Listening—You’re Doing It Wrong

Junior or Senior year of high school, I learned about logos, pathos, and ethos—I imagine you’ve heard of these too.

As you may recall from your school days, logos, pathos, and ethos are together the artistic proofs, coined by Aristotle, and they’re the primary ways people make arguments. You may also recall what each of the terms means: logos deals with the reasonableness of an argument, pathos is its emotional appeal, and ethos is the speaker’s credibility. Most of us take full advantage of each of these when we talk with friends or find ourselves in a debate. We can use logos: “As long as illegally crossing the border is a crime, separating families and any other punishment are within the purview of the authorities.” Or pathos: “Separating children from their parents is evil.” Or even ethos: “The Bible dictates that we obey the governing authorities.” We definitely know how to use them. But even though we can speak with these artistic proofs, most of us have no idea how to listen with them.

This is especially true for anyone who has ever described themselves as a “left-brained” person. If you’ve ever started a sentence with, “Well actually…” this probably applies to you (as it does me). We like to pick apart whatever we hear, think about how it’s not true or how it doesn’t apply to us. And nothing bugs us more than someone overstating their case.

Not long ago, I listened to someone speak on the importance of the church being active in political issues. They used words like “paramount” and “of the utmost importance” and “our Christian duty.” After the speech, I overheard someone bemoaning the speaker, “I just felt like he really overstated his case.” I rolled my eyes.

That’s the point.

Writers and especially speakers don’t usually have the luxury of maintaining an ongoing dialogue, getting to vet out all the nuances of a topic. They have one shot to convince you of a truth, and so they often use the other tools at their disposal to do just that—they add to their logic, a little pathos and a little ethos.

The Bible does this all the time. It’s not uncommon for the biblical authors to opt for “making their point” over some sort of nuance. They might cite their own credential or, better yet, God’s credentials. In Revelation 19, we read of the demise of an entire civilization—and what is the book’s commentary on such a tragic and multivalent event? Is it a discussion of theodicy like Habakkuk? No, we get an overstated case for the justice and awesomeness of God, the famous threefold Hallelujah—its only occurrence in Scripture.

This also applies to our discussion the last two weeks. In as much as you buy into what is being said in a movie, the details don’t matter. That’s why directors try to massage your heart into a certain way of feeling—they want your emotions to drive your enjoyment of a movie.

How we intake and digest information is hugely important. I can’t stress that enough. Like, it’s the end of the world, if you don’t get this simple thing right. Everyone needs to appreciate why speakers overstate their cases and why writers make impassioned pleas. We need to appreciate these things because that’s what it takes to become an intelligent listener.

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