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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tone and Timbre - On Christian Speech and Writing

I'm a guitarist. I've been playing for about 20 years now. It's a great instrument and I'm usually inspired when I watch professionals and artists play it.  Every once in a while, I'll find someone who is technically proficient, but I just can't stand to watch them play.  Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy players as diverse as Paul Gilbert  and Phil Keaggy in their approach to the guitar.   However, there are certain players who just seem to be obnoxious  when I hear them. 

This mainly seems to be the case when someone knows all the notes to play yet fails to take the time to make their guitar sound good.  Guitarists refer to this as a lack of tone and timbre.  Now, it's true that tone and timbre are a matter of personal taste.  There are still some basic rules to follow as you develop your own tone. A chief one is to never be so obnoxious that you can't blend with the rest of the band. In my opinion, Kenny Loggin's "Danger Zone" is one of the worst all time offenders in this respect. The guitar in this song is horrid. Somewhat ironically, the song was used to great effect by recruiters.  In music, sometimes a job will get done by the guitar, but it could have gotten done a lot more graciously.

This is where my thoughts went after reading a recent post by a certain Christian blogger. Although the particular topic he was addressing (i.e. Robin Williams' suicide) may have been an appropriate topic given the amount of time addressed to it in the media, he handled it without a real sense of grace.  If he was playing guitar, his tone and timbre would have been brash, in your face, and without a consideration for the rest of the band.  It's an ugly tone.

If this was the only time this blogger had written in this way, I may not be writing my own thoughts on the matter right now.  However, again and again this individual chooses to interact with topics in a bombastic, kick-in-the-door manner. I thought about linking to more of his blog, but decided against it since I really don't care to drive more traffic to his site.  He's the theological-blogger equivalent of someone who presents a possible theological truth in all the wrong ways to a grieving family.  For example, if a family was grieving with the loss of a young child, he appears to be the type of person who would say, "Well, just remember God has a plan and we just have to trust God." There may be some truth in those words, they may have even be intended to convey comfort.  They don't though. They are a miserable failure in terms of solace, empathy, and grace. 

Before I get accused of being a pot calling the kettle black, let me make clear my point here.  I don't know that blogger personally. I do know myself.  I do know plenty of other Christians.  I know quite a few Christians who are teachers or leaders who are responsible for sharing their ideas with other Christians. I don't intend to correct him personally. I do intend to help correct the possibility of making the same mistake within the group of people I know.  At least, I hope that this blog post will contribute to the discussion as we try to become more Christ-like. 

As James taught about the power of the tongue, he wrote, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" (James 3:11 HCSB). This is a reminder about the life-giving quality of our words. Specifically, he was talking about the power of our words as we teach and lead. The application turns us toward life and grace. When we speak and teach it should not just be done so that we are right. Our tone and timbre matters.

I mentioned kick-in-the-door delivery tactics. Such tactics are always more concerned with "truth" and proving a point than loving people or growing the kingdom. I say "truth" because facts are never just facts, objective truth always relates to a bunch of other things, like the people involved and the cultural context. Furthermore, there are several ways kick-in-the-door tactics employ logical slight of hand to accomplish their feats of intellectual entry.

First, logically valid arguments are assumed to be true (whether implicit, tacit, or focal) .  This is either devious or ignorant of the relationship between an argument and its premises.  It is completely possible to make a valid argument and yet be untrue. Consider the following 1. All refrigerators are made of titanium alloy. 2. All items made of titanium alloy are time-travel devices. 3. Therefore, all refrigerators are time-travel devices.   With this example, we immediately see the absurdity of the premises.  It is not always the case that we see the truth or absurdity of a principle or premise.  When this is the case, we must not assume we are telling the whole truth.  After all, a partial truth is also partially false. We need sound arguments where both the premises and the conclusion have at least a high probability of truth. 

Second, there are often other tactics used by those marshaling to barrel through intellectual doors. Some of these include equivocation. Equivocation is when two entities are made out to be the same thing.  Often, equivocation relies on the inability of others to distinguish between different types, tokens, classes, etc. Presumption is another tactic used by these go-getters. Presumption relies on underlying assumptions about the state of affairs as presented.  It is closely tied to equivocation in its application. 

What about our good intentions?  Doesn't it sound like I am the enemy of truth and justice and the American way? Good intentions mean very little if we do not consider our context.   As a Christian it must always be my goal to communicate life to others.   Are my words bringing life (not just what I think will bring life, but actual life, dependent on Christ)? If not, then I have failed to communicate objective truth. I have only communicated some "objective" ideas.

When James referred to our speech as either fresh water or salt water, I can't help but think James was thinking of Jesus (e.g. John 4:14).  My words, when spoken or written should bring fresh, living water to those who need it. Yes, it's true that my words may occasionally sting, as when water washes out an old wound.  I must gauge how I deliver those words though. Usually a power washer, and it's strong tone, is the wrong tool for delivering water to those in need. Sure, I can imagine a situation where it would be the proper tool. Most of the time though, the water will have a calm, musical sound to it as the clear waters of life are delivered.  

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