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Conversation: A Dying Art?

Last month, I enjoyed the privilege of leading a Christian discussion group on the topic of Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio Journal interview with Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.

The book is something of an elegy for what the author recalls as great conversations of the past. Specifically, he laments the passing of the English coffeehouse as a venue for fine conversation.

The book is well researched and contains a number of apt observations from conversationalists of the past.

But it does have short-comings. Most notable among these is the fact that Mr. Miller is not coming from Christian perspective, although he does note, “I would have no trouble continuing a conversation with someone who is deeply religious so long as he or she was not a zealot who believed in Biblical inerrancy …”

This lack of a Christian worldview seems to leave his elegy for conversation a little utilitarian. He laments the decline of conversation, but he doesn’t place conversation in the context of a created order. While he does point to, for example, the role of conversation in the development of ideas in history, he doesn’t root the value of conversation in our design as creatures intended for relationships. Ken Myers introduces the interview by appealing to, among other things, C.S. Lewis’s observation in “The Weight of Glory” that there is no such thing as a mere mortal human being. Ideas like this are nowhere reflected in Mr. Miller’s book.

But that doesn’t mean that the book lacks value. Mr. Miller has made a contribution to social history, and his book raises some interesting questions:

· What is conversation? Mr. Miller defines it as the act of speaking with others without any objective other than enjoyment and exchange. Is he correct?

· What are the effects of conversational decline on a culture?

· What are our conversational responsibilities before God and one another?

· What happens to a culture when people are careless with words?

· What can we do, as individuals and as the Body of Christ, to ensure the survival of conversation that is edifying and enjoyable?

· How can we show in our conversation that we take others seriously as immortals created in the image of God? How do we show respect for one another?

· Mr. Myers refers to cultivating the “discipline not to absorb the manners” of such communications technologies as e-mail and IMing. How can we do this?

· Is modern conversation too self-focussed?

· How should we pursue conversation in our own circles?

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