Frank Schaeffer and the importance of listening well

I met Frank Schaeffer at a planning retreat for the Wild Goose Festival a few weeks ago. His story is a fascinating one–his family established the L’Abri community in Huemoz, Switzerland and became oddly influential in the rise of the Christian Right political movement. After the passing of his father Francis, Frank found himself heir-apparent to that influence–but at the same moment unwilling to continue down that road; a crisis not of faith, but one of identity. You can learn more about Frank and his work in a talk he gave for Darkwood Brew here. *ahem* When you’re done reading, of course. Focus, people.

Last Friday I talked with Frank for just over an hour on Skype. We recorded a portion of that conversation with the hopes of passing portions of it on to our readers here, as well as creating some promotional material for the festival this year. The pounding sound that was heard across Catoosa County late Friday afternoon was my forehead repeatedly meeting my desk as I realized that my recording software had decided that the audio was superfluous data. I have a fine digital memoir of what Frank looks like when he talks, if you’d like to see it. The best part is that Frank is a writer. Writers write because they like to say things once, not twice. There’s no recovering that conversation. So I shall sum.

Our conversation was all over the map of spiritual thought, but one of the main things that has stayed with me was our discussion of how poorly we listen to each other. Not Frank & me; “we” in general. We were talking about the difficulty of moving toward interfaith conversation when we can’t even seem to get our heads around interdenominational conversation within the Protestant church. Frank was quick to point out how rarely we listen well on any subject. As an example, he offered that if he believed that his next appointment was more important than our conversation, he’d be thinking about how to wrap up with me–basically listening with one ear. (He began that point by assuring me that it wasn’t the case.)

When it comes to spiritual discussion, he suggested another perhaps subconscious practice that distracts us from really hearing. I mentioned the frustration of trying to find a adult community of conversation that was unafraid to unpack any of our spiritual foundations–it seems like I’m always running into someone’s a bridge too far, the point at which the conversation balks or becomes heated in defense of a core belief. Frank suggested that if we enter a spiritual conversation with anything that we are unwilling to let go of that we enter it unwilling to truly listen–instead, our mind will be working to defend what we already believe against what we’re hearing. For some, it’s matters of scriptural interpretation; others fall apart on doctrine. Few Christians would be willing to sit and genuinely hear out a well-spoken atheist. What are we afraid of? Losing an argument? Being proved wrong? Shining a light on holes in the fabric of our own belief?

Obviously, context matters; clearly I wasn’t really listening to the speaker at the event I wrote about last week. I do think it’s just as important to speak well from your traditions. I’m not entirely thrilled with the apparent contradiction there any more than you are: how can I be steamed one week about insulating our kids in a Wesleyan experience and in the next breath advocate interfaith conversation? Because I’m not saying you bring the well-spoken atheist to the first week of confirmation classes. And as outspoken as I was about intentional Methodist discipleship last week, I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m equally intentional to expose our group to different practices of faith. But I tell them in advance when I’m doing that–last week’s article was rooted in the start of being theologically surprised.

I hope the difference is clear there. I do want our kids to hear other voices in other rooms. And I want them to learn how to listen as well as they speak.

I’ll have more here from my conversation with Frank in the coming weeks. And eventually I’ll approach him again, hat in hand, and confess the errors of my audio-muted ways. Not-listening-well perfected.



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