Poor little talkative Christianity

As part of my Summer reading I took away a little book called “Quiet”. It`s a bit of a bestseller at the moment and essentially it`s an examination of the differences between what we call Extroverts and Introverts.

The author`s point is that we appear to have reached a time in which to be an extrovert is to be thought superior, the norm, and somehow better adjusted. And in a gentle way the author sets about de-bunking some of these assumptions and helping those of us of a quieter disposition to feel a bit more confident in ourselves.

Now, I could go on because it`s a very good read but I was particularly struck by a short extract in which the author visited what`s known as `Saddleback` Church in the United States. This is what`s known as a mega-church with often twenty-two thousand people through the doors each week. And in this section she interviews a man who even as one of its leaders, was really struggling there.

Putting it simply, he was struggling to play the extrovert game. He had discovered that amidst this cult of personality (they have a charismatic and nationally known leader); surrounded by exuberance and an insistence on participation and activism he actually preferred something quieter and more reflective. And this left him feeling a bit alienated and what`s more a little bit guilty. Immersed, as I say, in a culture of what someone called `compulsory joy` this man was struggling because all of this extroversion and general back-slapping had become so dominant that it was the prime virtue of the church. His point was that sadly, this was how you had to be if you were going to fit in. And more insidiously, being sociable was treated as a sign of godliness- of being a better Christian.

And so what he wanted was for this gathering of Christians to see things from his point of view. He wanted them to appreciate for instance, that evangelism involves listening as much as talking. He wanted them to recognise that there should be an equal and honoured place among the people of God for those who desire quiet and solitude. He wanted acceptance for those whom God has created sensitive and reflective. But he found himself very much going against the grain. Now, this is an extreme example I would like to think but I wonder if you can recognise the signs?

I heard recently of a man who went on a short silent Retreat. After the first evening he went to the retreat leader to announce that he would have to go home. When asked why, he said, `it`s far too silent here`. The point is the man simply couldn`t cope- and `besides`, he said, `there aren`t any discussion groups`.

Now, splitting off into discussion groups may be your thing but it`s some peoples` vision of hell. And I think this man`s reaction -when faced with silence -is this just another example of how we`ve become accustomed to the noise. It`s in-grained. It`s become part of us. I wonder how you feel about this? And I wonder what we`re really frightened of?

You see, this is my first point. I think it concerns me that we seem to have lost touch with the deep wells of quiet which are very much part of our heritage. Of course, it`s been going on for generations. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch talks of the Reformation as a time when we `destroyed the institutions which had cherished contemplation`. He`s talking about the monasteries of course but we`ve ended up, he says, with what he calls the `Word centred noisiness of Evangelical Protestantism`. It`s what the writer E.M. Forster once referred to as `poor talkative Christianity`.

But secondly, the sense that we are on the `back foot` in contemporary culture has led many to believe that if we`re going to compete then we have to, as it were `out do` the world in our entertainment value. So what happens is that the `vision` of church which is held out to us: the mark of `success` (there`s a loaded word) of the average parish church is that we should be `lively, filled with all manner of activity and busyness.` But I just wonder, IS that what it`s all about? Is becoming the mega-sized Saddleback Church- God bless them- really what we`re aiming at?

I just wonder whether we can`t be a little more, as they say `counter-cultural`. I mean firstly, not everyone wants to belong to a place filled with back-slapping `compulsory joy` That`s a temperamental thing and I`ll come back to that in a moment. But, for example, a case in point is our attitude to children. The default setting is that in order to engage them everything has to be lively, entertaining and all the rest. In some contexts that`s true but I wonder if we aren`t missing a trick and simply going along with a culture which is already saturated with noise. I mean can we not teach the children and indeed ourselves the real value of silence? Can we not go against the grain?

I was listening to a professional story teller some while ago. He said his experience was that children simply loved stories and that he was making a good living and had a full diary- because children didn`t hear them anymore– they were in front screens all day. I think we can learn from this.

But the third thing I would invite us to ponder is a caution against confusing `character` with `spirituality`. Part of the problem that man from Saddleback faced was the danger of making the judgement that a particular form of outward devotion to God is somehow less worthy because, in his case he wasn`t thought exuberant enough.

Let me give you another example. I think it was during the nineteen seventies that it became fashionable to regard what`s called `sharing` as one of the great virtues in Christian circles. Now what`s meant by that is that we were encouraged to believe that feelings, emotions and even the inner stirrings of the soul had to be shared with others. And in some places this is what you had to do to appear authentically Christian. And anyone who resisted this `heart on the sleeve` Christianity; anyone who temperamentally preferred to keep to themselves was thought to be stand-off-ish, inhibited or odd.

Now, when you stop to think about it this has actually has got nothing to do with faith. It`s about character. It`s about exalting a certain extroversion over a quieter personality and making some wholly inappropriate judgements. Indeed the writer Henri Nouwen asks whether there isn`t a certain `compulsion` behind all of this sharing. It`s a denial of how God has made us; with our unique gifts and traits. And surely, we ask, it isn`t a crime to keep ones counsel- in the way that Christ does in the Gospels (John 2.25).

Time and again I have found myself trying to help people deal with this. They`re good hearted folk who live with a constant and underlying level dissatisfaction with themselves and a sense that they can`t be a proper Christian because they`re not like the next person. And `the next person` so often means that back-slapping, out-going terribly competent one… doesn`t it? The one who insists that any `normal` Christian HAS to be able to pray out loud in public….. well, No. This is what happens when you confuse character with spirituality.

Yes, we are all different. Joy and exuberance do indeed have their place. But I think of the warning given by a fifth century saint who said: “When the door of the steam bath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it. Likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech” (Diadochus of Photiki).

My own temperament makes me biased but I think I am tired of the way so many of our brothers and sisters make this mistake of confusing character and spirituality and pass judgement accordingly. And I am getting weary of this, for want of a better phrase `success driven` image of the church which leaves no space for quiet and our Lord who talks of his Kingdom growing as a seed, imperceptibly and beyond our manipulation. Surely we have to challenge this notion of the monochrome church filled with `compulsory joy` and set our sights on a rather different goal; one in which ALL characters and shades of spirituality are fully represented.

St. Paul said that we should aim for what he called `maturity in Christ` (Col 1.28) And in the end what mattered was what he called the `Fruit of the Spirit`- the outworking of God in our lives. But interestingly the fruits he refers to are by no means characteristics of the extrovert: `Love, joy – fair enough. But these are paired with peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control? So, I wonder what your experience is? How does your character and personality help or hinder your praying; your relating to the Father? What part does silence and reflection play in that?

And I wonder what might it be like for you. What might you discover by sitting for a short while with some words from one of the Psalms: `Be still and know that I am God`?

Quiet. Susan Cain Penguin 2012

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