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A failure to communicate — words and meaning

11 September 2010

Over the last 20 years the Internet has made it possible to communicate more easily with more and more people in more and more places, but in some ways it has made us more, rather than less aware of the barriers to crosscultural communication.

We sometimes use the same words, but there are a whole lot of unspoken assumptions behind the meanings of those words that does not get communicated.

The word I have in mind at the moment is the American word “program”,[1] and the assumptions behind it that somehow do not seem to be communicated. This became apparent to me recently in a comment on a blog post: Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology | Koinonia:

Massive programs, no matter how well intentioned, outside that life will fail and fail with even more damage being done to our own souls and the creation we are supposed to bring to fruition for God.

On that blog there was a conversation between Orthodox Christians, one a South African living in Europe, and the others in the USA. One would think that there would be enough common assumptions in Orthodoxy for there to be mutual understanding, but that comment (by Michael Bauman) shows that there wasn’t.

I wrote a comment in response to that, but it did not appear on the blog, either because of technical glitches, or because the blog owner censored it, and trying to communicate with the blog owner (Fr Gregory Jensen) by e-mail also proved to be a frustrating experience — there were too many hoops to jump through, and after three attempts in which my message was deleted and told to try again, I decided to blog about it instead.

My comment was:

Massive programs, no matter how well intentioned, outside that life will fail and fail with even more damage being done to our own souls and the creation we are supposed to bring to fruition for God.”

That seems to be at the core of the failure in communication, and it seems to be a huge cultural difference.

I can’t see anything that Macrina has said that suggests that she believes that “massive programs” will solve our spiritual, economic or political problems. But Americans seem compelled to tell us, in season and out of season, that they won’t. That indicates to me that they are not hearing what we are saying, and so there is little or no communication. “Massive programs” are pretty far from my thoughts, and I think they are pretty far from Macrina’s thoughts, so why mention them?

Macrina wrote in her blog Challenging ideological capitalism | A vow of conversation

it would be it would be most worth your while to read Aaron Taylor’s Beware of earthly treasures in the Guardian. I had no idea that Aaron wrote for the Guardian (at least I’m assuming it’s the same Aaron?) until a post by Deacon Stephen, whose Mere ideology: the politicisation of C.S. Lewis is also worth reading, made me aware of it. Having recently had an interaction on similar matters at Koinonia, which I must confess left me feeling rather disorientated and feeling that people are just coming from very different worlds, I am rather pleased to see Orthodox Christians challenging such ideologies.

And my question is, why does there seem to be this American obsession with “programs”?

Why do people like Michael Bauman seem to assume that anyone who questions a secular ideology must be advocating “massive programs”?

If this was an isolated instance, I wouldn’t bother writing about it here, but it comes up again and again, this American obsession with “programs”.

I’ve seen it in the “emerging church” conversation. A lot of people in the “emerging church” movement think there is more to church than “programs”. So they are clearly reacting against something that is pretty big.

An interesting thing there, however, is that Macrina quotes one of my recent blog posts, in which I included an extensive quote from an American book that denounced “programs”. I quoted it because I found mself largely in agreement with it. It comes from a book called Up to our steeples in politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway. Part of what I quoted is:

But we in the Church persist: we are still hopeful that through all these means we can build a kingdom in which all things will be set right between man and man (and occasionally between man and God), refusing to recognize that these means are an attempt to build a kingdom by our guidelines and blueprints, by our sociology and politics, not by what God’s reconciliation has already done for the world in Christ. In this book we are trying to confess that the goals of the contemporary Church – that is to say, the Church of St John’s by the Gas Station, the Christian College, the denominational and interdenominational seminary – the goals of these Christian communities are blasphemous. The reconciliation the Church is seeking to accomplish today by these subterfuges has already been wrought. The brotherhood – the “one blood” of Acts 17, 26 – that the Church makes its goal today is already a fact. And because this is so, that very fact judges our goals and our efforts to achieve brotherhood by social action as blasphemous, as trying to be God.

And you can read the rest at the post cited by Macrina: Notes from underground: Mere Ideology: The politicisation of C.S. Lewis.

That book, Up to our steeples in politics came to me in a special way.

It was 1972. In March 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and in July 1972 I was banned, and in the intervening four months I travelled around South Africa trying to promote the idea of Theological Education by Extension (TEE). I was visiting Cape Town, where I met some friends from Namibia, and then got ill with a bad dose of flu. Theo Kotze, a Methodist minister and then the director of the Cape Town office of the Christian Institute, took me in, and his wife Helen nursed me and I anjoyed their hospitality until I was well enough to go on my way. Theo, who was later banned himself (as was the whole Christian Institute) lent me a copy of Up to our steeples in politics, and said, “If you want something really radical, if you want a real revolution, read this. It’s far more radical than anything the church has done, and compared with this, we are just playing games.”

And it was, too.

The churches denounced apartheid as a heresy and a false gospel, and opposed this and that piece of govenrment legislation. And this book said, in effect, that the church should not do anything about it, but it should rather just be. I read a few chapters, but did not finish it, and when I got to Natal, I looked for it in bookshops, but could not find it. Eventually, in 1976, I ordered it from overseas, but it never reached me, because there was a fire in the mail ship. Many years later I saw a copy in a bookshop and bought it.

But even though I didn’t have a copy, the first couple of chapters stuck in my mind. Programmes are blaspemous. Don’t do, be. And, as Theo Kotze said, if the church leaders followed that, they would all be in jail within a couple of months. But they preferred programmes.

At that time the World Council of Churches had a Programme to Combat Racism, and, without consulting their South African member churches, they made donations to South African liberation movements, which put the South African church leaders’ noses out of joint, in addition to which the South African church leaders were faced by a demand from the government that they leave the WCC.

I was an Anglican in those days, and the Anglican Church, realising the urgency of the situation, came up with — a programme. They called it the Human Relations and Reconciliation Programme, or HR&R for short. Most of the other South African member curches of the WCC came up with similar programmes, though they called them by different names.

The South African Council of Churches asked the Anglicans to hold back, until they had developed an ecumenical programme, but the Anglicans said, in effect, “We can’t wait for you. In any case, you shouldn’t be initiating these things, but should simply be coordinating what your member churches are doing.”

In July 1972 I was banned, so I couldn’t be involved in these things.

By then the Anglican HR&R programme had set up “challenge groups” to challenge instances of racism in the church, and one of the “challenge groups” sort of adopted me as a pet project. I soon discovered, however, that they were remarkably resistant to challenges to institutional racism in the structures of the church (segregated white and black parishes in the same geographical area, for example). They challenged racism within the segregated parishes, but did not want to remove the segregation. People “wouldn’t be ready for it”. So yes, they would have programmes to educate people about racism, and there would be a lot of doing — courses designed, leaflets printed, multimedia shows commissioned. As Campbell and Holloway put it

In our day, we in the Church have tried to do God’s job, while at the same time rejecting the only job God puts before us. We have tried to reconcile people and groups of people by using every gimmick and technique that culture uses to sell its automobiles, deodorants, civil repression and international warfare. We have tried surveys, group dynamics, T-groups, political activism, sociological and psychological processing, and all the well-known foolishness of church socials, retreats, picnics, bowling alleys, swimming pools, skating rinks, gymnasiums, counselling centers, marriage-and-the-family instruction, relevant ministries and updated theological schools – all pleasant, on occasion even controversial, but having nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the mission of Christians as ambassadors of, witnesses to, what God has done for all men in Christ.

And the programmes cooked up by HR&R were indeed “all pleasant, on occasion even controversial, but having nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the mission of Christians as ambassadors of, witnesses to, what God has done for all men in Christ.”

So programmes (or “programs” if you like), I thought I knew what they were, and what they weren’t and what their shortcomings are. So why do so many Americans assume that one is advocating “massive programs” when one criticises the secular ideologies that they seem so wedded to? What is the cultural barrier to understanding? Why this obsession with “programs”?

[1] In South Africa, and I think in other parts of the English-speaking world, the spelling “program” is confined to a set of instructions given to a computer, and for all other uses, the spelling “programme” is used, and I use that in this post, except where I am quoting from American sources. So the American equivalent of the South African word “program” is “software program”. In South African English “program” means “software program”; there is no other kind. For all other uses, we use the spelling “programme” — TV and radio programmes, programmes for conferences, sports events etc.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 September 2010 1:04 pm

    As far as I understand it, which probably isn’t very far, what these American ideological capitalists are objecting to is the idea of any state involvement in the economy. When they speak about “programs” I suspect that they are referring to things like Obama’s health care reform and suchlike, and object to it because it involves government spending and “big government”. (Strangely, they don’t seem to have a problem with government providing a big military). But they somehow fail to see the need for checks on big business – which of course is tied into where they are coming from and the interests they are propogating.

  2. 11 September 2010 8:08 pm

    The typical US leadership model (transforming leadership) states that influence stands on (inter alia) strategy, and strategy means an effective programme.

    “Being” is not necessarily a good thing either. In the US context, it often implies an aggression which may be referred to as “obedience”.

    • 12 September 2010 4:18 am

      It’s even worse than I thought 😦

      I don’t think I understood any of that.


  1. What’s that you were saying? « Khanya

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