Quality dialogue with LGTBQ+ friends is what we need in place of all these poor monologues.
Dialogue is a tricky thing. It’s also a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and intimidating, thrilling and terrifying, messy and comforting. But it’s also amazingly tricky. Dialogue assumes that someone has been speaking before I speak; and that I’ve actually been listening to that person speak; and that when I speak the other person will be listening to me as well. I wonder if those assumptions actually make their way into the practice of dialogue. Probably not as often as we think. And consequently, dialogue is a tricky thing.
Even now, this essay is part of a dialogue. I wish I could peek out from behind the pages and see how you—the reader, the listener—absorb and consider my little snippet of dialogue. And then, I wish I could sit quietly—be a listener myself—to hear your response. I’m like an actor peeking out from behind the curtain during intermission, trying to get a sense of the room that might inform the interpretation of the second act.
But, let me remind us, dialogue is tricky. The circumstances and settings are not always optimal for a conversation to take place. We don’t always listen well. We very often respond, not to what is said, but to what we thought we heard or how we heard it. We don’t engage in dialogue in a vacuum, severed from our backgrounds and experiences. And we are extremely practiced at crafting our own monologues which likely don’t give dialogue even a fighting chance of happening in the first place. In fact, some of us haven’t even fashioned our own monologues, because we are so adept at parroting the monologues of others.
My admiration and apprehension toward this tricky thing called dialogue comes from my years in professional theatre. As an actor, director, and writer I’ve never been able to grasp all the nuances of quality dialogue. Which means I’m never able to control dialogue. What I mean by quality dialogue in the theatre is dialogue that both reveals and conceals the inner workings of characters’ minds and hearts. Quality dialogue leaves a lot out. Quality dialogue requires actors to be capable listeners who play into the silences and spaces in order to find or make meaning. Quality dialogue draws in the imagination of the audience, inviting them to do some of the work to fill in the gaps. And finally, quality dialogue always, eventually, inevitably, leads to revelation.
Dialogue is the foundational requirement for a piece of theatre. Unless, of course, it’s a one-actor show. In that case there is no obvious dialogue. Instead, it’s a monologue: one person, on stage for 90 minutes or more, talking without rejoinder. Yet, if it is well-written, well-directed, and well-performed theatre, listening still happens. The actor who is doing all the speaking must constantly be listening to the mood and energy of the audience. Even if the piece is not a direct address, the actor must be aware of the facial expressions, the body movements, and the general receptivity (or lack thereof) of those listening. And in this sense it’s dialogue, because there is so much listening going on.
At the intermission point of this essay, you may be a little intrigued (or entirely put off) by all this theatre talk. You may be wondering what this has to do with including LGTBQ+ friends in the faith community. If I may be allowed to step out from behind the curtain, we might have a bit of imagined dialogue right here in this essay, as a means of connecting some dots. It will assist us to have character names for the dialogue. I’ll be WILL (in homage to William Shakespeare). You’ll be TOBY (in homage to Toby Belch, a Shakespearean character; and also because “Toby” can be any gender, etc., so you can feel at ease as yourself).
TOBY: Why are you talking so much about dialogue?
WILL: Cut to the chase, eh? Ok. Fair enough. I’ll answer your question with a question. Do you think we have much dialogue going on in the church today concerning all the “hot button” issues? (pause) Take inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the full life of the church. What do you think?
TOBY: (plainly, not defensively) Well, I hear people talking about it all the time. I even hear some pastors preach about it on occasion, though I can’t ever figure out exactly what some of them believe about it.
WILL: (with a wry smile) Is that really dialogue?
TOBY: I mean, even I talk about it with my church friends. We all seem to agree that those kinds of things are sins and so we can’t really have those people as members in the church, can we?
WILL: (facetiously) So we’ll just judge people, based on what we perceive to be sin, and not really focus on loving people, caring for people, reconciling people to Christ?
TOBY: (honestly, with no malice) I guess we actually love them, we just don’t love their sin. That’s at least the sense I get from our church leaders.
WILL: I see. Then how do we deal with other perceived sins? Let’s just take gluttony and lust for starters. Do we make the distinction between person and thing there? How do you see that playing out?
TOBY: (with a huge sigh, as if staring over the edge of a high cliff) Uh … Well … we might be getting too far into people’s private lives.
WILL: (a bit aggravated) I think we may need to restart this conversation and you need … No, we both need to … (pause; closes eyes, leans head back) This is gonna take a while.
TOBY: (curtly) I have to go in about 5 minutes.
WILL takes a deep breath, and looks with compassion and exasperation at TOBY, not sure how to proceed; then decides to speak his mind.
End of Act
Mercifully, the previous act has ended at the point of the dialogue where we’re about to go off the rails. Have you ever been in a conversation like this one? Do you see a bit of yourself in either Will or Toby? How easy it is for us to start with good intentions and quickly devolve into getting our point across, or not really listening, or just wanting to stop talking about the issue entirely.
I’m going to suggest something: the institutional church—we, us, those who are attempting to follow Jesus and are connected in some way to a systematized church structure—have far too long spent our time on poorly crafted monologues instead of doing the difficult, long, sacrificial work of seeking out and practicing quality dialogue. And even our dialogue sounds strangely familiar to long, poor monologues chopped up into segments. Poor monologues have no element of listening in them. There is no self-examination, no humility, no asking “What if?” Instead, poor monologues exude certainty and finality.
When we look at how Jesus interacted with people and the nature and character of who Jesus is, we don’t find poor monologues; we rarely find monologues at all. Jesus overwhelmingly and in almost all interactions engages in dialogue. In fact, the only times he borders on the kinds of monologues that shut down conversation and don’t invite others to respond are when he tells the religious authorities exactly who and what they are. That’s very telling.
There’s a story in the Gospels of Jesus visiting his hometown. He’s teaching, having conversation in the synagogue, listening to the needs of those around him. His conversation partners are family, insiders, those who are well-respected in the religious system. They don’t seem interested in dialogue. Instead, they’ve got poor monologues: posing questions in a rhetorical way, not wanting to hear the answers. “Who is this dude, really? Isn’t he just a carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son? We see his family right over there! How does he think he can teach us anything?” They were offended by Jesus (Mark 6:3). The story ends with Jesus unable to do anything there except heal a few sick people. And we can surmise from the context that those few people were not the ones spewing poor monologues at him. Let that sink in: Jesus couldn’t do anything there! Not he “chose not to,” nor he “waited until they came around.” Jesus, the divine, God of the Universe couldn’t do anything because of their poor monologues. It’s tragic.
I get a bit of what Jesus was dealing with in that story. He was focused on the needs of the few who would be his dialogue partners. He wasn’t concerned with the willpower of the religious elite, nor the obstinacy of his supposed friends, nor the offendedness of those who’d known him so long. He wasn’t interested in predetermined monologues.
As a college professor at a state school, I’m mostly focused on the needs of my students. They are my dialogue partners. I’m not overly concerned with the health of the institutional rigging, nor the demands of administration, nor the tinkering of state legislators. They all have their monologues on a loop. But listening to and dialoguing with my students is the main practice that yields something worthwhile.
Also as an artistic director of a professional theatre company, I’m focused on the needs of actors and artists. I’m not overly concerned with the high opinions of theatre critics, nor the ebb and flow of audience preference, nor the influence of deep-pocketed donors and businesses. Cultivating a focus on artists’ needs is the main thing that helps put something meaningfully creative into the world.
As an ally of LGBTQ+ friends, many who are following the way of Jesus in beautiful and creative ways, my interest is focusing on their needs. I’m not overly concerned with the stance of the system, nor the monologues of supposed authoritative insiders.
And there it is. That’s where this thing is landing.
We must end our prepared poor monologues and start to really dialogue with our LGTBQ+ brothers and sisters. And in these dialogues, we need to talk a whole lot less. We need to become better, more sustained, listeners. That means setting aside all our preconceived beliefs and ideas to make space for receiving what we’re hearing. When we do that, we might find that we haven’t been focused on the needs of the right people.
I’ll leave you, my reading conversation partner, with this. The Christian story isn’t finished. Things are not anywhere near as settled as we think they are and want them to be. We come from a long line—beginning with the Jews who were the first Followers of the Way—in which we debate and discuss and dialogue about the substance of our faith. In fact, to be Orthodox, Anglican, and Wesleyan means a theological trajectory of figuring it out as we go. It means that though all of God’s character and nature were revealed in Christ, the risen Christ is still very much alive today and through the Spirit is making known to us—little by little, often by our trial and error, in response to our questions—the Way. Sounds a lot like quality dialogue. If that kind of uncertainty, adventure, and open-endedness doesn’t suit us, then a Wesleyan tribe may not be the tribe we’re looking for. There are other tribes who happen to think all is more solid and unchanging.
Which leads me to the final thing. We might be wrong. Any one of us; or all of us. Yet, the dynamic of love is something I’m willing to be wrong about. Whatever the end looks like, I don’t mind having a dialogue with Jesus that goes like this:
BRIAN: How did I do?
JESUS: Brian, you loved too big, you were too inclusive, your understanding of universality was flawed, and you listened too much.
END OF PLAY (BUT NOT THE END OF THE STORY)
Brian Niece is Professor of Humanities and Theatre at St. Johns River State College and adjuncts in theology, philosophy, and acting at several other universities. He serves as Artistic Director for Lumen Rep Theatre, is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, and is an Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene.