Last week the church issued some official guidelines to help members have productive online conversations about the gospel. I immediately thought of the Star Trek: The Next Generation espisode called Darmok.
The church suggests that we not represent what we say as official church teachings or give the impression that we are official church representatives. Instead, we should describe in friendly and engaging terms how we experience the gospel. In a way, it is like bearing witness. There is no need to argue or contend, because our own experience is not subject to cross-examination by others. We are advised to avoid defensiveness or belligerence and to speak in thoughtful, friendly, respectful ways. The guidelines point out that what we say is less important that the way we say it.
I think that is all good advice, but we also need to remember Darmok. There are more barriers to communication than we can imagine. The wiki summarizes the ST:TNG episode this way:
A Tamarian captain abducts Captain Picard in an eager attempt to bridge their language gap through archetypal, intense shared experience. The Enterprise captain and crew must decipher the Tamarian’s metaphorical language, or risk failing in the opening of diplomatic relations and, worse, losing Captain Picard to a meaningless death at the hands of an entity with the capability to disappear.
The Tamarian language is unintelligible to the Starfleet’s universal translators, because it is too deeply rooted in local metaphor, so its sentences do not have any meaning to other civilizations.
I think we latter-day saints sometimes also have this problem with communication. Even though we communicate in our native languages, we sometimes use words in insider ways that render communication with outsiders difficult. For instance, our word _endowment_ is completely unintelligible to someone who doesn’t know about us. And terms like _Haun’s Mill_ or _Martin’s Cove_ are fraught with significance for us, and we can convey a lot of meaning to one another just by saying the names of those places aloud. But when we do, we need to understand that outsiders are left scratching their heads. The intensity of our language of shared experience doesn’t translate well to Investigator-ese, so we need to be careful if we intend to be understood.
We also need to be aware of the Scientology Rule. As ably explained by Ronan, this rule holds that if a behavior is weird if it is done by the Scientologists, it is also weird if done by us. Put yourself in the place of someone who is encountering us for the first time. When he finds out that the missionaries rose at 5:00a.m. all during their teen-age years in order to attend religious indoctrination classes, we ought to at least be able to understand how he might think that is a little crazy. When he finds out that the missionaries dress identically and go in pairs all the time, are required to work six and a half days a week, and are only allowed to make two phone calls per year to their families, our hypothetical investigator can be forgiven if he starts to think that we enjoy swigging Kool-aid while waiting for the Hale-Bopp comet to come pick us up.
My point is that we should keep the church’s guideline in mind, and also realize that our attempts to explain ourselves to others sometimes suffer because we don’t account for the insider/outsider dynamic.