Monday, June 22, 2020

Oh Be Careful Little Ears What You Hear

When I was about 19 and teaching in Oregon, my friend Katherine and I used to go visit at the state prisons in Salem. In the Bible studies and chapel services, we got to know a number of prisoners by name.

Sometimes we’d speculate about their previous lives. We imagined their stories, even if we had no plausible information to go on.

One day we got to talking about a young man we had met at OSCI, the medium-security prison. He was tall, blond, quiet, and intriguing. I’ll call him David.

For some reason I thought Katherine and I were both in a speculative mood, and I began yarning a long story about where David was from, how he fell into a crime that put him at OSCI, when he came to faith, and how he had one sister, a bit younger, who was really nice and who faithfully came to visit him.

I made it all up, and I thought Katherine knew that. I was just having fun.

Later we attended a gathering at a friend's house of probably fifty people to hear a speaker from the prison. As we ate afterwards, I noticed Katherine in deep conversation with one of the men. She came over to me. “Hey, I was telling Harold what you told me about David. Can you remind me, did you say it was his sister that comes to visit him? Do you know if he has other family support?”

I was so horrified I could hardly speak. “Katherine! Didn’t you know? I made it all up!”

No. She hadn’t known.

"But! I thought we were both just imagining! For fun!"

Let’s just say that some awkward conversations followed.

Here is something you should know: it is easy to make stuff up.

We who read and watch and listen tend to be a believing bunch. I’d hate to call us gullible, heaven forbid, but we tend to take in articles or videos or books and assume the author or speaker is credible.

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this in his book Talking With Strangers. 

Essentially, we default to truth, he says. We assume people are telling the truth until we find out otherwise.

The alternative, he goes on, is to go through life with deep suspicion of everyone and their words and motives. That’s an exhausting way to live, sustainable only if you isolate yourself and remove most of the joy from your life. 

The internet trolls who always comment on anecdotes and interesting stories and photos with “fake!” and “obviously photoshopped!” don’t add anything of value to the world.

However. A little bit of suspicion, or at least critical thinking, is good.

I am not only a taker in of words, but a producer of them. While I am more cautious than I was at 19, I’ve been shocked at how easy it is to make stuff up and have people take me seriously.

For example, years ago I wrote about evaluating literature and was trying to sound as pretentious as literary critics do. So I wrote an airy paragraph about finding the “thematic juxtapositions” in a piece of writing.

It was so overdone that I was sure it was obviously concocted out of thin air. But no less a personage than a well-known Anabaptist internet personality took me seriously and wanted to know more.

Granted, that was a long time ago, and he wasn’t very old. But other and older people also took me seriously.

Then, more recently, in a blog post about the mommy wars, I wanted to make up an example of an earnest theory that moms might encounter. What should it be? I needed something so “out there” that everyone would know it was made up, yet with parallels to real examples, with “facts” and “expert” and “research.”

The next day that same mom posts a long thoughtful post on Instagram featuring her baby all cuddly in a thick cream-colored knitted blanket, with only his round little face showing. She writes in the caption about how important it is to surround our children with warmth, that this teaches them bonding and comfort, starting in the womb, when they are safe and loved at your core body temperature that God made at the optimal degree where a child’s brain absorbs the greatest sense of security. Half a degree down and they show signs of distress and you know, she just wants to kindly speak out about moms who gauge a baby’s comfort by their own and don’t consider that babies have a much smaller body mass, so they get cold faster, and they don’t have the words to communicate this discomfort. The damage can show up years later in children who always need a security blanket and adults who are nervous and anxious and always pulling sweaters on and off, like women during menopause, or men who pull all the blankets to their side of the bed, trying to recreate the security of the womb. She’s done her research. There’s a connection. She knows about this.

Some people believed this was actually a thing until they reached a footnote that said I made it all up. If you were one of them, don’t feel bad. One of my own brilliant daughters thought it sounded plausible.

If we encounter someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about, but it’s all new to us, we often fear looking stupid if we question them or don’t quite believe them. What if they look at us like, you didn’t know this?? What if all the heads in the room swivel our way in shock and amusement? What rock has she been living under?

You don’t have to be a scowling, suspicious hermit or an internet troll who takes all the fun out of unusual stories, but it’s ok to push back just a little bit, to ask questions, and to verify from other sources.

Gary Chapman’s theories on the five love languages have permeated every course on family life and relationships in the Christian world in the last 30 years. You can recite them all, right? Quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, and so on.

His basic premise resonates with most of us, I think: of course we all perceive and communicate love differently.

How many of us have stopped to ask: Why only five love languages? Why those five in particular? Who gave Mr. Chapman the authority to decide how things are?

My sister’s primary love language is empathy. If you feel with her and tell her so, she is your friend for life. For me, it’s attention. If you make eye contact and affirm my existence and value, or if you notice that I need something and try to help me, I feel more loved than if you gave me a hug and a hundred dollars.

Some of you, at this moment, are taking my sister’s and my love languages and trying to shove them into one of Chapman's five categories, like a kindergartener trying to fold up a dollar bill and shove it down the slot in the globe bank in Sunday school, while the class sings two full rounds of Dropping dropping hear the pennies fall.

“Empathy would come under words of affirmation," you say. "It’s all about affirming who people are and what they’re feeling.”

Or maybe not.

Gary Chapman gets the credit for putting the love languages theory into words and coming up with five categories. But let’s remember that he probably had six or eight or ten, to begin with, but then his wife and his editor said, “People are going to get bogged down. You’ve got to condense these to no more than five.” So he did, and we’ve taken those five as seriously as the Seven Ordinances ever since.

It’s ok if you have your own love language. You get to differ from the Original Five, if you like. Gary Chapman doesn't get to decide about you.

Then, around the same time that the love languages came along, someone else came up with the brilliant strategy of improving communication in relationships by using "emotional word pictures."

If I recall correctly, I heard both Bill Gothard and Gary Smalley speak on this, in person. As they elaborated on this brilliant technique, something bubbled in the back of my brain. “Wait. ‘Emotional word pictures?’ Isn’t that like. . . stories?”

Yes, my friends. As nearly as I can tell, emotional word pictures are just stories. Maybe tailored and crafted to fit the moment, but still stories.

See, authors and speakers get to say whatever they want. They can give new words to old concepts, shape ideas to fit their agenda, or totally make stuff up out of thin air.

Why would they do this? Well, someone who comes up with a great new idea and explains it well will sell lots of books and get lots of clicks on YouTube. So will someone who puts a new, intriguing twist on old ideas, or who convinces people that they are in danger and he/she has the insights to rescue them. Or that they are lacking in some significant way and the YouTube expert can fully supply.

If selling lots of books is a bad thing, then I have the wrong aspirations. I'm just saying that it’s always a good idea for readers and watchers to think about what people are saying and what they might be getting out of it.

You don’t have to go around scoffing in scornful superior derision at everything you hear and read and see. But don’t take authors, YouTube personalities, self-proclaimed experts, or people on TV too seriously either.

Some of us have great imaginations. We are good at making things up.

It's good to question what we say.


  1. Gullible? Trusting? One sounds negative, one sounds positive, but they are the same in some ways. I agree with you, we need to be cautious which we can be without being cynical. It may be a fine line sometimes, but God has promised wisdom to those who ask him. In a different twist (and in the cases you cited about yourself I don't believe you intentionally deceived) Scripture teaches against deceiving as a joke, Proverbs 26:18, 19 "As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, So is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?" LRM

  2. Oh, you made me laugh and shake my head when you started up about the Love Languages! You are SO right!

    As my older kids start finding more things on the web and (ugh) YouTube, I sound like a broken record telling them that anyone can put any information on the internet and that doesn't make it true. But still! The tendency to trust anything in print or anyone speaking to an audience with a microphone. . .

  3. The Baritone6/27/2020 12:19 PM

    "And while I've got your attention, let me explain why square wheels are going to be the next giant leap in automotive technology, fuel economy improvement, and better ride quality. I've worked with cars, so you can trust me when I say that I know what I'm talking about"...Oh, wait a minute... :-)

  4. Very insightful post for a very confusing time. I was just venting to my husband about this information overload yesterday. For every expert that says one thing, there is another that says the complete opposite. We definitely need to be praying that the Lord will give all of us wisdom and discernment.

    Love your writing, Shannon in OK