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Small Conversations

The web is a rough and tumble place. That’s an understatement. It is often vicious and dangerous. Last month, Jessica Bratt wrote “Of Popes and Trolls.” Although she knew better, she read the comments below an article about a child that Francis blessed during his trip to the US. Mean-spirited is too nice of word. Then there was a friend who had a significant piece published on the editorial page of a major newspaper. All the joy was sucked out when he too made the mistake of reading the comments. His rigorous inquiry only proved to that he was a “pinhead academician.” Readers of The Twelve may be the exception to this nastiness.

But another commonplace is that social media has led to balkanization, the end of the public square, talking only to like-minded people. Facebook’s algorithms know what we want to read and happily provide us with material that only confirms what we agree with.

I won’t even blame Facebook. Life is too short and joy too scarce to read the posts of aggravating people. I freely admit to avoiding contentious voices and blocking those whose posts irritate me. While it was long, long before social media, I’ve always loved the comment of the Manhattan socialite after Richard Nixon totally trounced George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. “Nixon can’t have won! I don’t know a single person who voted for him.”

But what if trust and the common landmarks found in friendship do not lead to boring homogeneity and lockstep conclusions? Maybe narrow conversations are often better conversations.

A statement attributed to one of the “young lions” of Calvin College, circa 1975, has stayed with me. One of those Calvin faculty who went on to teach at some really top-shelf institutions is reported to have said that many of the conversations he had while at Calvin—a place that some might describe as parochial, insular, homogeneous, and tribal (okay, chill out Calvin alums and staff, I’m not agreeing, just saying)—were richer and deeper, more stimulating and compelling than conversations he would later have with colleagues at highly esteemed institutions. He believed this was because there was an undeniable center, a field of reference, and common commitments in the conversations at Calvin. Meanwhile, it was hard even to know how to begin talking meaningfully at the elite schools. Assumptions, commitments, and language were all over the place.conversations 2

Recently, I had a good conversation on Facebook. Yes, on Facebook! Maybe not an epiphany, but the experience made me think about narrow conversations, even cozy conversations, where the aim is not to score points and humiliate your opponent. Three friends, (although I’ve never met one of them), in this case all ministers in the Reformed Church, all white, all male, all American, were mildly disagreeing, respectfully challenging, humbly and humorously listening and learning from each other.

lamar odomThe topic was Lamar Odom, the former professional basketball player who was recently found overdosed on cocaine in a Nevada brothel. The conversation is below. It isn’t cold fusion. But when it was over, I felt good, enlightened, affirmed, and closer to the other people. It felt like we all contributed, all were changed a little bit, and all changed the others a little bit. I wish for more small and good conversations.

#1: Really? Did I just hear an announcer on ESPN send out prayers to Lamar Odom, (and I quote) “a class, class guy.” I guess I don’t understand the definition of “class,” since Mr. Odom was taken to the hospital from a brothel…a place that objectifies women. I am completely dumbfounded.

#2: Perhaps the ESPN guys know Lamar Odom as a human being, beyond the parts the rest of us see on TV & in the tabloids. At any rate, I see people like sportswriters & sportscasters & Kobe & such treating a very sick & troubled human being with care and compassion. Meanwhile, the moralists treat a very sick & troubled human being with contempt & judgment.

#3: Might be a topic too complex for Facebook. I get that in the media it is easy to say everyone is “classy” and a “really good person” when we all know they aren’t. On the other hand, most followers of Jesus, including me, are more suited to be Pharisees. Maybe Odom is Matthew the tax-collector, the woman who puts the penny in the treasury, the Samaritan.

#1: Yes, I agree with you. But I think what I would have rather heard the sportscaster say is, “I love Lamar Odom. Lamar is my friend. He’s struggling. And I hope he finds a way to wholeness and health.” I’m not at all condemning Lamar Odom. I don’t believe anyone is beyond the purview of God’s grace…anyone. That said, when sportscasters make statements about one’s morality (i.e. “he’s a class guy”) to somehow refute the reality of the situation, it only highlights the disconnect between Lamar’s “classiness” and his brokenness. I’m also concerned for the young men who hear a broadcaster make such a statement. There is the potential for Lamar’s actions (i.e. the objectification of women) to be minimized in way that does not bring redemption to those victimized by his choices. Finally, I was cranky after the third straight Cubs’ loss and took it out on the poor sportscaster…and what’s worse…I posted my projection on Facebook. Obviously, my picture is not in the dictionary next to “class guy,” either. Lord, have mercy…

#3: As I recall, Jesus was snotty to the Syrophoenician woman, and he also cleansed the temple, right after a Cubs’ losing streak. Seriously, I hear you above. It reminds me of funerals where we all say, “He was so funny the way he spoke his mind,” when what we really mean is that he was often inexcusably rude and hurtful.

#2: You are good people, my friends. I wonder if the ESPN guys know Odom in a way that we do not, and see big picture, a “classy guy,” even if the brothel part is not something they would call classy. If they see more of the full human, maybe they see an athlete who has dealt with some extremely difficult life circumstances—the list of hardships is long—with grace. Maybe he’s a famous athlete who treats the equipment manager & security guys with dignity. Maybe he’s simply kind to reporters when so many other people are snotty and superior. I don’t know. I’m not happy with the brothel & drugs combo platter, but I’ve been next to a whole bunch of folk whose choices on one hand are not awesome in my book, but who become a whole other thing when I get to know them. I think everyone knows Odom’s exact circumstances are unpleasant. No one is saying, “Hey. I wanna be like Lamar.” What they may be saying is, “Here’s a human who is not just a brothel-going drug abuser. The guy we know is ‘classy.'”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Tony Vis says:

    Then there’s this. I once said to George McGovern, “I voted for you ’72.” And I did! He said, “If everyone who told me that really did, I’d have won!!”

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