Indirect Delight

Michael Metzger

Head on.
I bumped into an old friend at the airport last week and discovered we were booked on the same flight home. It made for a quick two-and-a-half hours. He was excitedly describing his meetings, especially the opportunity to “witness” to his colleagues. “I told them I read the Bible and pray.”

“That’s great.” I know my friend is pretty grounded and secure, so I followed up with a simple question. “How many men do you think went home and began to pray and read the Bible?” He thought for a moment and whispered: “I bet no one did.” My question was not designed to discourage him. People of faith ought to witness to others. But we don’t typically brag about sales meetings where no one responds. “I bet my words didn’t make a whole lot of sense to them, did they? What could I have done differently?”

There’s a truism of human nature that says we do what we delight in. But there’s a second axiom that says the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly. This is where the story recalling Nathan’s reproof of King David might tell us what we can do differently.1

The prophet Nathan drew the unwelcome assignment of correcting David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite (not Uriah Heep — sorry, that’s for old rock-n-rollers). Nathan was like the rest of us. He didn’t relish being the bearer of bad news. Nor do any of us like having our reigning assumptions challenged. David had either assumed it was OK to be adulterous, no one would care, or that he wouldn’t get caught. Nathan takes the indirect route by reframing the situation with a story of a wealthy rancher ripping off the owner of one little lamb. The story snuck up on David, causing him to burn with anger against the rich man. David declares the rich man must die. That’s fine, says Nathan — except you are the rich man.

The lesson here is that people embrace — and delight in — what they learn indirectly. That’s what we need today if we’re going to urge people to pray and read the Bible and expect them to do anything about it. In the 21st century world, a reigning assumption (in business, the arts, education — and with our neighbors) is that religion ought to be reserved for a place called church and a day called Sunday. “Christianity in the modern world has no choice,” as Nicholas Wolterstorff recently noted, “but to be a Sunday and after-hours affair.” For my friend who happens to be a businessman, his “personal religious convictions are either irrelevant or obstructive as motives and guides for action… If the businessman, rather than being motivated by the bottom line of profit, allows his religious convictions to shape his business practices, he shortly finds himself out of business.”2

This reigning assumption, as Michael Novak points out, means we can talk about religion as a balm for our hurting soul, how we pray and read the Bible, and even permit a chaplain or clergyman to offer a prayer at a businessmen’s breakfast. But from 8:00am until 6:00pm, faith is not a legitimate player in the board room, arts center, classroom, or committee session. If we mention it there, it’s either politely dismissed or viewed as indulgent. The 21st century Monday-Friday world is all about facts. Values are left “to ministers, bishops, confessors, moralists, and other (as they see things) more wholly-headed thinkers. We all know where that leaves the chaplain.”3

It was St. Augustine who said the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly. Changing someone’s assumptions usually requires an indirect route; not the “frontal” approach. If I show 100 pristine acres to a developer and an environmentalist, they typically “see” two different things. If you inform the developer that these 100 acres are being set aside for conservation, it doesn’t make sense.

In our modern world, faith doesn’t make sense Monday through Friday. We need to reframe the conversation with new metaphors and images that take the indirect route — if we want our friends and colleagues to want to hear more — and do something about it. “All our truth, or all but a few fragments,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is won by metaphor.”4 This is why I typically begin a conversation about faith by not talking about religion but by helping people understand that we all view our lives through an “unconscious code.” The code becomes a metaphor for how everyone lives and talks. Once my friends “break the code” and see themselves inside it, they’re more receptive to having reigning assumptions challenged — and to connecting Sunday to Monday.

1 For the uninitiated — but interested — the story of Nathan and David can be found in the Old Testament (II Samuel 12), where David commits adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, impregnates her, and ultimately sets up her husband to be killed in battle.
2 These remarks were delivered by Nicholas Wolterstorff as part of a seminar titled “Can Life in Business Still Be a Calling? Or is That Day Over?” at the Colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life, March 18, 2004, at Richmond, Virginia. Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.
3 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp.4-5
4 C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p.50


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