a morality that suggested what one critic called “internal blindness” — a blindness of the heart detected within the privileged characters of Chekhov’s short stories.

“And perhaps nothing is as tragicomic in our daily experience as that highly serious comedy of errors, moral and spiritual in character, constantly falsifying social relations and human intercourse…. Our own reciprocal misunderstandings are due not to material appearances or optical illusions, but to internal blindness.” — Renato Poggioli, “Storytelling in a Double Key,” an essay on Anton Chekhov’s short stories

Good challenges for Trinity Church West Campus

The families-with-children of Carolina Forest are a likely demographic unit for Trinity Church‘s West Campus.

Often times, when young couples have children, they start to think about formative influences in their childhoods. Having kids causes a re-evaluation of that long-dusty church membership.

So inevitably, some of those Carolina Forest families will fit the following description from Stefan Ulstein’s introduction to his book Growing Up Fundamentalist: Journeys in Legalism and Grace. While Ulstein uses the term “boomers,” referring to the baby boomer generation, I think most of what follows is still applicable today — at least to those who once went to church and now wrestle with whether to return.

“The nagging problem that so many ex-fundamentalists face is that they cannot escape the legacy of their upbringing. They long for the sense of belonging brought about by the Christian fellowship and bonding that they experienced as children. They miss the warm assurances of a world with clearly defined right and wrong. They want it for their children. But they do not want the guilt, shame and self-righteous arrogance that came along with it. They do not want to set themselves against their children and society by taking an intractable stand on every issue only to discover later that they were wrong. Unlike their elders, who grew up with a sense of knowable truth, the boomers wrestle with multiple ambiguities. Their worldview stresses pragmatic solutions and emotional well-being. They eschew battles over dogma and doctrine and long for a community of believers who can be identified by their love for one another.”

In light of all that, it seems to me the good challenges for Trinity Church West Campus involve:

-Using fresh images and terms to describe Christ’s mercy and grace

-Building a genuine, healthy community

Other thoughts?