Yale University Press recently published an interesting little book by Stephen Miller entitled Conversation, a History of a Declining Art . It starts with a brief discussion of Job and with Plato’s Symposium and proceeds through late antiquity, post-revolutionary Europe, and early America until it arrives at modern times.
It seems there is much to be gained from open polite conversation. Much of our rude and unhappy world could be improved with a bit more of the civility that polished discourse provides. There is a lot in the book to take seriously, and to be enjoyed.
Unfortunately Miller’s book doesn’t end very optimistically. Not only is our civility less than it should be, but we are more and more occupied with gadgets that have effectively reduced whatever time we did take to converse. This trend doesn’t seem to be improving our prospects for improved civility.
Of course, not everybody is up to the high conversational standards that Miller writes about. This seems to have always been the case. Most of us, to be perfectly frank, just don’t have the candlepower of a Samuel Johnson, an Edmund Burke, or a Benjamin Franklin – all paragons in the art of conversation. But this doesn’t mean that we are incapable of enjoying it at all. Neither does it mean that witty and civil conversation is the loftiest goal of language.
There is, after all, one kind of conversation that Miller doesn’t mention in his book. As it turns out, this particular kind of conversation is even rarer than Miller’s other uncommon varieties. Part of the reason for this, undoubtedly, is that very few people have ever given the subject much thought.
The type of conversation that I refer to is Christ-like conversation. I don’t mean to use the word ‘Christ-like’ as a reference to a particular community of saints or to a particular historic tradition. I mean ‘Christ-like’ in the sense of its reference to Christ. Christian conversation is conversation that informs that very probing question, “what would Jesus do?” as it relates to how we communicate with each other.
There is often a difference, though, between how Christ would communicate in any given situation and the way He would want us to. He, after all, is divine. We are mortals. The scriptures give us many examples of Jesus speaking to others. Only some of these, however, would be appropriate for us to imitate. Obviously it wouldn’t be right for us to be going around telling people that their sins are forgiven.
But there are at least a couple of examples of Jesus talking with others that make for epitomes of the Christian art of conversation. In these two cases, we find Jesus conversing with people that didn’t know, at least at first, who He was.
The first example comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus and His disciples are passing through Samaria and come to Jacob’s Well near the city of Sychar. Jesus stops for a drink and His disciples go on ahead.
A woman is at the well drawing water and Jesus asks her for a drink. She is a bit surprised that Jesus, being a Jew, would even talk with her, a woman of Samaria. Jesus’ response is both kind and direct. He not only implies that He accepts who she is but He also begins, right off, to talk about eternally important things.
“If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that sayeth to thee, give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water”. (John 4:9).
Perhaps to our ears, this might sound like an abrupt way to strike up a conversation. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. One thing does seem clear though. The woman was neither overly startled nor intimidated by the statement. On the contrary, she responded with a direct and engaging comment of her own.
“Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?” (John 4:11).
And so the conversation continues. Miller would certainly see this as a polite conversation. People don’t discuss such politically and religiously charged subjects – especially with those that likely have strongly different opinions – without being skilled conversationalists and very polite.
That’s all very well. Jesus, no doubt, was a good conversationalist. That’s not, however, why this example has so much merit for Christians. To understand this requires looking at how the discussion ends.
The conversation turns to prophets; and the woman, who is well informed on the subject, explains to Jesus her hope of the coming Messiah. Jesus then responds with a statement that is both fully in keeping with the flow of the conversation as well as being very powerful: “I that speak unto thee am he”.
This wonderfully insightful conversation ends with a testimony. Jesus, himself, testifies of the Christ. But testimony for Miller is not a criterion of good conversation. In fact it doesn’t meet the criteria for any kind of secular conversation at all. It certainly is, however, an example of Christ-like conversation.
In fact there are other kinds of conversation that Miller only discusses in passing. Pragmatic conversation, for example, is hardly mentioned at all. This includes the day-to-day exchanges of information we use all the time to get all the things done that we need to. This use of language is not necessarily entertaining and so doesn’t interest him much. It is noteworthy, though, that many great conversationalists, especially women, can make even these mundane exchanges interesting.
Rhetoric, or the attempt to persuade an audience, is another example that is only obliquely mentioned by Miller. He considers it clearly beneath the dignity of a cultured conversationalist, and doesn’t mention the three rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) by name but criticizes them nonetheless.
Ethos, or the appeal to the character and authority of the speaker, should have nothing to do with the quality of the discussion at hand. Quality conversation should rest solely on the verbal abilities of the parties involved. Pathos, or the appeal to the emotions, should also be out of the question. Good conversation should be fundamentally a mental effort that leads to enjoyment and even merriment. Emotion is too self-disclosing and limits one’s ability to discuss conflicting positions with charm and humor. Logos, or the appeal to reason and logic, might seem appropriate to good conversation but its use as a rhetorical tool is burdened by the same failing apparent in ethos and pathos. They are all appeals. They are used to convince and not to converse. Miller sees all of these as distractions; or even worse, as partisanship.
One type of rhetoric that is particularly galling to him is the kind that manipulates. It’s bad enough when people pretend to be who they’re not, but when they elevate hypocrisy to a conversational art, they have clearly gone too far.
The classic motivational book in this vein is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People . Here we learn to smile more often and listen better - obvious virtues to acquire. In fact, we are told that our future has unlimited potential if we can learn to master the nuances of interpersonal relationships, including conversation.
Carnegie’s conversation is clearly tendentious. We engage in it to get ahead in life. Miller, of course, disagrees with this motivation. To him, conversation should be its own reward. If our only reason for conversing is to influence others, then everything is business and not pleasure or art.
And for that matter, Carnegie’s criteria are not necessarily Christ-like either. Certainly smiling, listening, and many of the traits he lists are, in fact, Christian virtues, but the motivation is all wrong.
Jesus’ message for the woman of Samaria is not selfishly motivated. He does listen and more than likely He smiled too. But Jesus is not selling anything. He wants to bring others to Him, to teach them the truth, to testify of the truth. There is nothing of the polite understatement and flattery so common in our corporate world and so publicized in self-help books today.
This doesn’t mean that self-help books are not Christian or discuss Christian themes. It does mean that they are not necessary to the goals of Christ-like conversation.
As with the case with the woman at the well, Christ-like conversation strengthens testimony and otherwise builds others up. To Lyman Sherman, the command was given from the Savior to “strengthen your brethren in all your conversations” (Doctrine and Covenants 108:7). We are also told not to worry so much about what sorts of things to talk about. If we really are on the Lord’s errand, He will help us along.
"For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say. But a commandment I give unto you, that ye shall declare whatsoever thing ye declare in my name, in solemnity of heart, in the spirit of meekness, in all things. And I give unto you this promise, that inasmuch as ye do this the Holy Ghost shall be shed forth in bearing record unto all things whatsoever ye shall say" (Doctrine and Covenants 100: 6-8).
It is interesting that there are no qualifications made for this promise. It seems to be available to all who are serving the Lord, and clearly emphasizes the importance of the spirit in Christ-like conversation.
It is also interesting that there seems to be no particular emphasis on technique, at least not directly. There is, however, one conversational technique that Jesus used quite often. And He was quite good at it. It is the use of parables.
This method, incidentally, is often used by the world’s finest conversationalists. Most New Testament exegetes claim that these parables are used to teach those who are ready for Christ’s doctrines, while keeping them hidden from others. They are also used to teach in terms His listeners could more easily understand. And no doubt this is true.
But double-entendres also stimulate ideas and help jump-start pithy discussion. They’re an offer to enter into conversation. They also have another important characteristic. When they’re understood correctly, they carry a hefty punch. The mental breakthrough of understanding the hidden meaning of a parable carries with it a confirmation that is quite a bit more powerful than an otherwise simple explanation.
Perhaps more important than even this, however, is that the understanding of symbolic language can be culminated with a testimony for maximum effect. The example of the woman at Jacob’s Well is just such a case.
Language itself is symbolic. Yet when we use parables we are adding another element of symbolism to our conversation. In some ways this doubling of effect lends itself to higher spiritual understanding.
Poetry also relies on this enhanced symbolism to express itself. In fact poetry without it can hardly be imagined at all. This poem by Emily Dickinson is just a single example of multitudes:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops-at all -
Must of us tend to think of parables as teaching tools. By so doing we emphasize the elements of hidden meanings and customized messages that they carry. If we think of parables as tools of conversation, however, we find very different elements. Not only do they lend themselves to the witty discussions so loved by Miller, but also to the higher Christian virtue of spiritual understanding.
That we are even capable of so much symbolism is worth noticing. It is certainly unique to humans. Many intelligent animals are capable of communicating with gestures and simple sounds. We do the same ourselves. In fact it is often through non-verbal gestures that we communicate most effectively, at least most honestly. When we start using words, and especially when we start stringing them together into a sentence, we start down the road to abstraction. Often, even when our intentions are good, this abstraction gets confusing. Not only do we often misunderstand what others are saying, but we often have difficulty putting our own thoughts and feelings into accurate language.
Even the basics of grammar can be quite a formidable challenge all by themselves. Why then do we even bother with yet another layer of symbolism? Wouldn’t this just compound the difficulty of effectively communicating?
Surprisingly, the answer is no. The reason for this is that the two kinds of symbolisms are quite different. Words, that are symbolic of things in our lives (among other things) appeal to our minds, whereas spiritual and poetic symbolisms appeal to our spirits.
If the lining up of words on a sheet of paper can make us think of things we’ve never considered before, the telling of a symbolic story can help us understand at a deeper emotional and spiritual level than we’ve ever known before. It adds meaning to our knowledge. It is the instruction of the soul.
It is possible to engage in Christ-like conversation without wit, charm, or other typical forms of conversational talent. And the very basic principle of listening is different. Christ-like conversationalists listen with the heart and seek understanding and empathy. There is no need to worry about what to say next. After all, sometimes what is needed is just a smile, a chuckle, or a tear.
There is also a distinct lack of pride in Christ-like conversation. In fact pride, if present, can only lessen its effect. This doesn’t mean that Jesus never used a witticism. In fact it’s hard to imagine that His enjoyment of parables was the only way He utilized language creatively. However He used it, though, His conversational talent was not used to show off. Ultimately Jesus wanted His listeners to learn spiritual things by means of the spirit.
Christ-like conversation is, after all, communication by the spirit. It can use many of the methods used by conversationalists and motivators but its own motivation is different. Witty, entertaining, or even friendly conversations are not the goal. Certainly making a business deal is not either. Bringing others to Christ, certainly is.
This is particularly clear in the 2nd scriptural account of a conversation including the unrecognized Jesus. In this case, the men that were with Him were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Here Jesus asks informed questions, listens, builds confidence, and teaches. As in His other conversations, He talks about His gospel. The journey takes several hours but the two men seem blind to who their companion is. It isn’t until after He leaves that they realize that they had been talking with the risen Lord.
"Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32).
Christ-like conversation is simply this: to talk about the Savior’s gospel in a way that invites His spirit. And with all due respect to Miller and his interesting story, this type of conversational history still needs to be written.