It’s no secret to friends and regular readers that I don’t shy away from controversial topics. But talking about touchy subjects is a delicate matter, which I’ve learned primarily by bulldozing through and being blasted for it. Over and over.

The hardest thing for me to overcome is my love of shock-value. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had this idea that shock changes people’s minds. It seems like a great short-cut compared to the time it takes to reason and discuss and think and process and eventually change. What could be better than to just give people a little (or big) zap? *Presto* they’re on my side!

The problem is that while shock is an excellent attention-getter (Mark Driscoll is a master of this), it rarely causes people to change how they think about things. In fact, it often does just the opposite. And, as Driscoll illustrates nicely, it also gives ample fodder to your critics because shock is often misunderstood and offensive.

doll in the grip of a jumper cableComing on strong triggers people’s defenses. At least, it does mine. When I feel attacked, my knee-jerk reaction is to throw up barriers and shields, back away, and strike back. The last thing I want to do is listen.

While in the shower today (does anyone else do their best thinking in the shower?), I tried to think of an issue in which I’ve changed my mind because someone shocked me. I couldn’t. It may have gotten me to think about something again, but only when I sensed no trace of condescension. As soon as I detect someone patting me on the head and talking down to me, I check out.

Several weeks ago, I asked if male-led churches have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their zeal to avoid the appearance of having women in authority. It was a follow-up to an earlier post critiquing Together for the Gospel, which raised the hackles of many of my friends. I knew I hadn’t hit the tone right, so I asked my husband to help me. I thought we went way overboard with the conciliatory tone. It didn’t have near the edge I wanted it to, but I decided to try it and see what happened.

It went over so well that people actually asked if I’d gone soft. Not quite the response I was expecting, and can we focus on the topic please?

But then, not two days later, I found myself on the other side. I attended a class in which we discussed a particularly controversial topic. Only one other person besides me disagreed with the discussion leader and the rest of the class. I was surprised at how difficult it was to listen to various people discuss their position, compare it to mine, and make observations about the consequences of getting this one wrong.

The criticism felt like being punched. I was shocked to hear them describe what I believe. They made sweeping generalizations, all of which I knew were false at least some of the time. They drew conclusions based on those sweeping generalizations, which in my Christian circle leads one to question the validity of a person’s walk with God.

I took it personally. I felt the unspoken accusations of being a bad Christian or not being one at all. I grew defensive, eventually asking the group to be more careful with their words because they could offend someone or say they aren’t Christians.

The entire group protested, saying, “We didn’t do that! We never said they weren’t Christians!”

They didn’t hear themselves. They had no idea how their words landed and how hurtful those broad generalizations could be.

I didn’t either. Until I was on the receiving end.

Those two experiences forced me to face the false value I’d placed in using intentionally strong language to shock people. Shock should be used like cayenne pepper – rarely, intentionally, and sparingly. We need to go far beyond what feels reasonable when talking about controversial topics. When we know people will disagree we have to overboard with peace in order for them to hear grace, not accusation. If we want them to hear us and consider changing their mind, our goal should be to further the conversation and keep people talking, not to drill our point home the fastest and hardest. (Interesting note: Driscoll has backed off from much of the shock-jockery he used to use, I assume because he’s also discovered the down side of shock.)

Shock may get attention, but when it doesn’t communicate your position in an understandable way, and especially when it offends and misrepresents, it has no value.

How do you react when you hear someone say something shocking? What’s it like to be the minority of opinion on something?