I used to enjoy watching those political debate shows on television. You know the kind; the ones where they line up people on the right and the left (literally and politically), and they proceed to yell at, through, and around each other. For some reason, I used to enjoy that kind of stuff.
Not so much, anymore. Perhaps because I’m getting older. Perhaps because I’m less strident than I used to be. Perhaps because I have experienced enough angry people in real life that I’d rather not sit and watch them on TV, too.
But this week, I found another reason why I no longer enjoy people getting whipped up into a righteous lather: because it doesn’t work. Rare is the person who changes a position on something by being tongue-lashed into it.
I was reminded of this truth by a helpful new book: How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a Christian intellectual (and yes, those 2 words can go together, despite what some intellectuals think, and despite what some Christians think). Jacobs challenges us to actually stop and think about thinking; because, in fact, often that’s not what we do. Often, when we hear something we disagree with: we react; we assume; we pigeon-hole; we rely on categories and catchwords. In short, we do anything but think. Therefore, debates, whether they are on television or simply happen in the classroom or the cubicle, are often about anything but thinking; they are about winning.
In this vein, Jacobs describes how debates happen in the Political Union, a debating society at Yale University. There, the goal is to win, yes; but not by “scoring points.” Instead, the goal is to win someone over to your position. But that’s only one of the goals. There’s a second one: to be won over. That’s right: a debate where you win when you win, but where you also win when you lose.
The first win is described as “breaking someone on the floor” – where you change someone’s mind in the middle of the debate, right there in front of everyone. But the second win also involves a change of mind — yours. This is called “being broken on the floor” — where you are the one who changes your mind, out in the open, for everyone to see.
When members of the Yale Political Union are interviewed as potential society leaders, they are expected to have experience with both kinds of “wins” – changing someone’s mind, and changing their own. For, as a member of the YPU points out: Who, exactly, has perfect political and ethical ideas? Who among us, whatever age or education, knows everything about everything? In other words, why, when faced with truth, should we, unthinkingly, continue to hold onto error?
All of this came to mind today after I happened to watch the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It’s well worth watching, though it deals with some heavy stuff. (In fact, just a heads-up: if you watch this movie, it will wreck you. At least it did me.)
The movie tells the story of two boys in World War 2 who happen to be on opposite sides of the fence. Literally. Bruno’s father is the commandant of a concentration camp. Shmuel is a boy on the other side of the wire; a Jewish prisoner in that camp. As the movie unfolds, Bruno and his family slowly learn what the camp is all about. Told that Jews are the enemy and that the camp is a legitimate part of the war effort, Bruno has to learn to face the truth as it comes at him in real and personal ways.
In other words, Bruno has to learn how to think. Not take what he’s heard; not simply swallow what he’s told. Bruno grows up as he learns to face what is — and think about what it all means.
Bruno’s naivete and innocence isn’t surprising; after all, he’s only 8. The same can’t be said for the German Church during the same period. History has documented for us how timid and unthinking the Church was in the face of Hitler’s rise. According to James & Marti Hefley, as Hitler’s Nazi Party rode roughshod over his parliamentary opposition, a group of German Christian leaders proclaimed, “We German Protestant Christians accept the saving of our nation by our leader Adolf Hitler as a gift from God’s hand.” They affirmed “unanimously our unlimited fealty to the Third Reich and its leader.” By 1936, even leaders of the “Confessing Church” (congregations who saw some of the wrongs being done) did not protest the requirement that German citizens take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and nothing was said about the increased discrimination against the Jews.
In other words, not thinking is dangerous. Only watching our favorite network is not thinking. Only listening to those we agree with is not thinking. Accepting the party line of our favorite politician or political party is not thinking. Accepting the spin by our favorite commentator, or even our favorite TV preacher, is not thinking.
In fact, I think that those who believe in truth — Big Picture Truth, what we might call “capital-T Truth” — should be the last ones to swallow the lines we are handed by those who have microphones, and instead should be the first to ask: But is that True?
We should do the hard work of listening and learning — as we seek out the Truth that is real, lasting, and available for all of us who are willing to really think about Truth.
Because here’s the thing: Truth never justs stays in your head. It gets lived out. Truth never just shapes how you think; it also changes how you live.
So, how are you living? It’s probably in direct relationship to how you’re thinking.