Text + Subtext: The Importance of Cultivating Discernment

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"The truth is that if God is not creating our lives, then those around us are."

-M. Craig Barnes, from The Pastor as Minor Poet


Throughout my pastoral work, something I've learned from M. Craig Barnes (among others) is that when it comes to the complex lives of people, we're dealing with two different things simultaneously.

First, there's Text.

Text is what someone is saying, or how they are presenting themselves to me. Someone who comes to me might say, "my wife is really mad at me" - that is Text. That's the story they are telling themselves. And on the surface, that's true. That man's experience of his wife is that she is mad at him. He wants me to give him strategies to help him soften the anger of his wife. Or perhaps he wants me to sit down with his wife and tell her to be nicer to him. Tell her to lighten up, that he's a good guy, and she needs to be more grateful for all he does to provide for their family.

But, here's what I know. Often, in a situation like this, he doesn't want to be curious about why his behavior may be upsetting to his wife.

As I dig deeper, and ask questions about how they relate, how vulnerable he is with her, and how emotionally relatable he is - this tells me so much about why, perhaps, this man's wife is mad at him.

And that leads us to the second thing at play - Subtext.

Subtext is is the thing behind the thing. Subtext is usually a couple layers down from the immediate behavior, or what the man is interpreting as his wife's anger.

The Subtext to this man's story is that he's been in a job he hates for over 10 years, and he's miserable. When he comes home from work most days, he's emotionally exhausted, and unavailable to his family. He ignores the kids, ignores his wife, grabs a beer from the fridge, eats his dinner in front of the TV, while his family sits at the table together, and then eventually falls asleep on the couch, without any meaningful interaction with his family.

This is why his wife is mad.

In the name of a steady paycheck, he's chosen to be a miserable, distant man - and it's killing his family.

You would be mad too.

So there's Text, and there's Subtext. Both are always at play.

We see this playing out in the political stage right now. As long as there's been politics, there's been Text and Subtext.

One side gives a narrative ("there's a crisis at the border") and the other side gives a differing narrative ("there's an incompetent person in the Oval Office").

The thing with Text is that there can be some measure of truth to it, but it's almost never the ENTIRE truth.

As I watch people online, and in person, argue over the two versions of Text on our political stage right now, I'm finding I'm so much more interested in the Subtext that's lies underneath the narrative that's being pushed by people in power.

Here's the questions I'm asking:

1. What's really going on here?

2. What are the goals of those pushing their own narrative?

3. Who is the most reliable storyteller here?

4. What does each party stand to gain by pushing their narrative?

5. How can we find the truth in this story?

6. Who in the media is asking the questions underneath the narrative being told?

7. What's the Subtext here?

There's always Subtext at play - our job, as pastors, whether it's with someone in our office, or listening to the words of the President, is to look beneath the surface, and ask the questions that need to be asked that lie underneath the Text.

I pastor people who both believe the Text of the President, without question, and those who hold a particular disdain for him and everything he says.

There's also Subtext a play that is influencing how we hear and feel about people like the President - but that's another post for another day.

The Subtext speaks volumes though, if we cultivate the ability hear it, to read it, and to be curious about it.

I would suggest that Christians are people who learn to read the Subtext, because Jesus was all about Subtext. Scripture is full of Subtext. A life found in God is inundated with Subtext.

Discernment is the ability to look past the Text, and read + listen more deeply to the Subtext.

So, may we be faithful pastors, who cultivate our Subtext muscles.

May we be faithful Christians, who do the same.

May we be skeptical of powerful people pushing a narrative - for surely they have an agenda.

May we take our formation as discerning people more seriously than any political crisis.

Because that's what Christians do.