Communication is not as easy as it seems. We each speak, write and interpret words based on our experience, education, opinions, and temperament. Without understanding the individual who is communicating or the context from which the message arises, the possibilities for miscommunication are immense.
NPR and Facebook recently provided evidence for such misperceptions.
NPR tweeted the Declaration of Independence in 140 character segments on July 4th, and the tweet-storm that arose qualifies as exhibit A.
Facebook can take credit for exhibit B, as it flagged a segment of the Declaration of Independence as hate speech when a Texas newspaper broke the document into twelve sections and posted them on its Facebook page. Facebook has apologized.
Today’s twitter universe has indoctrinated us to believe that complete thoughts and complex messages can be communicated in 140 characters. Sometimes that is possible. Most of the time it’s not.
NPR and Facebook have taught us that it’s important to understand the author and the context of any message.
Know the author
NPR’s tweets of the Declaration of Independence were not written by anyone at NPR, but many of those who responded thought they were. Those who reacted negatively thought that NPR was promoting a political agenda, and they didn’t agree. When it became clear that Thomas Jefferson wrote it, then it was no longer objectionable.
It is more important than ever to understand who wrote what we’re reading.
This takes time. If I read something provocative from someone about whom I know nothing, I do a little research before I react.
On the other hand, when I read a post from a friend on Facebook, I know the writer. I know something about their views, what they usually write about, and how they communicate. This is all helps to understand the message.
Know the context
Facebook objected to this paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as hate speech:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
It is not appropriate, in 21st century America, to write of “Indian Savages,” but this was written in the 18th century. The context of this document was a culture that had not yet realized that racism and bigotry are wrong.
Know the Author and Context of the Bible
It may seem a stretch to connect NPR and Facebook to the Bible, but in terms of understanding communication, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
The Bible is God’s communication to humanity, covering events that took place over 2000 years, in 66 books, written in three different languages, and by about 40 authors, some unidentified. It is fascinating, difficult, infinitely applicable, and ultimately true. Our eternal lives and our lives on this earth depend on accurately understanding what God has to say to us. We don’t want to miss the message.
The author of the Bible is God himself, and he is also the main character. He empowered human authors, each with their own style and personality, to write what the Holy Spirit wanted to communicate. The Bible is one long narrative climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The risen Jesus once walked with two men along the road to Emmaus, and these men were trying to make sense out of what had happened in Jerusalem. They explained their confusion to Jesus, and Jesus replied:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:25-27
They were walking with Jesus, and they didn’t recognize him. It’s not clear if Jesus’ resurrected body was different enough that this would have been understandable. It could also be that these men were so influenced by their experiences, education in Jewish teaching, which misunderstood the Messiah, that they just couldn’t see Jesus. Thankfully, Jesus cleared things up.
Without knowledge of God the Bible will be a confusing jumble of information. As you get to know Jesus, however, things will come into focus.
It is also helpful to understand a little bit about the human authors, at least as much as is available, but without knowing Jesus the Bible will never make much sense.
This is more difficult. How can we understand a Middle Eastern culture that existed two or three thousand years ago? It is a challenge. The important thing to remember is that the Bible was written in very different times, places, and cultures from ours.
Admittedly, there is bizarre and confusing stuff in the Bible. For example, I just read the strange stories in the book of Judges, but I have learned that the intention of the book of Judges is to show what happens to Israel when they disregard God and his law. It gets increasingly nasty and is summarized by the last sentence of the book: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” By the end of Judges it’s clear that there must be a better way.
Without understanding the overall context of the Old Testament and where Judges fits into it, the book would be problematic.
The Bible generates plenty of interpretive arguments, but the overarching story is what is most important. God created a very good world, and humans messed it up. When sin entered the world, God planned to send his Son, Jesus, to take the penalty of all that sin on himself and offer eternal life to repentant sinners.
One of the most well known Bible verses is John 3:16, and it’s hard to miss the meaning. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That is a great place to begin.
Have you experienced miscommunication because you either didn’t know the author or the context of a message?