If we riffle through the pages of the Gospels, looking at them as a compilation of case studies on communication, they at first seem to yield with gratifying ease to the pressure of our need. In story after story, the incarnate Word pierces the darkened understanding of this world. Jesus calls his disciples from their work and, unaccountably, they follow. He opens the book of the prophet in the synagogue and proclaims his mission with audacity. He encounters the Samaritan woman at the well and draws not only her but the entire town of Sychar into belief.

If, however, we try to analyze these stories and extract from them a set of clear-cut guidelines for communicating, we become frustated. For the more deeply we probe the Gospels for what they can teach us about communication, the more disconcertingly ambiguous they become.

Not only is there the story, set in broad daylight, of the Samaritan woman who became the catalyst for communal witness; there is also the story of Nicodemus who came to make an undercover contract with Jesus. And added to these personal encounters, we have Jesus’ communications with the multitudes. He engages in the forum for public debate his culture provided. As for nonverbal communication, he fed the crowds as well as teaching them. He often touched when he healed; he spat, held babies, overturned tables. And finally, before his accusers, the Word became silent.

Given the amazing variety of examples, we find we cannot package and market a Jesus-technique for communications guaranteed to work in every situation—not if we remain faithful to the full gospel, and not just to our favorite, self-vindicating passages.

Indeed, the one thing we can safely say about Jesus’ own communicating in the Gospels is that it was almost always unpredictable. And he warns us that it will continue to be so, coming upon us like a thief in the night. Even following the resurrection, he disguises himself as a gardener to meet Mary Magdalene; he travels incognito on the road to Emmaus. Jesus could not be packaged. He was always turning up where no one expected him. In a manger. Walking across a lake. Eating with the corrupt exploiters of his own people. On a cross in the city dump.

Jesus was so unpredictable that he was often incomprehensible, especially to his own disciples. Time and time again, we are told that they did not understand him. It was not only the parables that puzzled them. At the Transfiguration, they “did not know what to say.” Immediately following Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, the disciple has to be rebuked for his misinterpretation of his own confession. And although Jesus told the disciples over and over of the suffering and death that loomed before him, they were unable to hear this straightforward message.

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Christ’s own communication with his closest followers often failed because the message was not one they expected—or wanted—to hear. Their consciousness simply refused to take it in. Yet the Samaritian woman was able to hear. Despite the fact that she could only have perceived Jesus as her enemy (and that was made quite clear by her initial rejoinder to him), despite her own evasive techniques, she is surprised into belief.

Now this was an encounter of amazing intimacy, one that could have gone wrong at any moment. And no doubt Jesus did have many encounters that did not turn out well. The meeting with the rich young ruler immediately comes to our minds. Remember also the difficulty he had communicating with his own family who at one point tried to have him certified insane. The outcome of his meeting with Nicodemus hangs unresolved. John the Baptist, languishing in prison, suffers doubts about the Messiah’s authenticity. Pilate no doubt presumed he had stopped the mouth of the upstart when he asked his famous question, “What is truth?,” and got no answer. The very multitudes whom Jesus had taught and fed and healed, quickly lost their enthusiasm when his communication by signs and wonders stopped.

Thus the success of Jesus himself as a communicator, using worldly criteria, is very questionable. Not only was he often incredible, he was sometimes incomprehensible, even obstinately so, since he steadfastly refused to give in to the pressures, from unbelievers or from his own disciples, to accommodate his meaning to their expectations.

And what kind of models are the disciples themselves as either senders or receivers of communication? Thickheaded, slow to understand, opportunists, cowards. Peter himself, the rock upon whose confession the church is built, was a liar. “I do not know this man,” he told the people in the high priest’s courtyard. From the first, the church’s communication has been entrusted to a self-acknowledged liar.

Perhaps I am painting a rather grim picture here (although some of us take a certain dismal comfort in remembering that we are not alone in our failure). Perhaps I should concentrate more on the great followings of Jesus, on those who “heard him gladly,” on the authority with which he spoke. Perhaps we should invoke Pentecost or Peter’s sermon at the temple. But remember that those who heard Christ gladly also cried, “Crucify him!” Pentecost was followed by persecution and dissension. By using success-based standards of communication, these efforts failed.

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In Order To Avoid This Kind Of failure in our own day, we are tempted to escape into technique. We are a good deal more self-conscious about the process of communication in our day than the apostles were. If only we can pin down this elusive element we call communication long enough to analyze it, then, we dream, it will at last become our tool. Our immediate, and quite modern, instinct is to identify the technique Jesus used with the Samaritan woman, for instance, in order to discover the “secret of his success”.

Unfortunately, however, in this, as in so many other areas, the tool is becoming the master. In fact, we are in great danger of allowing communication tools to dictate our theology, a theology that must be reducible to a telex message or taken from headlines composed for the sake of sensation and guaranteed to change tomorrow. Scripture is whittled into slogans. We do not allow it to confront us with all its puzzling paradoxes, but extract only what will fit on the current banner we are waving, what will prove useful and effective for our purposes. Jesus the unpredictable becomes Jesus the caricature.

How can the church be credible? Especially when what we have to communicate is essentially a mystery? Do we understand it any better than Peter and John? Should we try to fake credibility—which is after all a media-derived term itself—to make it appear as though the churches can actually solve the world’s problems, so that there is a statement to distribute to the press? How do we resist the unrelenting pressures to make it appear that we are not absurd, befuddled disciples?

If we are willing, if we have the ears, the gospel can still be our guide. For one of the very things that make the Gospels credible themselves is the embarrassing truth they tell about the disciples. Can we afford to do that about ourselves?

Virginia Stem Owens is the author of numerous books. Her article is taken from Beyond Technology, written and compiled by John Bluck (Friendship Press, 1984); used by permission of the World Council of Churches.

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