Kris Litman-Koon, Columbia, SC
Have you ever been a part of or witnessed a conversation where people “talked past” each other? Describe the experience and your emotions during the conversation.
Skewing the Discourse
There is a website called Facebook. Ever heard of it? Of course, and you are likely aware of how discourse takes place on the site: a news story is shared (perhaps with
one’s personal commentary) and other users leave their comments. Whenever the story stirs up emotions and political viewpoints, there is often a trail of comments left under the story. This usually continues, not until all sides are in agreement, but until all sides are sick of arguing.
These trails of comments are fertile ground for analysis. Recently, a study was performed by Yale Climate Connections, which is a non-partisan resource offered through Yale University that seeks to provide daily commentary, analysis, and reporting on issues surrounding climate change. Writer and researcher Karin Kirk wanted to scientifically study whether comments made on Facebook are representative of the views held by the general public, using climate change as the topic of focus.
Karin Kirk analyzed 600 Facebook comments that were left under the stories published from six sources on Facebook; four of these were news media (Fox News, New York Times, CNN, and Washington Post) and two were government agencies (NASA, NOAA). Users’ comments were judged by their stance (agree with the science pointing toward climate change, disagree with that science, and neutral) as well as by the stated rationale for that stance (science, policy, humanity/ethics, emotion). The stances of the Facebook comments were then compared to polling that has been conducted on the general public.
Researcher Karin Kirk states, “The takeaway is that compared to the general population in the U.S., Facebook comments on climate change appear more polarized and more dismissive of climate science than the population as a whole. An observer relying on the Facebook comments would get an inaccurate representation of how the public generally feels about climate change.” In other words, the conversation on Facebook can easily skew how we see the real conversation. Kirk also comments that people seem to talk past each other on Facebook.
When determining the rationale for the stances taken in the Facebook comments, those who agree with the scientific community and those who disagree with it both overwhelmingly base their arguments on science. An example of a dismissive stance toward the science that points to climate change yet is based on a rationale of science is “the climate has changed before.” So, if the opposing viewpoints overwhelmingly both use science as the rationale for their polar opposite stances, why is the conversation not going anywhere? Kirk says it is because people are talking past each other, and the amplification on Facebook of the extreme viewpoints is not helping the conversation move forward.
If the goal is to actually have a fruitful conversation that addresses this critical issue, Karin Kirk says, “Straightforward [scientific] explanations can help address misunderstandings about natural vs. human-caused climate forces. But it’s much harder to convince some people that science is trustworthy.” She continues, “[Instead,] shift the conversation to what’s actually relevant and far from settled: climate policy and mitigation and adaptation strategies. There is need for vigorous debate around energy policy, subsidies, taxation, and the social cost of carbon. An open exchange of policy ideas will be no less vehement, but much more pertinent.”
- Do you feel that Facebook and other forms of social media are good ways to obtain information about what is taking place in the world? Do you feel that people should purposefully consume news from a variety of media sources? Where do you primarily get your news?
- Some news sites have removed the comment sections under their articles because they were deemed too vitriolic. Some people make the argument that all of us should avoid reading comments on Facebook, YouTube, news sites, and anywhere else on the internet. Would this practice of avoiding internet comments be beneficial for you or anyone else you know? Why?
- What insights do you have for keeping a conversation (on the internet or otherwise) to the pertinent discourse?
Second Sunday in Lent
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Our gospel lesson for this Sunday contains those most beloved verses: John 3:16-17. Should we only focus on those verses and the warm-fuzzies that they give us? No. I don’t want to discount the power of those verses, but we should take a step back from them. Perhaps seeing what else is going on in this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus will shed more light on those beloved verses.
Start with verses 1 and 2. Nicodemus begins the conversation with a compliment to Jesus; “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” If Jesus wanted to keep the conversation moving in the direction that Nicodemus had left it, Jesus should have replied, “Thank you. I do come from God, and these signs that I do are for the purpose of showing others that God sent me.”
But Jesus doesn’t reply with anything like that. He jumps to a statement about the Kingdom of God and that people need to be born from above. Perhaps sensing that Jesus (rudely?) took the conversation in a completely different direction, Nicodemus somewhat taunts Jesus’ reply by joking about someone entering a mother a second time only to be born again (Nicodemus absolutely knows this isn’t possible).
Jesus offers a reply, ultimately making a reference to the wind (v.8). Perhaps Nicodemus thinks the conversation has completely derailed (remember: all this started by paying Jesus a compliment), so he responds incredulously, “How can these things be?”
Jesus’ response mentions that Nicodemus is a teacher, yet he doesn’t understand the point Jesus is trying to make (vv.10-11). If Nicodemus questions what Jesus has to say about the wind, then how can Nicodemus understand the spiritual point Jesus is trying to make (v.12)?
Anyone listening to this conversation must ask, “So what is that point you are trying to make, Jesus?” I sympathize with Nicodemus because – although Jesus’ words here are some of the most revered in all of scripture – the conversation has gone well off the tracks. To find the point Jesus is trying to make, let’s do a word count of the word “believe” in verses 12-17. Go ahead.
How many times did Jesus use the word “believe” in those verses? If you look ahead at verse 18, you will notice that Jesus uses “believe” three more times in that one verse. With all these mentions of “believe,” do you think Jesus is hammering home a message to Nicodemus?
Yes. Jesus purposefully does not follow the conventional means of having a conversation because he wants to get a point across to Nicodemus. What he is trying to do is move beyond the normal banter and instead focus on what is pertinent: belief. Jesus doesn’t want Nicodemus and other people (including us) to offer mere compliments for the signs and teachings of Jesus. Rather, Jesus wants them to deeply believe that the Son was sent to save them. Why? Because God loves the world that much (vv.16-17).
- It is commonly understood that the night-time setting of this story is symbolic of Nicodemus’ faith toward Jesus. At this point, he is inquiring about Jesus’ origin and mission. Nicodemus returns in John 7:50-51 and he appears again in John 19:39-42, which scholars understand to be a progression in his belief that Jesus is indeed sent from God. Do you think that belief in Jesus can happen quickly for some people and more slowly for others? Why? What is your own experience?
- The epistle reading (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17) talks about how faith – not our works nor our adherence to God’s Law – is the basis for the divine promise that has been made to Abraham and his descendants. What do you think about this? Can or should God make promises to us if we haven’t done something to earn those promises? How do you connect this reading’s discussion of faith with Jesus’ point about belief in the gospel reading?
Today’s lesson is on belief, so we need an activity that involves some belief. I call this “The Family Name Game.” To keep the game moving quickly (and perhaps doing multiple rounds of it), it’s best to play in groups of between six and twelve people. Everyone in the group receives a small scrap of paper to write on. Without telling anyone else, each person writes a real or fictitious “name” on the piece of paper that most others should know. Examples are Harry Potter, The New England Patriots, and Michelle Obama. These pieces of paper are collected by one person and read aloud only twice, so everyone needs to listen and try to remember all the names.
Then one person begins by saying to another, “_______, I believe you are Harry Potter.” If the person answers “no,” then he or she makes the next guess of whether someone else is any one of the names that was read aloud. If the person answers “yes,” then they must join the family of the person who guessed correctly (who is now the “head” of their family). The head (with consultation of other family members) then gets to guess again. A family can consist of two or more people, and those outside the family attempt to guess who the head of the family is. The game is played until everyone is a part of one family.
God of all who call upon you, there are times in our lives that seem to be the night-time of our belief, and there are times in our lives that seem to be the day-time of our belief. Stir your Spirit within us to trust that you indeed sent Jesus to us, and that through him we can witness and experience the fullness of your love. Help us to understand that whether we think our beliefs are in the night or in the day, it is you who comes to us with your light to reveal to us your grace, love, and forgiveness. Amen.