Over the last three weeks, two interesting things have happened that provoked this post:
1) A new author asked me to address the issue of disagreements. Namely, what do you do when someone disagrees with what you’ve written.
2) I had a phone conversation with a well-known blogger who read a negative review of one of my books. Before the conversation, the blogger was almost certain that we bitterly disagreed about many things. After we talked, however, he realized that we didn’t disagree about anything we discussed. He also realized that the review had grossly misrepresented my book.
If you have ever had someone disagree with something you’ve said or written . . . or you’ve disagreed with what someone has ever said or written, then this post is for you.
Three things by way of introduction. When people disagree with you . . .
- Some will be charitable in their disagreement.
- Others will be defamatory.
- Sometimes many of the people who think they disagree with you really don’t. But because “Christians” often fail to do that which Jesus taught — which is to go straight to the person with whom you THINK you disagree and ASK them questions –misrepresentations abound (Matthew 7:12).
To be sure, there are genuine disagreements. And we should welcome them. It’s one way to fine-tune our thinking.
None of us can claim immaculate perception.
But in all the years that I’ve been writing books, blogging, and speaking, I’ve discovered that after having a respectful conversation with a reasonable person, we often learn that there is no substantive disagreement.
In my experience at least, this happens approximately 75% of the time.
That said, here are 4 reasons why a person may think they disagree with you when they really don’t. Note that I’m using the word “author” here to refer to the human source of any piece of writing or speech.
1) The author wasn’t clear in making her or his point, so his or her points were misunderstood. When it comes to articulating our thoughts, we all have room for improvement. For myself, I’m constantly honing my writing, restating things, rewording sentences, nuancing ideas, and reworking my material to be as clear as possible. Yet I’m rarely satisfied with what I’ve written. Winston Churchill perfectly describes my experience when he said,
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.
Sometimes, our words lend themselves to misunderstanding. In such cases, there is no substantive disagreement, just a misunderstanding.
Takeaway: Ask the author for clarification if you think you may be misunderstanding him or her.
2) The author’s statements have been taken out of context and misrepresented, then spread. This happens more than you know. My friends Christian Smith, N.T. Wright, Leonard Sweet, and Alan Hirsch have had to deal with it in spades.
The little red book that I wrote with George Barna is reported to be “the most reviewed book by those who’ve never read it.” The misrepresentations surrounding that book are so outlandish that they make Mr. Spock blush (and he’s seen everything in the universe). This provoked us to create a special Q & A page for readers where we respond to objections and critiques. Potential readers can clearly see what we say in the book and what we don’t say.
Unfortunately, some people will intentionally misrepresent another person’s words. One sure sign of this is when a person criticizes a work, but they won’t post a clickable link [hyperlink] to the source they are criticizing. This is done so that those reading the critique cannot easily check to see if the critique is accurate or not. (This is especially true for online blogs, audios, and articles.)
Takeaway: If someone critiques a piece of writing or talk, be sure to read or listen to the source of the critique yourself. This way you will know if the critique is accurate or not. Never believe a negative critique without first reading the actual source that’s being critiqued. Even if there are direct quotations in the critique, that doesn’t make it accurate. Quotations are like sound bytes that can be easily taken out of context. People do this when misrepresenting the Bible all the time.
3) The author’s statements are filtered through the reader’s experience. Sometimes people read their own experiences and assumptions into what they read and hear. The net effect is that the intended meaning the author had in mind is changed.
Take the word “prophetic,” for instance. Some people understand that word to mean God directly gives an individual His exact words. Others understand it to mean a challenging word in the style of the Old Testament prophets. Others view it as a word that reveals Jesus Christ. Others understand it to be a word that predicts the future.
See what I mean? Words like “organic,” “missional,” and “church” are routinely used to mean very different things by many different people.
Takeaway: Find out what an author means by a certain word before drawing a conclusion.
4) The author’s statements are misunderstood due to a differing spiritual conversational style. In Revise Us Again, I introduce readers to the three main spiritual conversational styles. Ever try talking spirituality or theology with another Christian who uses a different spiritual conversational style than you? The result: popcorn. People think they disagree when they really don’t. Your discussion was shanghaied by a differing conversation style.
Takeaway: Recognize that your disagreement may be rooted in a differing conversational style.
A Word to Readers
If you read a critique that disturbs or concerns you, always, always, always go directly to the source that’s being critiqued. Read the original work yourself. And if necessary, ask the author directly what she or he believes.
A Word to Writers
If you are a writer who is turning the sod on an issue, you and your work will be misrepresented at some point.
How you react, however, reveals volumes about your spiritual stature.
I’ve watched too many authors and bloggers return fire on those who attack them or misrepresent their work. This is the way of the flesh and shows nothing of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Trust the Lord with the matter. In most cases, those who are discerning will go to bat for you and defend your work. You don’t have to defend yourself. Let God do the defending.
Taking the high road, the road of our Lord Jesus, often means remaining silent when under attack.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23).
In addition, as a writer, you should make yourself accessible to your readers. Even if it’s through a personal assistant.
Inaccessibility is the outstanding trait of the celebrity. Try writing to Kim Kardashian or Justin Beiber and getting a response. The same holds true for some Christian authors today. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (to quote Seinfeld) . . . if being a celebrity is the way you want to roll.
But in my judgment, for a Christian leader, you should be accessible to answer questions about your work from people who are open minded, think the best of you, and genuinely want to understand what you’re saying. Not just for their sake, but also for your own. (Trolls are the exception, of course. Never feed them.)