Preacher and teacher of preachers, Tom Long, now retired from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, addressed a gathering of ministers a few years ago.

To illustrate the changing cultural context for many churches today, he offered an insightful metaphor.

In great detail, he described the significant changes over recent decades to a shopping mall near his home in Atlanta. Among the many shifts, the newer businesses were much more ethnically diverse and specialized than when the mall was built.

With the skill of a gifted communicator, he painted a picture that was clear and memorable. And, most importantly, it was easily applicable.

Then he paused, and his head dropped a bit.

He told of preaching recently at a church in a drastically changing community — and using that very illustration to encourage them to see their neighbors more clearly, to rethink their approaches to ministry, and to respond in Christ-like ways.

Following the service, church members greeted him warmly and expressed appreciation for his sermon. One man shook Tom’s hand vigorously and smilingly said, “I went to the mall last week too.”

That line became the go-to retort, which my friends at the conference and I put to use for our own entertainment.

Over dinner or while walking around town, one minister friend would give an insightful analysis of something going on in the world. And one or more of us would respond smart-alecky, “I went to the mall last week too.”

Likely, the man who first made that comment lacked the capacity or willingness to think more deeply about the subject at hand. There was no level of communication that could have reached him.

In other cases, there are those who hear and comprehend a message but find it so uncomfortable that they quickly deflect or misappropriate it. This can be an intentional effort or such a well-practiced reflex that it occurs without thought.

Often, those who want to appear astute at countering uncomfortable claims — but can’t do so in response to what was actually said — will resort to reading something into the case that is simply not there.

There’s plenty that I say and write that’s worth being challenged, I’ll tell those persons. So please don’t argue with what I didn’t say that you chose to read into my words.

A few months ago, I reacted on social media to the many posts I’d seen about the Super Bowl halftime show — noting the tendency of older white people (like me) to expect entertainment and everything else to align with their personal preferences.

I noted how something uncomfortable or unfamiliar to a person of privilege is often considered to be a threat — causing an overreaction beyond simply changing the channel.

As responses to the post multiplied, I saw at least two reactions that stated: “Sure, everyone who didn’t like the halftime show is a white supremacist.”

Of course, that is not at all what I had written. Perhaps those were “mall persons” who just completely missed the point.

Much more likely, it wasn’t a matter of misunderstanding, but an effort to dismiss the real point by creating a substitute one.

This defensive technique calls for rephrasing a valid argument into an invalid argument and then shooting it down — as if doing so refutes the original analysis that caused discomfort.

Strawman building is a popular sport. Those standing in defense of Christian nationalism make extensive use of it.

For example, those seeking justification for granting Christian support to an amoral political leader whose values and actions are completely at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus like to say, “I’ll take a mean tweet in exchange for [lower gas prices or whatever].”

“Mean tweets” (before a ban by Twitter) is presented as the sole or primary offense. That’s quite a red-hatted strawman.

We don’t hear them saying, “I’ll take a lifetime of cheating, lying, narcissism, racism, sexual abuse and stirring violence for cheaper gas.”

Yet those are the attributes and actions that get excused in support of the politics of white, evangelical cultural dominance.

The road of communication can have bumps and roadblocks in both directions. Sometimes, the deliverer doesn’t deliver the message very clearly.

And the reception may fail in any one of these three ways: (1) the incapacity to think analytically; (2) an intentional deflection of what was conveyed because it contains uncomfortable truth; or (3) reflectively reading something into the analysis that’s not there but is easier to refute.

None of us is in Jesus’ league. Yet even he yearned for those who could or would hear what he was trying to convey.

He must have become frustrated at times when what he said repeatedly — and revealed through his example — was not fully grasped.

Perhaps some of his listeners just didn’t understand. More likely, they understood but found his words too unlike what they’d settled on as truth — and too costly to embrace.

It’s not hard to imagine Jesus passionately proclaiming the immediate-yet-eternal, life-giving and topsy-turvy kingdom of God to a large crowd, only to have someone depart saying, “Good one, rabbi. I went to the marketplace last week too.”

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