Authentic Communication

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“If you want to wed communication theory with practice in ways that promote authenticity, foster community and serve the needs of others, then this book will challenge you. If you want to respond faithfully to postmodern messages in ways that demonstrate your commitment to biblical truths and respect for others, then this book will serve you and those around you well. In engaging and accessible ways, Muehlhoff and Lewis help readers to think Christianly about communication by illuminating complex communication theories and concepts from biblical perspectives. This book is a reminder that Scripture treats words, and our use of them, very seriously.”

Robert H. Woods Jr., Spring Arbor University


In the movie Cast Away, Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) is a FedEx troubleshooter who finds himself in trouble when his Pacific- bound jet violently crashes in a tropical storm. As the only survivor he is stranded on a deserted island which will be his home for the next four years. To survive he learns to build a fire, chart weather patterns, spear fish and even perform minor surgery. As months turn into years Noland realizes that his greatest threat is not a lack of nutrition or protection from the elements, but his utter aloneness. The daily communication he had with coworkers, family and lover is gone. He yearns to be acknowledged by another. His desperation leads him to form a relationship with the movie’s most unlikely character, Wilson. Wilson is a volleyball that washes up from the crash. With a bloody palm print as a crude face, Wilson becomes a lifeline of communication. Every decision—thoughts of suicide, dangers of escaping into the Pacific waters, rationing of food—is discussed in detail with Wilson.

In his four years of seclusion, Hank’s character comes to appreciate what most of us seldom think about: the necessity of communication. Communication is, for most of us, a routine part of everyday life that we take for granted. After all, we’ve been communicating our entire lives, haven’t we? One of the goals of Authentic Communication is to help students studying communication at the university level challenge and undo the naturalness of communication. As students and professors who have dedicated ourselves to exploring the field of communication, we need to challenge our propensity to take communication for granted.

However, communication majors aren’t the only ones who should be interested in communication. Christians, inside and outside the university, need to reclaim a deep appreciation for human communication. A central claim of this volume is that through the study and practice of communication we accomplish crucial aspects in the life of a believer.

When reading the Scriptures we immediately encounter challenging commands and expectations that are given to all believers. Paul informs us that in the Christian community “if one part suffers” then all should share in his or her pain (1 Cor 12:26). If a dispute arises between us and another believer, we are asked to “[speak] the truth in love” and deal with conflict and anger before the setting of the sun (Eph 4:15, 25-26). Husbands are asked to love and sacrifice for their wife (Eph 5:25) just as Christ loved and sacrificed himself for the church. In return, a wife is asked to “respect” her husband (Eph 5:33) with the same reverence reserved for Christ. All believers are called to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, compassionate and humble in spirit (1 Pet 3:8). Remarkably, God has entrusted his gospel to human communicators and asked that it be taken to all people groups (Mt 28:19-20).

As followers of Christ, how are we to accomplish these daunting commands?

Part of the answer will be a constant reliance on the Holy Spirit, prayer and a deep understanding of the Scriptures. However, it will also require that each of us become students of communication. What unifies each of these biblical commands is that communication skills are necessary to fulfill them.

The command to share in the suffering of others entails our empathizing with each other. Communication scholars define empathy as the ability to project into a person’s point of view in an attempt to experience his or her thoughts, feelings and perspective. Empathy is a foundational communication skill. Paul’s call to resolve conflict requires that believers understand two important communication concepts: communication spirals and the power of words. A positive spiral is a pattern of communication in which positive, confirming messages are reinforced and reciprocated between individuals. If we want a person we are experiencing conflict with to listen to our version of the disagreement, then we must listen to his or hers. The idea of communication spirals is not new. In a letter to the church in Galatia Paul tells us that what we “sow” we will most certainly “reap” (Gal 6:7).

Those seeking to resolve interpersonal conflict must also understand the power of words. The writers of the book of Proverbs describe “reckless words” as a piercing sword (Prov 12:18). Readers are advised to drop a “matter before a dispute breaks out” because “starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam” (Prov 17:14). If we are to resolve conflict, we must understand the distinction drawn by the Scriptures between a productive dialogue and a quarrel.

Paul’s command for husbands and wives to love and respect each other requires a broad array of communication skills. In a poll sponsored by the National Communication Association, readers were asked to list the main reasons for divorce in America. Above finances, sexual problems, interference from family members and previous relationships, individuals stated that communication problems are the number one reason marriages fail. If Christian marriages are to be distinct in a culture of divorce and we are to fulfill our calling to love and respect each other, then we must communicate in ways that bring honor to Christ and health to our marriages. The call to communicate God’s story to a diverse world requires a careful consideration of the fundamentals of persuasion and person-centered communication.

Each of these communication concepts—empathy, conflict management, communication spirals, words and symbols, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and person-centered communication—will be discussed in Authentic Communication. We know that in many cases our handling of each of these communication concepts, while substantive, just touches the surface. Indeed, entire books have been written about each of the concepts of this volume. While our book is written primarily to students majoring in communication, our goal is help every follower of Christ understand how his or her faith is expanded, challenged and put into action by a clear understanding of communication.


In the first section of this book we discuss key components of communication. In chapter one we define communication and discuss how we can improve our communication competence. It is surprising that communication scholars still struggle to develop a definition of communication that respects its deep complexity. Chapter two explores the role our perceptions play in how as communicators we view ourselves and others. The narratives individuals create to explain themselves and the world are deeply influenced by our uniquely diverse perceptions, which in turn are influenced by culture, media and what we are conditioned to perceive. Chapter three explains that we express our ideas, feelings and philosophies through words or symbols. The writers of Proverbs gives the ultimate compliment to words when they boldly state that our speech has the power to dispense either life or death (Prov 18:21). Section one concludes with an introduction to the study of persuasion and rhetorical theory (chap. 4). The apostle Paul informs the church at Corinth that anyone who has come to “fear the Lord” should now seek to “persuade men” (2 Cor 5:11). A Christian’s ability to persuade those outside the Christian community will be helped by an understanding of the principles of persuasion.

Section two takes these communication concepts and applies them to key issues, opportunities and questions facing a Christian communicator. Christ calls his followers to love and forgive each other as he loves and forgives us, so how do we address the inevitable interpersonal conflicts that threaten our unity (chaps. 5-6)? How can we utilize rhetorical theories in helping us winsomely present the Christian worldview in a communication environment dominated by blogs, text messages, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube (chap. 7)? As Christian communicators in a discipline progressively influenced by postmodern theorists, how do we present an alternative view of truth, morality, knowledge and spirituality (chaps. 8-10)? In recent years communication scholars have become increasingly concerned with how individuals approach and talk about our differences. What do we do as Christian communicators when encountering people who not only disagree with us but are hostile (chap. 11)? Finally, how can today’s Christian communicator engage in social justice and speak for those in society who have been abandoned and silenced (chap. 12)?

Each of the issues raised in Authentic Communication will be addressed by appealing to leading communication scholars such as Julia T. Wood, John Durham Peters, Walter Fisher, Brant Burleson, Em Griffin, Dwight Conquergood, Kenneth Burke, Ron Arnett, Quentin Schultze and Stephen Littlejohn, along with Christian thinkers, statesmen and theologians such as J. P. Moreland, C. S. Lewis, Duane Litfin, William Lane Craig, G. K. Chesterton, D. A. Carson, John Woodbridge, Timothy Keller, Michael Green, Craig Hazen, Charles Malik and William Wilberforce. In each of the chapters we seek to explore how the Scriptures illustrate, challenge and broaden our understanding of communication. However, integration is often a two-way street—communication theory and concepts also help us understand the Scriptures.

One of the ancient writers of the book of Proverbs states that “a word aptly spoken” can be compared to “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov 25:11). Just as a metalsmith carefully studies how precious metals like silver and gold can be brought together to form fine jewelry, so we ought to study the wonderful complexity and mystery of human communication. What took Chuck Noland four years to learn on a deserted island, we can discover by exploring how communication theorists and the Scriptures approach what we do every day—communicate.