Monday, October 17, 2005

A Challenging Breakout Session

I have been sitting here, staring at my blank 'create post' screen, wondering where to begin. I suppose it might be best to start with the breakout session that really challenged me as well as many others who were in the room.

The session was entitled, "When Non-Christians Read Your Blog: Dr. Timothy Muehlhoff." The session description was: "This session will utilize research conducted by Dr. Muehlhoff on how journaling opened lines of communication between gays and Christians. Specifically, we will consider communication skills such as perspective-taking, defensive communication, and empathy."

If you are interested in Dr. Muehlhoff's biography, you can visit this page:

Dr. Muehlhoff's Biography

Dr. Muehlhoff started out by giving us 9 titles/names associated with liberalism. We were to write down the first word that came into our minds. My responses were pretty bland compared to some others. There were some unflattering responses, but nothing terribly offensive.

Next, he added the number ten 'title' that he could have included. It was "Conservative Christians." But rather than having us write responses, he shared some of the responses given by a group of liberal-leaning students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. It was the typical type of responses that you might imagine. Those people are 'Bible-thumpers', 'bigoted', 'hateful', 'discriminatory', 'homophobic', 'oppressive' etc. were some of the most common responses. In the following article link, you will read that the overall impression of such students is that Conservative Christians are seen as, "pitbulls of the cultural war."

Timesunion Article

At this point, I glanced around the room and saw a variety of facial expressions. In fact, I was worried that one guy would burst a blood vessel in his neck because he looked so outraged!

As the session continued, we had technical problems and were unable to view a portion of a DVD entitled, "House of Sand and Fog." The professor briefly shared that it was a movie that showed a story in an 'out of order of events' chronology and how people can come to the wrong conclusions about a person's motive based on not knowing the entire story. He mentioned that this is what can happen in the blogosphere. Not knowing certain things in the beginning of a conversation can cause people who do not know or recognize where the others (with opposing views) are coming from can typically give them the absolutely wrong impression of that person's true motives. This is where conflict can result and thus many tend to react negatively. Those who react positively to what we post are a blessing to us. The opposite is, of course true, when they react negatively. A great but very simple sentence was shared about this that can sum up any blogging experience:

Blogging can be wonderful or terrible!

I will attempt to share my scribbled notes in this post. In the next one, I will share some of the questions and dialogue that came up after the session was over. Since I am not that good at taking notes I will probably have missed some things. If you are a visitor and attended this session at GodBlogCon, please feel free to share your notes and/or opinions here in the comment section.

Dr. Muehlhoff mentioned that today's culture is involved in 'mix and match' religions. These types of religions are ones that never challenge you, whereas, Christianity does challenge us. When non-Christians read a Christian's blog, the goal might be to see to it that they feel that they have been fairly represented even though they disagree with the blog administrator.

The first part of the lecture discussed "cognitive complexity."

1. Ask yourself how complex is your view of the world.

2. How many different interpretations do you have.

a. Differentiation - how many interpretations do you have of a person or event?
b. Abstraction - degree you understand a person's motive. Need to look at both psychological and emotional motives.

The professor had us do an exercise which involved using cognitive complexity. He told us a brief story about a white boy and his dad from the south who attended a baseball game. There was a family of six occupying the seats directly in front of them. They happened to be black. They had a few huge buckets of fried chicken and it smelled so wonderful to the boy. He was really hungry, too. His dad asked him if he wanted to go get something to eat. One of the boys from the familyin front of them must have overheard their conversation. He turned around and offered the man's son a piece of chicken. The father said, "No son, we don't take food from those kind."

We were instructed to write our opinion about the father based on this story. Many people answered that he was prejudiced, a racist, unkind, rude etc. Then, we were told to try and take a different look at the situation. Try to create a 'third story' about the incident. Some people mentioned that maybe the father thought they didn't have enough to share so the boy shouldn't take it. Others stated that maybe he whispered so that the family wouldn't hear and be offended. Others stated that perhaps the father grew up in the segregated south and this teaching never left him. Then, Dr. Muehlhoff asked if the "qualifier" in the sentence of "those kind" gave away the motive. Most agreed.

Dr. Muehlhoff mentioned Proverbs 20:5 - Counsel in the heart of man [is like] deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.

He said our job is to draw out the other person's thoughts.

3. Organization involves dealing with conflicting information. For example, can you recognize any positive things and how do you reconcile the negative?

Ultimately, we need to argue the best position towards those who disagree.

Next, Dr. Muehlhoff shared a story about how he attempted to open up lines of communication between gays and Christians at the U. of N.C. at Chapel Hill. He invited both groups to his home for a dinner and conversation about their differences. He told us his wife prepared the food and then left! She didn't want to witness the war!

As it turned out, there was a lot of shouting and disagreeing going on between the two groups throughout the entire evening. However, at the close of it all the one thing that stood out in the professor's mind was that one of the gay participants said (paraphrased here), "that despite their disagreement on many issues, he now knew that the motives of the Christians were good." The Christians attitudes towards the gays were more empathetic and less harsh too. Wouldn't it have been great if some of them actually became friends? Who knows. Maybe that did happen.

Isn't that awesome?

The Bible calls us to civility. Often this can be difficult when the two groups clash so bad that they are on polar opposite sides of an issue. It does help to acknowledge another person's feelings, however. Finding out their motives can be a huge part of reconciliation between two groups. They may not ever agree on the issues, but coming to the understanding that the true intent of their motives is for good is a huge step in the right direction. It can dissipate the negative impression(s) of the opposite side which can then make a more civil discourse possible.

The professor shared a great quote. Unfortunately, I only got part of it written down in my notes. Maybe someone reading this knows the author of it and can post the rest of it in the comment section. (Update: Thanks to Charlie at Another Think for helping me finish the quote and identify the author!)

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There is more I could share. We got on the topic of Muslims and terrorists and whether or not a civil dialogue could possibly happen between the terrorists and those that they perceive as "infidels" (meaning Americans in general, Christians and Jews in particular). After the session, I stayed with a few attendees and had a lively discussion about that. But I will post that at another time.

The best thing that I got out of this session is that when dealing with difficult conversations, it is good to try and tone down the rhetoric and bring up the civility. That sounds easy to say but, admittedly, can be difficult to do.

One last thing. Just before I left the session I asked Dr. Muehlhoff for the link to his blog. Guess what? He doesn't have one!! I was very surprised....but I guess I shouldn't be. He had his own live-and-in-person blog session right there in his own home now didn't he?

I learned a lot from that session and hope to be able to put a lot of it into practice.

More to come....


Charlie said...

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I'm glad you posted on this session, Christine, because it was one I had hoped to attend, but I went a different direction instead. Sounds like it was excellent.

One of my goals as a blogger is to be welcoming to non-Christians who visit my blog. I don't want to be known as a pit-bull. But that means I really need to let God guide my blogging and not let it be run by my emotions. It's so easy in this medium to dash off a quick comment without thinking about how it will be received on the other end.

Another Think

Christinewjc said...

Hi Charlie,

Thanks so much for stopping by, finishing that quote, and identifying the author for me! I will fix my blog post right away and mention that "Charlie from Another Think" helped me!

Your stated goal as a blogger was certainly well said. And I totally agree that we need to let God be our guide in blogging and not let it be run by our emotions. I have come to realize how often I have failed in the past to control my emotions. It is something that I will work on in my communication with others.

I have learned so much through the GodBlog Conference, yet, I know that I can learn so much more from the attendees who visit here and share their words of wisdom.

I have been visiting various "Godblogs" listed at the conference website and it has been very educational and quite rewarding.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here. You are always welcome and I look forward to visiting your blog too!

In Christ,

Susan Smith said...

Hi Charlie & Christine:

I am enjoying this post a great deal. I agree with you, Charlie. I do not want to be viewed as a pit-bull by non-Christians. "Christians" who want to argue and fight should re-evaluate their walk with the living God.

Christine said: "I have come to realize how often I have failed in the past to control my emotions." Your humility has often brought me back to your Grace-filled blog, Christine. Transparency is so valuable in the kingdom of God.

Thanks for sharing that Dr. Muehlhoff does NOT have a blog, Christine. I feel better now about not having one myself. The idea of having "live-and-in-person" blog sessions sounds exciting to me!

When we are right, we need no defense. When we are wrong, we have no defense. God bless you both with love from Jerusalem. (ss)