Will my Books Make Most Readers Mad?

I recently completed a seven-session small group face-to-face conversation, involving nine persons, in my local Orange City (IA) community about my book Respectful LGBT Conversations. Attendees fell into the following three categories regarding their beliefs about same-sex marriage: affirming; opposing; undecided.

The reactions of attendees to my book depended on which of these three positions a given attendee embraced. I will briefly elaborate, hoping that my reflections will be of help to any of my website readers who may be contemplating hosting small face-to-face conversations about   human sexuality or any other contentious issue.

An “undecided” member of our group expressed deep appreciation for my book because it presented cogent arguments on both sides of the sub-topics that were addressed. She found that to be very helpful as she attempts to evaluate the relative merits, or not, of the “affirming” and “opposing” positions.

But a member of our group who situates himself in the “opposing” category stated quite bluntly that he didn’t have the slightest interest in reading my book (a bit strange since my class was advertised as a discussion of my book).

Furthermore, a member of our group in the “affirming” category reported that in a brief conversation about my book that he had with a gay friend, his friend was not interested in what my book had to say.

Why did these latter two persons have no interest in my book? Hopefully it is not because they have reason to believe that it is poorly written. I didn’t have the chance to pose this question to the gay friend of one of my group members. But from the comments made in our conversations by the group member in the “opposing” category (who, by the way, dropped out after attending two sessions), I surmise that his mind was made up about the status of same-sex marriage and, therefore, he saw no potential benefit in engaging with the arguments presented by those who disagreed with him. After all, if one already knows the “truth” about the issue at hand, there is no point in engaging with those whose views are “false” (other than trying to “convert” them to your point of view – I have insufficient evidence to judge whether this group member had that purpose in mind).

Given my perception of the appalling current state of public discourse about contentious contemporary issues, the lack of interest of these two persons in talking about views they do not embrace does not surprise me in the least. This reflects the scourge of the dominant tribalistic “us-versus-them” mentality, where “me and my group” have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and there is not one iota of truth in the contrary positions taken by “those other people.”

But I will go out on the limb even further. I suspect that not only will the majority in our tribalistic culture have a lack of interest in listening to and talking about beliefs they do not hold; the very suggestion that they should engage those who disagree with them in this respectful way may make them downright mad. My suspicion is based on some hard-earned experience. For example, when I recruited as a conversation partner for my eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse” a Christian who declared himself as an “anarcho-communist,” I was asked, in effect,  “how dare you give equal time to a Christian who has such wrong-headed views?”; “how can he even claim to be a Christian?” I invited him because you don’t love someone who you have silenced. He accepted my invitation. But that made at least one of my critics mad.

Another way of looking at this problem brought about by rampant tribalism is that it is increasingly hard to find persons who embrace that rare combination of holding to their beliefs with deep conviction while remaining open to the possibility of learning from someone who disagrees with them, as expressed by the following definition of “religious maturity” proposed by Ian Barbour (which I quote every chance I get):

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity (Myths. Models, and Paradigms, 136).

But I have found a reasonable number of Christians who embrace this rare combination of commitment and openness; those conversation partners featured in the four eCircles that I have hosted on my web site. And it is my hope and prayer that their effective modeling of this rare combination in the three books that have emerged from these eCircles, and the fourth book (Reforming American Politics) that will soon be released, will inspire many other Christians, and others, to orchestrate “respectful conversation” projects in their spheres of influence.

That hope is difficult to sustain in our tribalistic day. But I persevere because I believe it is the right thing to do; the “Christian way” to engage someone who disagrees with you, and I entrust the potential harvest of my planting such “tiny seeds of redemption” into the hands of God (Matthew 13: 31-32).