henri nouwen show not tell

Christian show or tell?

kathyescobar church stuff, down we go, equality, faith shifts, healing, incarnational 16 Comments

I recently had a brief and good but challenging conversation with a friend about Christian belief. It wasn’t a long drawn out one, but as they were explaining the ins and outs of why a particular belief was important, I could feel my body tense up and my heart shut down.

The only thing I could think of was “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this.”

It felt crappy because I want to be able to stay in and listen well and converse about theology when I need to.

At the same time, I realize that I feel so done with picking apart belief that sometimes even a simple conversation about it sets me on edge and makes me briefly want to re-consider agnosticism.

I am not saying my feelings are good to lean into. My defenses are important to examine and that there’s obviously some work that needs to be done so I can engage in these kinds of conversations more freely and fully without wanting to run for the hills.

I also know this person’s heart and there was absolutely no malice in it.

But as I was reflecting on it, trying to get to the heart of what was going on inside, I think my aversion to belief conversations dovetails into a much deeper struggle I have with Christian “telling.”

Telling what we should believe.

Telling why we need to believe.

Telling what’s right and wrong, who’s in and out, what’s truth and not-truth.

Telling in words, words, and more words.

For many generations now a lot of Western Christianity has built a large and strong empire on Christian telling. On a model of people sitting in rows facing forward having someone tell us what to believe. On a framework of particular beliefs and doctrines and dogma. On a “we’ve got the answers and let us tell you what they are” culture. On a multi-billion dollar book & music & schwag industry.

For many, it still works, and obviously the Christian industry financials remind us that Christian telling is still profitable.

But for a whole lot of other people who have exited traditional faith, are on their way out, have really bad tastes in their mouth from faith experiences, or are longing to live out their faith in more tangible in-the-flesh ways, I think it’s run its course.

I believe one of the reasons modern Christianity is so topsy-turvy right now is because people are tired of Christians “telling.”

Too many words and not enough actions behind it.

Too much judgment and certainty not enough love and humility.

Too much control and not enough example.

Too much of a systematic theology and not enough of a practical one.

Too many unhealthy hierarchical systems bent against those on the underside of power.

Too much separation and not enough connection.

Too much telling and not enough showing.

Yeah, I think the world is crying out for hope, for Christian “showing.”

It’s one of the reasons so many people across faith experiences have a huge crush on the Pope. His demonstrations of love are what the world is watching.  It’s fascinating to watch. Sure, he says a lot of great things, too, but the part that people are really resonating with is seeing his actions–watching him touch lepers, wash feet, open his own doors to refugees, visit prisoners, and embody Jesus in a way that we are so drawn to.

Showing is so much more compelling than telling.

The world is watching.

Our neighbors and friends and family are watching.

Heck, I’m watching.

At this point, what I see and experience is what’s fueling me forward.

In fact, it’s my best hope.

One of the reasons I am still “in” when it comes to believing in Jesus and his weird, wacky, upside-down-redemptive-ways-that-I’ll-never-be-able-to-get-my-head-around is that I have amazing friends here & all over the place who are don’t tell about Jesus but are actually in the trenches day after day, month after month, year after year–engaged with people in really hard places, showing and reflecting his love with actions not just words. They aren’t doing it for their health or because they will lose God’s love if they don’t; it’s far too hazardous for that.

They’re doing it because Christ’s love compels them & they see the kingdom in the least likely places, in ways that defy words, in situations where “telling” doesn’t work.  Where words fall flat because people have heard them all before and they definitely haven’t put food on the table or restored their dignity or drawn them closer to God or healed their relationships.

I know that there is power in words and inspiration and proclamation.  And even though it sounds like it, I’m not trying to create a dualistic view of all show, no tell. Of course, words matter and the Spirit works in all kinds of mysterious ways.

But I do also strongly believe that we’ve been so tilted to “tell” that we will need a whole lot of “show” over a lot of years to change the tide on our reputation.

Here’s to more show, less tell.

Showing equality.

Showing honesty.

Showing humility.

Showing forgiveness.

Showing kindness & compassion.

Showing presence.

Showing peace.

In thinking about this topic, I am always busted. When I read this list, I realize how much I need to show these things in hard-to-stay-in belief conversations, too.

Yep, I’m reminded yet again, showing is much harder than telling.