"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'The Great Evader': Ruminations on Question Evasion

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.


Heather said...

My hands-down favorite evasion is from a good friend of mine. If you ask him a question that he doesn't want to answer, he gives you that steely-eyed melt-anyone-he-is-talking-to look and says, "That's an excellent question and I'm glad you asked." ..... The question is never answered. The conversation is given a couple seconds pause then the topic is swiftly changed. Brilliantly maddening.

Matt Boswell said...

I am guilty of some variation of that from time to time...affirm the quality of the question. Though I usually do try to answer, even if people feel like I'm not giving a satisfactory answer.

Barb said...

Well I have debated about posting on this.
I typed out a long response and it disappeared, so let me see if I can re-create some of it.

Since I sent you the link to the Rob Bell-Martin Bashir interview, here goes.

I feel yes, he was evasive. I kept waiting to hear something solid. I don't feel Bashir was badgering him, only trying to get answers. And those are the answers I wanted to hear. I want to understand the "post modern" and "post liberal." Beating around the bush and not answering questions only makes me have more questions.
Perhaps it's in the language. Perhaps those of us who believe there is One Way to heaven, that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, and He is the only way, that the gate is narrow, are simply not understanding this "dialogue."
I would not be comparing how Bell answers questions the same way Jesus did. Yes, sometimes Jesus answered a question with a question. I don't believe the questioner ends up with no answer though.
I get that we need to make the gospel attractive to non-believers, however, not at the cost of watering down the message.
Perhaps that is not what is being done, but I'm trying to understand.

1 Peter 3:15 says that we need to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope.

Bell is not the only famous pastor to evade questions. I've heard two very famous and very rich pastors being inteviewed and I feel they have stopped short. And then I hear another well know pastor get the gospel message in there, when it's not even the question being asked. We need to make the most of every opportunity to speak the name of Jesus. Yes, we all fall short over and over. As the old saying goes, "you're the only Jesus some will ever see." First we have coffee, get to know a person, then we earn the right to share the message.

I honestly don't know if those of us in the "older" generation are on the same page as those under. I pray we are. Eternity is at stake.

Ok...I love you...you can delete me now. :)

Matt Boswell said...

I love you too, Mom. Don’t worry, I won’t delete you. :) I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and questions. I assume since you posted this here, you’d welcome a response. I could say more, but I’ll try to be brief:

1) I should clarify that I’m not pro- or anti-Bell. I’ve never even read his stuff. I’m not trying to defend Bell, nor would I say I’m a convinced Christian Universalist. What I am defending is the need to be aware of our biases and captivity to our own way of thinking. I think these things can be barriers to understanding others.

2) I don’t believe having “more questions” is inherently bad. :)

3) This might help. I believe it to be possible that after we die, we may have the chance for further repentance or fuller realization of the Divine. The clock doesn’t stop ticking at death. Because I believe Jesus is the only way to the Father (he said it so I trust him), I think a non-Christian could finally see God for how God really is—just as we Christians will see God more clearly than we do now. There may be judgment and pain and despair and remorse, but I think such people could still experience heaven, once they acknowledge the God of Jesus for who God really is. I think the difference here between an Inclusivist and a Universalist, generally, is that the Inclusivist gives more credit to our freedom to reject God or for God to not save those who are just so far gone (which I certainly can’t judge); a Universalist seems to say that our freedom will cease to be that important, as God knows what we want and need better than we do.

4) While the respect each deserves is quite different, I think Bell is giving answers just like Jesus was. And I think in both cases, sometimes the hearers don’t get what is being said.

5) I don’t think Bell is trying to make the gospel attractive to believers. I think he’s trying to truthfully and faithfully convey what he believes the gospel actually is. I think the gospel of God’s love is attractive and doesn’t need to be modified. We don’t need to be good salespeople as Christians, just honest witnesses to what we’ve experienced. I also don’t think the Universalist understanding of the gospel is any less demanding. One could argue it’s more so. Exclusivist presentations of what being a Christian means are in danger of being too simplistic: “do this, say this, and you’re set for eternity. Then do some good things to act like you mean it” (forgive the extreme example). I believe an un-watered-down gospel message is very demanding, calling us to really take seriously how well we are pointing to God’s Kingdom and Love with lives marked by compassion, peace, joy, activism, kindness, and ability to function harmoniously and lovingly in community with others.

Hope that helps, if only a little!