Why Can't We Talk? by John Backman
Reviewed by Tim Otto
One of John Backman's best answers to the question that titles his book, "Why Can't We Talk?" (Skylight Paths, 2012) is that rather than being good, we've settled for being in favor of the good.
It is an insightful answer. One of the deepest religious impulses—on both the right and the left—is to believe that we believe the right things and are therefore superior and saved. Talking vulnerably with others threatens that stance. Genuine dialogue runs the risk that we might realize we are wrong. But if we move beyond being religious to being righteous (by finding our deepest identity in God), then we are secure in God and can welcome without fear any new truth that dialogue reveals.
How do we go from thinking ourselves as good because of holding the right beliefs to being good? Backman proposes that it is through "engaging the work of the soul." Soul work involves spiritual practices such as prayer, scripture reading, and a rule of life (the book has a helpful appendix that outlines how to do these practices). He also proposes that dialogue itself is a spiritual discipline, a "habit of the heart" that transforms us. In a virtuous spiral, as we give ourselves to dialogue we grow in goodness, and as we grow in goodness we become more capable of dialogue. The two mutually reinforce each other.
The strength of Backman's book is that he understands good dialogue as depending less on communication techniques than on spiritual character. He argues that dialogue is a central part of the Christian calling. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, Christians need to become especially adept at dialogue and conflict resolution because we're not allowed to kill each other. Or, as Backman puts it, "[dialogue] helps us live out our calling as Christians: to live … in love with God and one another."
In the first four chapters Backman highlights the role of character formation for good dialogue. In the second half of the book, as a veteran of many difficult dialogues, he shares practical wisdom concerning the process of dialogue. Seeking to encourage dialogue in arenas both private and public, Backman shares experiences from marriage and wider ecclesial and political conversations.
In his chapter "Three Mind-Sets for the Journey" Backman explores the humble postures of "I don't know," "and yet," and "both/and" that help us engage dialogue. In the next chapter he recommends ways of learning advanced practice skills by doing things such as reading a variety of media perspectives and through cultivating relationships with people of different political and cultural backgrounds. In "Making Dialogue Happen" Backman covers eight crucial practices that make dialogue more possible, practices such as interrogating preconceptions and reframing issues.
(This review originally appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and appears here by kind permission of the author. )