Earlier this week, I participated briefly in a ferocious online dispute about the matter of which Festival of Dedication is being spoken of in John 10:22-30. My thoughts on the matter itself are scheduled to post on March 1st, which happens to be Adar 3 this year, the date of the obscure festival of dedication spoken of in Ezra 6 that the gentleman I (and others) were debating with posited as the one being spoken of in place of the commonly celebrated Hanukkah . Since I do not plan on talking about the issue under debate, though, it is a fair question to wonder exactly what about the discussion is worthy of spending time on, especially here on the Sabbath as I write this? What I would like to talk about is the nature of our discourse itself, and how this debate served as a poor example of how we should discuss matters of faith and practice.
I knew the discussion would go south when I read the first sentence of the discussion from my online acquaintance, who began his writing with the sentence: “Hanukkah is pagan.” Right from the beginning there was trouble to be found. The trouble was in starting with a statement that is asserted without evidence. It may be that Hanukkah involves celebrations that mimic the ways of the heathen and is therefore unworthy of celebrating, like Christmas or Easter or any other number of festivals, many of which I have discussed here at one time or another. Be that as it may, that is something that must be proven. It can be entertaining to begin at the end and work one’s way backwards if one is telling a story, but one does not generally do so in a way that is going to anger and provoke the reader. If one has things to say that are likely not to correspond with their existing beliefs or understanding, the way one avoids conflict while maintaining honesty is to present one’s case as thoroughly and logically as possible, or to begin from common premises and then work to one’s novel or striking conclusions. However one does it, one does not begin with an unproven conclusion masquerading as a premise, even if one is right.
One would think this would be obvious. Yet this is a common way of speaking, largely because of models that have developed in the past. The theory is that by presenting one’s truth in the most forceful way possible that one induces the reader to disagree and by looking into the matter, prove the writer correct. To be sure, this can work sometimes, namely if one writes in such a way that one does not personally offend the audience to the point where they are driven to not want to hear from you again rather than respond by researching in order to prove you wrong . If the audience does not share the same assumptions, then such an approach can easily backfire. To return to our example, not all of the intended audience would have the same assumptions about the legitimacy of festivals. Some people might have the assumption that any festival that is not commanded in scripture is heathen and therefore forbidden, while others, like myself, are of the belief that those things which are not forbidden are permitted. Clearly, those two assumptions are antithetical and someone operating by the more restrictive one will beclown themselves in the eyes of those with the latter by stating something as a fact out of an assumption they mistakenly thought was shared.
The more assumptions that are shared by an audience with a writer or speaker, the more can be assumed. If we are writing to an audience, for example, that believes in the authority of scripture, we can cite scripture to them and know that they will take it seriously. They may not agree with our interpretation of said scriptures, but they will at least take the scriptures seriously. On the other hand, if someone quotes Mein Kempf or Das Kapital in a discussion with me, or the Koran, I would reply rather fiercely that I did not recognize these as authorities at all, so why was someone trying to waste my time quoting that which is not worth reading, nor something that would bolster any argument in my eyes. Someone who was trying to appeal to me personally would likely know on what grounds they could make their appeal, and if they were wise they would examine my own rather extensive body of accessible writing to see what sort of approach I had to matters and whether I had written about the particular subject already, or what books I had read and reviewed on the matter, as I tend to give my opinion of such matters fairly freely.
This all depends, though, on the assumption that someone engaging in public discourse wishes to appeal to the audience at all. Sometimes people speak because they want to hear their own voice or see their name in print, or to make a point, not because they want to engage other people. Some people think that starting a quarrel between themselves and others is engaging in productive discussion. I have certainly engaged in far more than my own fair share of online debates, to my own detriment at times, but usually in those debates no matter how fierce I was, I viewed myself as speaking in defense. Rarely have I, at least in my own mind, gone out of my way to start a quarrel. Admittedly, there have been plenty of times I have not gone far enough to avoid one, though. It is hard for us to really know ourselves and know what we are after in our interactions with others, and it is certainly hard if we know ourselves to really face up with the difficulties we place in edifying others and being a good example of the wisdom of serpents and the kindness of doves. Far too often we merely make ourselves look like angry people no one wants to be around, and we wonder why people unfriend us and hide our posts on social media. Wonder no more.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: