I’ve been thinking about how people can be evasive, especially evasive of questions they’d rather not directly answer. Evasion comes in many forms, some perhaps more fruitful or purposeful than others.
- Not-in-the-mood-for-your question evasion. Yesterday morning I asked my wife a question. She revealed her disinterest in the question by kissing me instead of answering. Not a bad evasive maneuver.
- Culturally-confounding-question evasion. In China I was often asked which I preferred: rice or noodles? I didn’t like the question. I didn’t have a preference; it depended on my mood, or the accompanying meats, veggies, and sauces. My students knew their preference. It seemed a cultural thing that everybody had an answer to that question, almost like there was an accompanying label: noodle-person or rice-person. I felt like giving an answer meant I'd be labeled, and they'd assume in every instance I always wanted rice (or noodles).
- Questions-with-no-room-for-degree evasion. We all get asked in a variety of contexts: “do you like such-and-such?” Often saying yes or no is not sufficient; there are varying degrees of liking. It’s not that I don’t like it or do like it; the extent to which I like or dislike it matters. It’s not always a great question, the wrong question even. A direct answer is not sufficient; evasion is necessary.
- Play-dumb evasion. This last weekend I chaperoned my wife’s students on a trip to Bellingham for a state-wide theater conference. One student was not being forthright with Joann. Joann asked him if he was out past curfew the night before. His response: “huh?” Classic evasion. Then he lied about being out of the hotel in the middle of the night, to which Joann responded that she had indisputable evidence that he was. He responded, “oh yeah, I was out…had to get some medicine,” as if he misunderstood the first question. Nice move too, by suggesting he needed something essential like “medicine” as opposed to a 3am Slurpee.
- Uncomfortable-situation evasion. Maybe that means not looking at the homeless guy asking for money, because what happens if you make eye contact, and how will you feel? Maybe that’s avoiding asking your boss a question because than she’ll know you didn’t read the memo (guilty) and give you that look. Maybe it’s avoiding certain topics because you just don’t have the courage or energy for what drama may come of bringing up a hot-button issue.
Since I mentioned the hullabaloo about Rob Bell a few days ago, I’ve watched a couple interviews with him. In both instances, the interviewers seem to be on the offensive, really grilling Bell in an effort to get some solid answers out of him. And in both cases (and I'm sure others) Bell comes across as a bit evasive.
I'm sure the reasons for such evasion won't satisfy everybody—including those who interviewed him. One interviewer relentlessly pounded him with questions, hoping for very black-and-white answers. As soon as he suspected Bell wasn’t giving him the kind of straightforward answer he was seeking, he’d aggressively interrupt Bell. He wanted a very clear answer to his particular question and wasn’t going to stop until he got it. Other critics of Bell seem to hope by their challenges to make him appear inarticulate and foolish, “catching” him by exposing him for being wishy-washy, inconsistent, or incoherent.
Was Bell being evasive? I think yes. Is being evasive, inherently bad? I think Bell and many other theologians that might be classified as postmodern, post-liberal, post-evangelical, post-it-note (bad joke) bump up against the same obstacles as their predecessors who similarly expressed a theology a bit out of sync with the majority Christian opinion of the time. We’re often stuck in a particular paradigm and have trouble thinking outside of that paradigm.
Many theologians writing today are not just trying to give answers to the same questions, but trying to show us how we’ve been asking the wrong questions. When someone asks, “how do I get to heaven when I die?” a contemporary theologian might say you’re asking the wrong question.
I think the best example we have of productive, purposeful evasion came from Jesus—the “Great Evader.” He seemed to make a habit out of annoying the hell out of people by not giving them the kind of satisfactory answers they sought. But it wasn’t because he didn’t know the answers, or was being defensive or reactive, or felt like the superior rhetoric of his accusers and interrogators had defeated him.
I think it was often because they were asking the wrong questions. Thus, Jesus could not in truthfulness simply give them a straightforward answer that would be truly true. I think Jesus was also very aware of the mystery of all things Divine and thus knew things couldn’t always be expressed in simple answers and thus had to be hinted at, often with stories. A recent survey through Luke yielded a number of examples; here is a brief sampling:
- The Pharisees ask why Jesus is doing something as “unlawful” as eating grain from a field in a manner that appeared to be “work” on the Sabbath. Instead of arguing as to whether or not it was a lawful act, he responds with something like “because I’m hungry.” (Luke 6)
- The followers of John the Baptist ask Jesus whether or not he was the anticipated Messiah. Jesus doesn’t say yes or no, but essentially asks them to assess what they’ve seen themselves and make their own judgment. (Luke 7)
- Jesus is criticized for letting a “sinful woman” wash his feet with her tears, which to the critic was a sign he isn’t a true prophet. Jesus doesn’t address whether he is a prophet or not but offers an illustration that is intended to expand this man’s perspective on what constitutes a prophet. (Luke 7)
- Jesus is asked by a man to intervene and tell his brother to share his wealth with him. Encouraging sharing seems a reasonable request, though Jesus instead prefers to address the problem of greed in this man. (Luke 12)
- Peter interrupts Jesus’ lesson about watchfulness. The way Luke records it, Peter asks a question, and Jesus appears to (amusingly) ignore the question and plow on with his story. (Luke 12)
- Jesus is asked “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Jesus doesn't respond with yes or no (I think he doesn't care much for the question). He instead stresses the “narrow way” that leads to the feast of the Kingdom of God and the famous reversal—the last in this life shall be first and the first in this life last (BTW, note the use of last instead of excluded…arriving last means still arriving, right?) (Luke 13)
- Jesus is asked about the timing of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. While Jesus seems to teach a tangible, arrival of God’s Kingdom in the future, he here seems more interested in the present reality of the Kingdom that is within people. I don’t think he’s contradicting himself, just stressing what he felt his hearers needed to hear. (Luke 17)
- Jesus is asked by the rich ruler how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus, rather than giving a token answer or formula, seems to tailor an answer specifically to him, telling him to sell everything. (Luke 18)
- Jesus is asked “who can be saved?” in response to Jesus presentation of his extremely high standards and critique of earthly wealth. Jesus doesn’t describe the kind of person that can be saved, instead saying “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18)
- Jesus is asked by the chief priests and teachers of the law where Jesus gets the authority to say and do the things he does. Jesus responds with a question, and then just flat out refuses to answer their question (Luke 20).
There are a few more examples in Luke and in the other gospels (like Jesus choosing to doodle in the dirt in John 8). Jesus appears to be the master evader, and I have hard time critiquing his style or intentions.
I once had a brief conversation with Brian McLaren—frequently accused of being evasive—at a ministry conference. I had recently given one of his books to someone I consider a close friend who wouldn't consider himself a part of the Christian Church. I told McLaren that the book had stimulated some good conversation between my friend and I and seemingly made Christianity a bit more palatable to my friend.
McLaren thanked me, but didn’t really care much about what changes in perspective might have been happening in my friend. He instead said he was excited that our relationship had deepened because of the book. That experience stuck with me. McLaren evaded the direction I had taken the conversation, re-directing it to what he deemed more important, or at least reminding me of a key element that I’d ignored.
It was a good lesson for me that trying to convince people to think like I do is not as important to me as intimacy with those people. I think I’ve grown over the years to let my friend be who he is and do my best to express my appreciation and enjoyment of him exactly as he is. It’s been great for our friendship, at least from my perspective.
Evasion comes in many forms, some from less-than-pure or fearful motives, a way of hiding ignorance or shame maybe. But sometimes it’s simply a result of a person who has a very different opinion about the kind of questions we should be asking.
I guess Jesus, and other less significant “evaders,” even if their evasion is frustrating and unsatisfying, should not be discounted simply because they don’t answer questions on our terms; their inability or unwillingness to answer our questions may be a hint of some greater truth we are in need of discovering.
They also might be evading our questions because they would really just rather be kissing than talking. That's always a possibility.