Why Can’t We Talk? [Book Reflection and Giveaway]

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us find it.
~ Thomas Aquinas

When dialogue becomes a habit of the heart, we are poised to engage with others […] because our souls are already turned in that direction. We hear something disagreeable and think, “How interesting. Tell me how you got there.”
~ John Backman, Why Can’t We Talk

election debate

I started my freshman year of high school with a large collection of Christian t-shirts and an avid enthusiasm for apologetics (those rational arguments crafted by theologians to defend against objections to the Christian faith).

I’d been checking out books from the church library for several months. I devoured Evidence that Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter – Josh McDowell’s bestselling responses to some of the most troubling arguments against Christianity. I armored my faith with his ideas and statistics, and then I signed up for debate team, because I thought it would help me hone my skills and teach me to defend my beliefs.

Somewhere along the way, I’d gotten the idea that Christianity was about knowing all the right answers. And I thought that if I could just find a way to speak those answers loud and sure and clear, it would be enough to sway the doubting heart.

But then debate team began. And I was terrible at it.

The team was made up of confident intellectuals with quick brains and thick glasses. I learned quickly that the bulk of our work was not learning craft a great argument. In this form of high school debate, it was all about organizing data on note cards, highlighting relevant statistics, titling information in a meaningful way so that you could find it in the heat of the debate.

The winner of those matches was not the team that spoke convincingly. It was the ones who spoke the fastest, the loudest, who squeezed in the most facts in their seven-minute window, who closed with the right counter-argument.

Speed-reading was encouraged, and we were all half-listening, half-engaged, feverishly searching for our next argument in an accordion folder.

I was way out of my depth, and I spent the moments between matches crying in various high school hallways after being eviscerated yet again.


I started this blog for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to be part of that conversation that is shaping faith and culture. I appreciate the way the internet has made it possible for us to hear each other in a new way.

We are sharing our stories, our experiences, our dreams and our frustrations – and the way we look at faith is changing because of the way we engage with each other. And I love that.

But along with this, I’ve seen how quickly things can escalate here, in this virtual void. Dialogue turns debate turns deep disconnect. We are hunting through our stack of note cards, looking for the right counter-point, half-listening, half-engaged. We are taking sides, firing tweets like grenades, writing the first angry thing on our mind and hitting Publish.

I’ve been on the receiving end of comments that sting like a slap in the face, and I’ve felt them purple and bruise and throb for weeks.

Things get hot-button-issue crazy around here, and it snags my inner Debate Team drop-out. All this warring, this standing up for what we believe undoes me, and when things get loud, I withdraw. I am hands up, backing out into my own daily life. I am waiting for it to pass.


why ca't we talkI want to tell you about this book I read. It’s written by one of the members of the How to Talk Evangelical community, John Backman, and it’s called Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart.

It’s a book that changes the way we engage with one another – particularly in the places where we vehemently disagree.

Instead of approaching dialogue as a means to an end (agreement on an issue, a changed viewpoint, or even common ground), John explores it as a spiritual practice. Dialogue becomes a way to love and value one another. A way to do the long, hard work of peacemaking that Jesus calls us into.

Rather than focusing on techniques for “productive” dialogue, John focuses on our hearts. He reminds us that we are not defined by our opinions or perspectives, but rather by our “identity as image bearers of God.” And that when we remember this about ourselves, it’s easier to see that it’s true of others – even those who most frustrate and confound us.

In his book, John advocates for being careful with our language, for persisting with people we find difficult, for choosing to suspend judgment and instead ask questions like “what if?” He redefines humility and honors the statement, “I don’t know.”

And it gave me hope, reading this book. We can choose not to give up on each other. We can choose love over anger, and we can keep talking, keep working it out. These schisms that we’ve created don’t have to be the last word on the subject. Love can be the last word.

Because, really, when it comes down to it, Christianity is not really about knowing all the right things. It’s not about winning a debate. It’s not up to us to convince anyone of anything. Our real work is to come again and again to the Love of God. To let that love flow through us into this broken world.


I’m so excited to be able to be able to give away a copy of this book to one of my readers. To enter the giveaway, simply leave comment below. (It doesn’t have to be profound or insightful or anything. Even just, “I want this book!” is fine with me!)

You can also purchase it right this second at the following fine retailers: Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-A-Million and IndieBound.

I’ve never run a giveaway, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I figure it out. I’m planning to use a random-number generator to select a winner from among the commenters. The contest will close at midnight this Friday (March 8th), and I’ll announce the winner then!

[This is the first of a new monthly Book Reflection and Giveaway here at the blog. Stop by the first Monday of every month to see what I’ve been reading!]

104 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Talk? [Book Reflection and Giveaway]

  1. Addie – One of the reasons your blog is my first stop each morning is that your writing feeds and nourishes the right side of my goofy brain.

    My if-then, logical, sequential, accordion-folder left brain gets weary of all the standing and preaching. I would much rather just sit and share … to love and surround rather than debate and divide.

    … and you sit and share with the best of them.

    But we’ll get there! Kathryn Schulz (“Being Wrong”), Brené Brown (“Daring Greatly”) and many others are showing us that certainty kills empathy, and that “I don’t know” is a good first few words leading us into vulnerability, openness, and creativity with each other … into real relationships … into Godly, Agape Love for each other.

    Whenever I am tempted to engage with the internet Pharisees, I remind myself of the wise words of Scott Stratten, author of UnMarketing: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”

    1. Hi, Jim,

      “The jackass whisperer.” Marvelous. I’ve GOT to find a place to use that somewhere.

      Besides the phrase’s sheer entertainment value, it echoes an approach I try to take in my own life: focusing mostly on people who are open to dialogue while also testing the obstreperous. Every now and then, I see a little miracle happen with the latter folks: the “soft answer” of Proverbs opens them up, dials down their defensiveness, and sparks something of a dialogue with them. If they persist in attacking and spewing their anger, however, I just walk away–and hope for another time in which they might be a hair more open.

      1. I looked up ‘obstreperous,’ and I find it to be an awesome word. I think the thing I’m exploring is how to discern between those who are open to dialog, and those who are obstreperous…and then to have the discipline to walk away. Cuz sadly, I’m not the jackass whisperer either.

  2. I’ve been reading and listening frantically over the last few weeks to come up with every argument I can possibly throw at my Catholic family when I see them at Easter. After reading your piece, I’m starting to think throwing their apostacy back in their face may not be the best idea. Regardless of whether or not I win this giveaway, I’ll be reading this book… but I hope I win.

    1. Sorry you didn’t win, but hopefully you’ll buy this book anyway. It’s got some great, perspective-changing tips for engaging in dialogue — that keeps relationships in tact when it’s over. 🙂

  3. This sounds like an interesting read. I have felt challenged in this area recently so appreciate the review. Thanks Addie

  4. I so appreciate your voice in the “conversation that is shaping faith and culture.” Also, that sounds like a great book!

  5. I feel I should tell you to stop stalking me, because it’s creepy when you read my thoughts. I love writing on my own blog but I’ve been hesitant to dig into serious stuff because of the very things you mention here (also because my young children are actively trying to prevent me from anything resembling concentration, but that’s not unique to me). I have lots of thoughts to explore and share, but none of the energy required for debating. So I’ve just not gone there.

    All to say, I’d very much like this book. Pick me, random number generator!!

    1. Thanks so much! And I know about those little kids and their writing-sabotage. 🙂

  6. “Dialogue becomes a way to love and value one another. A way to do the long, hard work of peacemaking that Jesus calls us into.” A lesson I’d love to learn!

  7. As always, thanks for sharing from your heart. You’re a breath of fresh air & you challenge me to think beyond myself. Yes, I, too would like to read John’s book!

  8. I find it difficult to find those who are open to talking without polarizing Christianity. Some non-believers might bring up an objection that, to many Christians, is inflammatory. I try to see most people for what they are–that is, fellow humans created in the image of God–and realize that they would probably prefer belief to unbelief. The “inflammatory objection” is probably something quite close to who they are that they’re sharing with me. That’s why dialogue is important–not the right answers. I’d love to read John’s new book!

    1. “The ‘inflammatory objection’ is probably something quite close to who they are that they’re sharing with me.” I love that, Mike. Words of wisdom. It’s probably why people refer to instances like this as “hitting a raw nerve.”

  9. This sounds like a great book. I’m always interested in learning about how to have better dialogue in my community. Thanks for sharing it as a resource!

  10. Someone posted a picture on Facebook of me from high school in a Christian t shirt and I thought of your blog! I was just thinking this weekend about how important it was to me back the to be right. Not hist for apologetics, but in my own mind. Like God couldn’t be real if I couldn’t figure everything out.

    Anyway, this book sounds great. Pick me, random number generator!

    1. Ha! Love it. (And this — Like God couldn’t be real if I couldn’t figure everything out. — I’ve so been there.) Thanks Janice.

  11. I love when people are willing to say that they don’t know all (any?) of the answers. Let’s explore the mysteries together and forgo the debate. I would love to read this book. 🙂

  12. Sounds like a great book. My first thought was about the Scripture prodding us to be able to “give an answer in season and out of season” (am I misquoting Paul here?). My evangelical indoctrination taught me to always have a response. An interesting thought, to be able to say “I don’t know”.

    Oh yeah…I want this book!

  13. I guess that in the outrageous claim that Jesus lives in us and works through us by His Holy Spirit, we are suggesting to those who hear us that Jesus is rather like the Christian standing in front of them, debating.

    Hmm. It’s not always a pretty sight, those Christians with a point to prove and no mercy to mix with their judgments.

    Although some atheists don’t seem to care much about those who hear them either, but surely with the Holy Spirit we should be different, somehow above, caring but not threatened, certain but polite, butlers who are opening the door of the Throne Room and inviting new visitors to take a peek at the King, rather than marching them there under armed guard!

    Good thoughts
    Ambling Saint

  14. Hi Addie-
    I’m in my second year of law school, and this experience has definitely taught me the value of being able to listen and respond to varying view points in a calm and respectful manner. School has strengthened my faith because it’s forced me to delve deeper into Scripture, and that searching has allowed me to share Christ with others in a way that’s not lecturing, but one of telling a story and sharing my heart.
    Oh yeah- I want this book!

  15. Sounds like a very appropriate book in the current climate we find ourselves in. I would most certainly like to win this book, but pretty sure I will read it in any case. Thanks for sharing.

  16. This is a timely post for me. All of the disagreeing makes me tired, and I find it hard sometimes, to be authentic in the face of conflicting views. I’d love to read this book.

  17. It made my heart glad to see that someone had written a book like this. Whether I win the book or not, I’ll be trying to find a copy to read.

  18. I have a framed poster in my office that says “Trust that meaningful conversation can change the world”, and I’m working hard at trusting that. Real, vulnerable, messy dialogue can be hard to create when the alternatives are so easily accessed and immediately appealing, but I have to believe the hard conversations are worth it. Think I’ll be reading Backman’s book regardless of whether or not I win a free copy. 🙂

    (I do love a good *friendly* debate once in a while. With someone who’s having fun and will still love me at the end of it.)

    1. “I have to believe the hard conversations are worth it. ” — yes. And as for the friendly debate, I’m pretty sure John Backman would agree with you. As for me, thanks to a few too many terrible matches, debate has been ruined for me forever.

  19. I’m so glad this book exists! I am all about trying to discuss respectfully rather than debate. It’s a lifelong learning process and I would be so grateful for a book like this to help. This is so important for us to learn as individuals and also as the Church.

    1. “This is so important for us to learn as individuals and also as the Church.” YES. Agreed.

  20. Great insights Addie. I’ve had the experience lately (even though I read blogs and follow individuals who have beliefs similar to mine) that in order to engage in dialogue I must have a specific set of sub-beliefs, a certain (high) level of outrage toward specific injustices, and a precise manner of language. And at that point, it’s not a dialogue anymore. Rather, it is saying things you think the other person wants to hear. I’m find myself asking: how is this different than trying to modify one’s language and behavior in a fundamentalist or evangelical church? It’s discouraging. 🙁 In other words…I’d love that book! 🙂

    1. I can relate to that Kevin…and I’ve also felt that my “sub-beliefs” (great word, by the way), don’t measure up somehow. Thanks for pointing this out.

  21. I would love to read this book. As an academic, I am constantly weighing the demands of my career to be pugnaciously diligent in a smarter-than-thou-but-not-too-snotty voice and the ways of being supportive – talking – to fellow Christ followers, like my husband. I have definitely had to take a step back and rearrange my perspective and approach mid-conversation. Teacher voice is not needed for all conversations!

  22. I had all my copies of josh mcdowell’s books too, as well as walter martin’s classic “kingdom of the cults” just in case the person whose argument I needed to demolish wasn’t just an unbeliever, but was one of those crazy mormons or JWs. I also joined the debate team, and I became one of those bespectacled nerds with the accordion folders. And then I took that back into my jesussuperfreak life by organising all my josh mcdowell points onto index cards and taping them into my bible, just so that my sword of the lord was always ready for the fight, right?
    Then it got worse. they talked about apologetics books being like weapons in your arsenal, equipping you for the fight. I kinda started to take that literally. If I was going out into the world where I might encounter, you know, a person, I had to be ready to win the argument with them, so that meant I had to be equipped, so I started bringing books with me. What books? Why, whatever book I thought would help me beat them! First it was my study bible, obviously. But then I bought a strong’s concordance – and not even the smaller condensed version, no, the huge heavy one – and I had visions of me expertly flipping through it and pulling up all the bible verses I needed to demolish the arguments of the other guy, so I started to bring that along with me. But then, of course, if you really want to win a bible argument, you have to be able to go back to the greek, so I bought a greek interlinear bible and started to carry that with me. Soon the thayer’s lexicon joined it, so that I could demonstrate undeniably to those pagans that the greek word for virgin really did mean “virgin” and the greek word for “god-breathed” really did mean “god-breathed.” And on it went, it just wouldn’t stop.

    The apex finally came the day and older man told me about a book available at the local university that would help me. I was intent on going and finding it, even though I had no idea where to look. But universities, as we all knew, were nothing but hotbeads of godless atheistic liberalism, and I knew that I was heading into enemy territory. I was like a secret agent for god. a jesusfreak jedi. I carefully packed every single book I could think of that I might need in order to beat back the sure to-come attacks from all those university heathens high on their human knowledge and man’s word. I was sure that they would be able to tell just by looking at me that I was a soldier of the lord – I would probably glow or have an aura or something – and then they’d be coming at me from all sides, so I had to be extra prepared. My black pleather book bag was so packed full of books that I could barely lift it, but off I went to catch the bus for the 45 min ride to the university. I felt like I was heading out in the fellowship of the ring, except on my own.

    Of course, the only battle I ended up fighting was against the searing pain of the muscle spasms in my own back after several hours of dragging that monstrous book bag around campus, desperately trying to find the library but too scared to ask any of the enemies that surrounded me. By the end of the day I had blisters on my feet, bruises all over my shoulders, and not a muscle on me that didn’t ache. The closest I got to opening any of those books was when I briefly considered pitching them all into the garbage can! I never did find the volume I went there for. That day remains one of the worst and most embarrassingly awkward of my life, and I can’t believe I’m about to post it on the internet.

    I think if I had read your dialogue book back then – and realised that you didn’t always have to fight the outside world, you could talk to them too! – I would have saved myself from that. Better late than never: send me the book please!

    1. Hi, Ryan,

      Boy, do I know that gig. Sounds like my high school years, with somewhat less muscle pain because I carried an old, lightweight KJV. I have no idea how my friends (I actually had some) put up with me.

  23. Thank you so much for sharing this. Growing up I was often on the giving end of “proving Christianity right” and I more recently have found myself on the receiving end. I crave honest non-judgmental conversation about matters of the faith. I would so love to read this book!

    1. 20 years of trying to convince my family that Christianity is right (along with lots of time praying for them!) has left me realising that presenting well-honed arguments and facts isn’t the way forward! I’d love to have this book, and would value any prayers for my family!

  24. An interesting blog you have here! I hope I win the book! I’ve been searching for something such as this. A way to more effectively communicate in love rather than selfishness. We’ll see what happens! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world!

  25. Thank you so much for this post! After a few recent encounters with”difficult” people it was exactly what I needed to hear!

  26. I wish I had read this five years ago, but somehow I have muddled thru and got it thru my thick head that the only way to bring people with us is to love them into it. And I am not a warm, fuzzy lovey person, so it has been a daily lesson for me.
    So, if the Great Random Number whatsit doesn’t pick me, I shall find the book on my own. Thank you so much for letting us know about it, you are a blessing.

  27. I lead an annual group at our church going through Greg and Ed Boyd’s “Letters From A Skeptic” which is a great example of what you are describing. This group has become a place where people at our church can express doubt and skepticism within an atmosphere of love and acceptance – no one is permitted to throw pat answers at someone’s troubled or cynical comments. The atmosphere you’re describing is healing and is the best environment for faith to grow. 2 Timothy 2:23-26 and 1 Peter 3:15 speak of avoiding stupid arguments and quarrels, but instead treating others with kindness, gentleness and respect. I love your writing Addie, and I’ll be bringing a copy of today’s blog to our group this week!

    1. “no one is permitted to throw pat answers at someone’s troubled or cynical comments.” LOVE that you have a group like this. Perfect.

  28. Sounds like something I need to read, not because I love to argue and debate, but because I loathe it so much. 🙂

  29. I also agree that this book sounds very interesting and I will look it up on Kindle. Asking questions carefully is often a much better response than trying to defend your own perspective. Questions help us understand others and help others better articulate and perhaps reevaluate what they believe and both are movements in the forward direction. Thank you for writing!

  30. I want to read this book. I have recently come to believe that loving dialogue–including really loving the other person by listening and trying to understand where they are coming from without taking it upon myself to try to change them–is incredibly important. I, too, have come from the camp of thinking black and white; one right answer I would love to study this book with a local group.

    1. Working through it with a group sounds like a great idea. Sorry you didn’t win, but hope you’ll still consider checking it out!

  31. I wanted to read this book when you talked about it before – so here’s to hoping this post is the lucky number.

  32. I would love to read this book as well! I can definitely relate to the part you mentioned about apologetics. I often feel that same need to defend Christianity to others. In some ways, I feel that my own insecurities about my faith causes me to desire to convince others of it so that I can be further convinced myself.

    1. “In some ways, I feel that my own insecurities about my faith causes me to desire to convince others of it so that I can be further convinced myself.” — oh have I been there. YES.

  33. Sounds like a good book. I don’t see where it does a lot of good to “argue” with vehemence as many do. This approach sounds more like what I see Jesus doing.

  34. I am tired of all the debate -learned it well in the 80’s. As I’ve aged, I’ve settled into a live and let live kinda philosophy but there is a persisent gnawing at the edges to question everything: “who’s really right and therefore everyone else must be wrong” mentality. I lament the true loss of civility in our culture. The exchange of ideas without endless ad hominems. This book sounds interesting.

  35. Wow – I only found your blog about a month ago but I pounce on every new post like a PMS-ing woman on chocolate! 🙂 I’d love to read this book, and I’m pretty sure I’ll end up buying it, if by some statistical anomaly I DON’T win it here! 🙂

  36. Throughout the last election, I kept having to “raise my voice” above all of the arguing and remind people that we’re all on the same side, we’re all American’s and no matter how things turn out we all still have to live with each other. Once again, I feel like my life echoes yours in this way, where you you will give me some insight into how I’m feeling, which is weird I know, but seems to be true. Thanks. And I want that book.

  37. You make some awesome points in this blog. It is really about letting God shine through us. Somewhere it tells us HE will give us the words we need. I would love to learn how to communicate with others without always feeling it was a debate. I hope I am your random number.

  38. I keep telling people that God is about relationship, not rules.
    Modern, western evangelical culture tries to make every relationship subservient to Rules. Rule have become god.
    That’s idolatry.

    1. I would totally be willing to send a book to the UK! Sorry you didn’t win this time around, but feel free to enter again!

  39. just recently i discovered your blog – An Open Letter to the Church – was so good for me and now i kind of like you 🙂
    thank you for being a honest & kind voice in all the noise that is going on in the church today.
    i said all those nice things because i really want this book!!

    1. Love those nice things you said! (Even if they were motivated by book lust. ;-)) Thank you!

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