real conversation

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a Cornerstone class that is role playing its way through Don’t Stop Believing.  Four people address the topic of each chapter, with two representing a modern conservative viewpoint and two arguing for a postmodern innovator perspective.  They looked like they were having fun, and it was a special treat for me to see the book come alive in this way.

During my part of the class, I mentioned something that we have discussed on this blog—that a genuine conversation requires that both parties openly and honestly declare what they believe, and then agree to respectfully talk about it.  If this is true, then it is impossible to value conversation more than finding the truth (as some Emergents say), for a genuine dialogue assumes that both sides are committed to discovering and sharing the truth. 

One student raised a good question.  He said that he has had teachers in the past who intentionally refused to tell him what they believed about a specific subject so that he would have to study the issue for himself.  To this day he does not know what they believe about the subject, and so his view remains unhampered by their biases.

We thought together out loud in a couple of back and forth responses (a genuine dialogue), and then came to the conclusion that while his mentors may have been using a good teaching technique (up to a point, depending on the importance of the subject in question), they had not yet engaged him in genuine conversation.  They were treating him as an unequal partner, as someone who was unable to handle the burden of knowing their views.

After a day of reflecting on the student’s question and my response, here is my initial conclusion and application. 

Conclusion:  real conversation among peers requires that both sides respect the other enough to openly and honestly express their views. 

Application:  to the extent that speakers or writers intentionally obscure their beliefs, to that extent they are not respecting their audience enough to enter into a genuine dialogue, regardless of how many times they use the term “conversation.”  If you read a book and, through no fault of your own, cannot tell what the author believes about his subject, you can be sure that the author has been talking down to you rather than with you.







11 responses to “real conversation”

  1. Does this just apply to peers, or are you suggesting that professors always need full disclosure? (Don’t forget, some profs at Christian institutions CAN’T reveal their own beliefs on creation, eschatology, etc., or they’ll be disciplined. Just as some Christians teaching in the sciences at secular institutions will be disciplined for revealing their own convictions).

    I had an experience with a prof at Cornerstone (grandfathered in from GRSBM). Amazing guy, loved his style of teaching, but he pulled one of those, “I’ll tell you what I believe as you walk across the platform and get your diploma” things. This was two and a half years before I graduated, but I wrote it down in my Palm Pilot to drop the guy a line and hear what he thought was the provisional controlling theme of the Bible. I could tell that I was the first student to ever actually come to him after graduation and ask for the promised information. His answer was ill-thought-out and obviously constructed on the spot. I think he was using the, “you wrestle with it; that’s what’s best for you” technique because he didn’t know quite what he believed. I have done that myself on several occasions, hoping to buy some time to study further. It’s probably not the most honest way to go.

  2. I think this shows our society’s tendency to react and go to extremes rather than act and be balanced. Certainly there are people who just accept what they hear their professors say, but to say that is how it is because they share their opinions and beliefs is not correct.
    Also, his belief that he wasn’t influenced by their bias is a logical fallacy. What they believe has to have come out in their teaching. What should scare him a little is the fact that their bias has touched him and he doesn’t even know what their bias is.

  3. Joe’s comment (2:04pm) is posted. Mine (12:31pm) is awaiting moderation. Do you have me on some special list where only I am moderated? Did you see my “racy” new graphic and decide my comments are suspect?

  4. jlemke

    Agree that conversation should try to uncover truth. Too often, after listening to a speaker or talking with someone about a book we both had read, the other person will say: “Well, they’re asking the right questions.” I like people asking the right questions, but I like it even more when we try to get to right answers. Postmoderns may now commence firing…

  5. Yooper

    “…If you read a book and, through no fault of your own, cannot tell what the author believes about his subject…”

    Sounds like a waste of time to me.

    The role play at Cornerstone using DSB sounds like a great way to communicate its truths. Are any hidden talents becoming apparent? Look out Steven Spielberg.

  6. mikewittmer


    I think that you bring up a significant issue that would qualify the situation. I would say that whatever the reason that prevents a person from sharing their true beliefs, whether that be to preserve their job or to not offend a weaker brother or sister, does prevent that person from entering into a full blooded conversation with the other. For example, consider the stilted dialogue you would have with a legalistic Christian who thinks that cigars are worldly. If you choose not to offend him, then you will refrain from having a genuinely open conversation with him.

    For a similar reason, I cannot divulge why Joe’s comment was posted before yours. I would prefer to talk down to you on that particular issue.

  7. Brian McLaughlin

    Let me be postmodern and say that “it depends upon context.” Aren’t there times, to help teach critical thinking skills, to challenge them to move forward on their own without direction from a teacher? In other words, there may be appropriate times to not share a view.

    I think about my experience at Calvin. It was obvious from the context that they didn’t accept all of my baptistic views, but several of my professors were very helpful in critiquing my scholarship and research, not my actual views. In other words, they didn’t challenge the theology of my paper on how the Belgic Confession treats the Anabaptists, but they did challenge my research. Wasn’t that their role in a ThM/PhD situation? Or is this a bad example because their views are so well known…

  8. mikewittmer


    I think that you and I are making the same point. Your professors were “in dialogue” with you about your research skills rather than about your Baptist beliefs, and in that scenario it was perfectly acceptable to not share their Reformed perspective, because it wasn’t directly relevant to what you were doing.

    My original post said that teachers will rightly withhold their views on a topic, say women in ministry, in order to not bias the student who is researching the topic. That is an entirely appropriate teaching technique, but it also means that the teacher and student have not yet entered into a full and open dialogue on the topic.

  9. lizjean31

    Hey there, my name is Liz and I was in that class. I read this and just had to say a couple things…

    #1 this is semi-irrelevant, but just in case you’d like to know. the group that you saw when you came to class was the only group that did role-playing – others groups could choose other ways of presenting. like for my group, we just did some class discussion and then set up a debate between PM and conservative sides by dividing the classroom in half. it was a lot of fun. great book by the way.

    #2 i don’t know if anyone had given any thought to this.. but being a bit of a prepositionalist myself, have you thought about what people think when you say “making their beliefs known”? it seems to me that there are two ways someone could take that.

    the first is the prof who teaches the doctrine that he believes and semi-preaches it as the only truth. or they might give other options too, but they make it clear that their opinion is more credible and all around better. in fact, if you think something else, you are probably a fool. in this case, even though the person is disclosing their beliefs to you, it still seems like you aren’t really on the same level or having a genuine conversation.

    the second would be the prof that actually teaches you things (i.e. historically held beliefs, the beliefs of many different denominations, etc etc). weaved into this, or possibly at the end of the discussion on the topic, the professor humbly explains to the class what they believe and why. they don’t disrespect their students if they have different beliefs and they don’t hop up on their soapbox. does that make sense?

    i have had or heard of profs on both ends of the extreme – both my first example where all you hear is opinion and also profs who’s classes feel like you are basically teaching yourself because they aren’t giving their opinion and instead only “facilitating” discussion (i mean, aren’t i paying you for something!?).

    anyway.. this ended up being really long – but basically you might just want to think about what pictures are coming to people’s minds when you discuss this topic.

    thanks for coming to our class.. i hope you stick around your blog if you don’t mind.

  10. lizjean31

    i hope *to* stick around your blog…

  11. mikewittmer

    Thanks, Liz. I agree with you that there are two ends of the continuum that we need to avoid, and it’s not always easy to balance giving content and leading discussion. And I’d bet all of Pastor Zac’s cigars that the perception varies among students in the same class. The same prof in the same class may be perceived by some as too arrogant/directive/lecturish and by others as not strong enough in those areas. I can easily think of examples who fall into either extreme, but then am humbled to think that some may think that I am one or the other.

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