What has faith to do with communication?

A version of this article by Dr. Christine Gardner, associate professor of communication arts, originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

“What difference does it make that we worship a God who speaks?” This is how I begin my Perspectives on Communication class. I follow up by reading Genesis 1 and asking students to listen for a repeated phrase. (“And God said…”)

According to Scripture, communication has everything to do with faith. God spoke the worlds into being with the power of his voice. As co-creators with God, so too can our words build worlds, shaping our identities, our relationships and our social worlds. At its best, communication is a creative, hopeful act. It is central to the project of shalom because it is all about listening well, looking for what unites us and offering hospitality to perspectives and experiences that are different from our own.

But the biblical narrative also illustrates the limits of communication and the gaps between people and between people and God. The perfect communication-as-communion between God and his creation was ruptured in the fall. Yet God did not give up on his people, continuing to communicate with them, speaking through prophets, burning bushes and a still, small voice.

God’s persistent communication with his people culminates in the ultimate bridging of the gap: the Gospel of John tells us that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). As media ecologist Marshall McLuhan has famously said, “The medium is the message.” This is nowhere more true than the Incarnation: God’s message of love is no longer merely a spoken word through a prophet or burning bush or still, small voice. The message of love is the medium of a man, Jesus Christ, both fully divine and fully human; the embodiment of a loving God who would choose to enter into the blood and sinew, pain and joy, of his creation.

The Incarnation suggests a model for communication that is embodied and present, self-giving and humble. Communication as hospitality and invitation includes showing up and being there for others, as well as recognizing the disparities that exist between people. An incarnational communication uses one’s voice to speak on behalf of the voiceless. As Proverbs 31:8–9 exhorts, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The life of Jesus provides examples of effective communication for human flourishing. Jesus shows up, whether comforting the grieving or engaging a socially marginalized person in conversation. He uses parables instead of propositional arguments, anchoring his fantastical description of the Kingdom of God in quotidian examples of vineyards and watchtowers and sheep. The Incarnation cannot be reduced to a model for communication, but it points to a loving God who once spoke the worlds into being and persists in trying to communicate with his beloved creation in a way in which they can understand.