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Finger Pointing

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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glorybee
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Finger Pointing

Postby glorybee » Sat Mar 19, 2016 8:22 am

First, a disclaimer. These are writing lessons, not theology lessons, and I’m aware that under the umbrella of Christianity there are varying opinions on what people should or should not do. So the illustration I’m using in this lesson is a little bit silly and totally made up—but please be aware that it’s not my intent to mock any tradition, denomination, Bible version, or any other aspect of our faith. In fact, I’m hoping to avoid controversy by not tackling any actual current issues.

I’m going to start this with a snippet from an imaginary devotional:

1. In 3 Hezekiah 13:12, we read that Abimibel gave a loud shout and danced for joy when he encountered a fig tree during his wanderings in the desert. This verse is typically glossed over, as the following verses go on to describe his important encounter with King Saul, but you should pay close attention to this very important verse. It’s quite clear that you are not properly thanking God for His daily provision of food. Instead of a spoken prayer before meals—or worse, a silent prayer—you should shout and dance before each meal. Don’t be embarrassed, even in public. This is clearly what scripture is telling you to do, and if you are reluctant to do this, you are not in God’s will.

Do you see what’s wrong there? Again, it’s not the theology (no such passage exists), but the way that this Bible study writer (me) chose to teach the lesson—by finger pointing. All of those yous in the last few sentences of the paragraph defeat their own purpose. Instead of making the reader feel convicted to change their method of praying before meals, the writer has made the reader feel resentful, much as you might have felt when you were a child and your grandmother said, “You shouldn’t listen to that music” or “You should wear a slip with that dress.” In addition, the reader might think, well, do YOU shout and dance before every meal? I bet you don’t, so don’t tell ME what to do!

Here's a better version of that same passage (but the best one is coming). I’ll highlight the changes, so you can just skim over the paragraph.

2. In 3 Hezekiah 13:12, we read that Abimibel gave a loud shout and danced for joy when he encountered a fig tree during his wanderings in the desert. This verse is typically glossed over, as the following verses go on to describe his important encounter with King Saul, but we should pay close attention to this very important verse. It’s quite clear that we are not properly thanking God for His daily provision of food. Instead of a spoken prayer before meals—or worse, a silent prayer—we should shout and dance before each meal. We should not be embarrassed, even in public. This is clearly what scripture is telling us to do, and if we are reluctant to do this, we are not in God’s will.

This version is a little bit better, but it’s still not wonderful. Although the writer no longer seems to point an accusing finger at the reader, it’s still preachy and somewhat arrogant. Despite the use of ‘we’ and ‘us,’ it’s not at all relational.

However, take a look at this completely re-written version of this same mini-lesson:

3. Now that our children are grown and gone, my husband and I eat very informal meals. Sometimes we sit in the living room with our plates in our laps, watching television. I’ll admit that we’ve gotten pretty lax about saying a prayer before every meal—the habit slipped away after the children left. I was feeling convicted about that even before I started to read 3 Hezekiah in my morning Bible study, but I was stunned when I got to verse 13:12. “And when Abimibel came upon the fig tree, his heart was gladdened. He took the figs and he leaped and danced, shouting for joy.” I realized in that moment, that even a short spoken grace before meals isn’t enough. God was telling me that before I eat, I should follow the example of Abimibel. I should not be quiet; instead, I should show God my thankfulness by shouting and dancing for joy.

I’m sure you see the differences between the first two examples and the third one. It goes beyond the shift from you to we to I, which takes it from finger pointing to testimony. After all, I could have rewritten the first paragraph one more time and just changed the pronouns again (to ‘I’). But a better way is to try, as much as possible, to find a way to relate to the readers. Lacking actual face-to-face contact, one way to do that is to provide a transparent anecdote that shows your own vulnerability, your faults, even your sins—and then to show the readers your moment of spiritual realization. Then leave it to them, and to their relationship with God, to decide whether that realization is something they need to grasp in their own lives.

If you don’t have an actual story of your own epiphany that relates to the lesson you’re trying to teach, another way to do it without finger pointing is to use a 3rd person narrative—tell someone else’s story. If you have a family member, friend, or acquaintance who had that aha! moment, get their permission to use their story. Write it in a similar style to #3, above. I’ll just give you the beginning, so you can see what that might look like:

4. My friend Sue is single, and she eats most of her meals in her home, with only her two cats nearby. She had started to neglect saying grace before meals, when she read… (you see where this is going).

And if you’re just dying to teach this particular lesson but you have neither a personal anecdote nor one that you can borrow, that’s the place to introduce some creative nonfiction. Write a little story about a fictional person who has a moment of enlightenment. This is not lying—it’s writing. If you’re queasy about it, tell your reader what you’ve done.

5. Imagine a woman named Harriet. She’s been a Christian since she was a child, and she’s said grace thousands of times…

The point is, if you write in an intimate 1st person voice, or in a 3rd person narrative style, you’ll be less likely to leave your reader feeling resentful and preached at, and your lesson is more likely to ‘stick.’ 1st person is best, in my opinion.

There’s another lesson on writing devotionals in this list.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on finger-pointing in Christian writing. If you disagree, I’d like to hear that, too. This is a ‘no conflict’ zone, but I welcome cordial discussion of opposing viewpoints.

Ideas for future lessons? Post them here. By the way, there won’t be a lesson next Saturday. My daughters and granddaughters will be spending the week with us this week, and I intend to get every wonderful moment of girlie time with them that I can, so I won’t have time to write a lesson.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby JudySauer » Sat Mar 19, 2016 8:42 am

This is great Jan. Your examples go from offensive, to inclusive, to personal ownership. The Catholic Church revised our Mass readings a couple of years ago from the inclusive "we" to the personal ownership of "I." It's not easy to learn all new Mass parts, but it is not impossible either. Where I'm going with this is, it takes lots of practice to get out of the inclusive mindset, and find a comfortable place with the personal ownership. Great challenge here. Thank you. Judy.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby Allison » Sat Mar 19, 2016 10:30 am

Jan, funny timing with this one. The other day, I was looking over some of the past lessons you'd done, and was thinking about this concept.

I definitely agree. If a devotion is going to indicate that Christians need to improve in some area, then the author should include him/herself in that. Along the same lines are devotionals that, while not meaning too, indicate that if you don't have the same outcome that they (or a Biblical character, or anyone else) did, then your faith is somehow lacking. For example, ones that have the tone of "God wants to heal His people, and all it really takes is a little bit of faith. If we have faith the size of a mustard see, we can move mountains! If God will move mountains, don't you think He'll heal us too?" Even though it uses "we" instead of "you," there is still that indication that if you (personally) or a family member hasn't been healed, then it's because your faith is lacking. A simple disclaimer of "Now, remember, God does not always answer our prayers with a "yes" and that doesn't mean we lack faith." would help.

Another thing that (kind of) goes along with this is starting a devotional with a super obvious question. "Have you ever been sad?" Well... of COURSE we've been sad. Everyone has! It kind of makes the reader feel silly, in a similar way to the finger pointing one. Like the devotional writer doesn't think we know that everyone has been sad.
Last edited by Allison on Sat Mar 19, 2016 3:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby JudySauer » Sat Mar 19, 2016 3:10 pm

Great comments Allison.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby Verna » Sun Mar 20, 2016 7:33 am

I love the practical "show us how" advice.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby CatLin » Mon Mar 21, 2016 12:12 am

I've found myself editing many a devotion to change the "you"s to "I"s to avoid finger pointing. Your advice on using a fictional person is very helpful. I often want to write a devotion about something but hesitate because I don't have a powerful personal story to tell.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby RachelM » Mon Mar 28, 2016 11:15 am

I write a blog that tends to be very personal. I don't do a lot of devotional pieces, but when I do, I work very hard at making them non-preachy. I'm so sensitive to preachiness that I'll often stop reading at the first sentence if a piece has a "holier than thou" air to it.

I'm afraid it's often why I shy away from Christian novels and movies too. I think if the message is being shouted at me, then it overpowers the story. I'm all for subtleness! :) I was asking godly friends to guest blog for me once in a while, but I unfortunately found the posts tended to fall into your second category.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby lish1936 » Mon Mar 28, 2016 3:03 pm

Jan wrote:2. In 3 Hezekiah 13:12, we read that Abimibel gave a loud shout and danced for joy when he encountered a fig tree during his wanderings in the desert. This verse is typically glossed over, as the following verses go on to describe his important encounter with King Saul, but we should pay close attention to this very important verse. It’s quite clear that we are not properly thanking God for His daily provision of food. Instead of a spoken prayer before meals—or worse, a silent prayer—we should shout and dance before each meal. We should not be embarrassed, even in public. This is clearly what scripture is telling us to do, and if we are reluctant to do this, we are not in God’s will.


I know you're enjoying time off with your grands this week, but I'll add a word or two. :)

In addition to we, should also adds to the distasteful flavor of the article. Sometimes one should instead of we should is often used to soften the chastising tone, but it really doesn't.

In my opinion, other culprits in this passage are important and quite clear. What's important and clear to the author may not seem so to the reader.

Not often, but I've been guilty of these offenses in the past, and I really appreciate the alert you've put out to be more diligent.
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Re: Finger Pointing

Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 28, 2016 4:44 pm

To all of you who've commented here--thanks!
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