It’s probably obvious to many who know me and who also read my blog that “listening” is an important theme and goal for me. Figuring out how to listen well and to help others listen well—for the sake of understanding, reconciliation, discovering beauty and truth and God, and learning—is a goal, probably one that will remain the focus of my studies and writing as I ultimately head toward a PhD in the not-too-distant future.
Driving to work this morning, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the significance and influence of John Lennon, who died 30 years ago today (missed the event by a couple years). They were playing snippets of “Imagine” and discussing the profundity of the song and how accessible it has been for many, in that people seem to find some aspect or lyric of the song that touches them and their situation in some way.
They were also talking about how reactive the Church was when the song came out and in the years following. They talked primarily of the Catholic Church, but I think the points being made were applicable to a multitude of Christians and Christian denominations. Apparently many Christian leaders were outspoken back then (and likely in the years since) about their discomfort with the song, citing primarily its opening line (“imagine there’s no heaven”). One church considered playing the song on its bells the day of Lennon’s death, only to meet an outcry from churchgoers.
I think I groaned aloud in the car. My thoughts were something like: “Yet again, we’ve missed the point. Yet again, we’ve overreacted. Yet again, we’ve chosen the wrong things to throw a hissy-fit about.” I know it was thirty years ago, but my discovery of this reactivity was new, so it felt like a step backwards for my "tribe"—the Church—even if it happened long ago.
Yes, maybe Lennon saw religion as a problem (don’t really know). But I don’t think he was critiquing the kind of “true” and “pure” religion talked about in James’ Epistle. I’m guessing he was a critic of the kind of a religion that causes war, that is a barrier to peace, that makes entire people groups hate each other, that causes in-groups and out-groups. Or maybe he was just honestly expressing his questions about life and meaning and God, and in so doing, gave words to the questions of many.
And, to be fair, I imagine he wasn’t a saint—maybe he just didn’t like the inherent call in most religions to, in some form, “repent” and change your comfortable habits (though I kind of doubt this to be the root of his questioning of religion/heaven, if that's in fact what he was doing).
But instead of coming alongside Lennon, listening to the root of his concerns and questions and maybe even challenges, it sounds like many Christians just got scared. Asking questions about heaven and hell? Questioning the value of religion for the well-being of the human race? Yikes! We must resist! We must speak out violently against it, respond in ways that show we are 100% certain about everything we believe, eliminate dissenting voices among us that have the potential to deconstruct our belief system and leave us feeling out of control! I don’t think it’s too much of a caricature to say that this is often a general reaction among many.
So what does this have to do with listening? Good listening isn’t defensive and argumentative, I don’t think. Listening hears not just the words and the way those words threaten the hearer, but the humanity and truth behind the words being spoken.
Perhaps those who reacted to this famous song’s existential questions might have been better off to have heard the cry for peace, the desire for a more unified human community, the challenge to the way nations often default to violence in their conflicts with others, the portrait of hope painted, and—dare I say—a perhaps unintentional challenge to the Church to lessen its focus on the afterlife and more fully discover Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God on earth, a message that challenges us to “live for today” in many ways so that we can, by the way we live our lives, anticipate the day when God will restore all things and “the world will be as one,” as Lennon put it.
I’m not saying Lennon intended this interpretation. But depending on your attitude, “Imagine” could be taken either as a borderline credo and mission statement for the Church (with a couple of tricky lines), or could be taken as something to be condemned for the way it might lead people astray or rob the Church’s teaching of its credibility or diminish church attendance.
For me personally, I believe listening well means I should be open to receive from others. Be ready to hear the words beyond the words. Be ready to find common ground between myself and others rather than only identify differences. Be secure enough to not feel threatened by people and ideas that conflict with my views. Be led in conversation by the other without jumping to premature conclusions or making assumptions. Wow. I’m genuinely feeling a bit of remorse right now has I’m feeling a bit of the weight of all the instances where I’ve failed as a listener. I certainly haven’t mastered the art of listening.
I think being a good listener also means being ready to connect my understanding of something with another’s, only after having truly heard their message—such as the Church recognizing those goals and dreams in common with Lennon, or such as me listening to my friend well enough that when I give my opinion, it’s not on a completely different topic but is actually relevant to what he’s saying, shows that I haven’t completely missed the point. I’m smiling…too many great (or tragic?) moments from English class when a student and I will be talking about two completely different things and really just talking past each other.
But then again, I guess even in more common situations, when two people or two communities do actually speak the same language, we still often have this problem of not really having any idea what our conversation partner is saying, because we’re unable or unwilling—for whatever reason, be it pride, ignorance, naïveté, laziness, or fear—to really hear them.
Imagine the possible outcomes that would result from people becoming better listeners. Imagine also how much money Fox News would lose, how Middle East conflicts might change, how many Chinese youth (or others in similar situations) would feel more validated by their parents in their opinions and dreams for their lives, how the dialogue about environmental issues might benefit, how the gay community might feel more valued and understood, how American attitudes toward immigration might change, how the divorce rate might decrease, how internal church conflicts might lessen. And, more importantly, how a personal pet peeve might completely fade away for me…people wrongly guessing my point and incorrectly finishing my sentences. Am I right? :)
Meh. I probably do that to others too. Rats. We all have room for improvement...