Chapter 1.
Communication that Transforms

Everyone would like to change something or transform some policy. Some people do not like early morning classes; others dread going to dentists; and most wish they did not have to pay so many taxes. How does one go about changing these unpleasant experiences? A child can be warned with a strong "NO!" Wrong behavior can be corrected with an appropriate punishment, but how does one change the way adults or governments think and behave? Employers may provide job training to increase productivity or offer monetary incentives to affect the behavior of employees. A teacher can motivate adults in an educational setting by offering a letter grade for good performance. But how does one bring about change in another person's beliefs or attitudes where there is freedom to choose between two or three different views?

It may seem impossible to bring about some changes, yet people do change in small ways all the time. Most people are unconsciously affected by a multitude of subtle pressures. Change occurs because of social pressures like the desire for approval, the psychological need to avoid conflict, or in response to an emotional appeal. People desire to learn better ways to meet their needs and are open to suggestions that are persuasively presented. Technological innovations are quickly accepted because they make life easier, but habits are more difficult to alter.

Persuasion was one of the key tools Old Testament prophets used to transform the way people acted. By orally communicating with their audiences, they motivated some to reconsider the way they thought about themselves, God, and their relationship with God and others. If they would transform their way of thinking (repent), God would restore His relationship with them. If the people would forsake the customs of the nations and follow God's ways, His covenant would continue.

The Role of Communication

Prophetic Communication

The prophets functioned as spokesmen for God (Ex. 7:1-2; Jer. 1:4-10) so their main role was to communicate God's words to others. As God's messengers, they were not interested in just declaring the truth. Their purpose went far beyond the goal of simply repeating what they heard.

The prophets were preachers who communicated God's words in order to transform their audience's thinking and social behavior. They were not primarily concerned with writing a record of an historical period, an eschatological chart of future events, or a systematic presentation of their theology. They were real people attempting to communicate urgent messages to friends, and even to some enemies. They were persuading people to look at life in a radically different way (Jer. 3:6-13). They offered hope to the hopeless and a realistic assessment of the nation's weakness to the country's proud military leaders (Amos 6:1-14). They encouraged people to look at themselves from God's perspective and not conform to the prevailing political perspective of the day because of social pressures. They exhorted people to put off their old ways, to take an oath to change, and to transform their lives by breaking new ground (Jer. 4:1-4).

Models of Communication

Communication is the ongoing process in which a source person transmits an intended meaning to a receiving person in order to elicit a response from the listener.

Since people have unique personalities, life experiences, and perceptions of the world, the dynamics of communication vary from conversation to conversation. This three-step communication process (sending-receiving-respond-ing) takes place over a period of time and through a series of events. Burke envisions a complete conversation as a drama with acts, scenes, agents, agency, and purpose. Since most communication involves a series of interactions between two people, a helical model illustrates the dynamics of communication.


Chart: The Helical Model of Communication

These models of communication diagram some regular traits of conversation, but most people have also experienced the unpredictable dynamics of communication. A woman you do not know may say, "Watch out for the car!" You may hear her words, but not be sure she is talking to you. You look again and notice she is looking at you and pointing frantically to your left. Now you realize she is trying to warn you of danger. Quickly, you respond to avoid the car unexpectedly backing up toward you. Then you thank the woman.

The process only took seconds, but it involved the transmission of a meaningful idea through words and gestures so that the listener could understand the warning and take action. If you continued thinking the stranger was speaking to someone else, communication would not occur. If you understood the words to be, "Watch out for the star," miscommunication would occur.

Successful communication involves the reception of the intended idea from the source person. Sounds and gestures convey an intended meaning that may or may not be correctly interpreted. If the message does not make sense to the listener or is interpreted to mean something unintended, a breakdown occurs in communication. Barriers to communication might include: noise which distorts or interrupts the message, ignorance about the topic, or preconceived attitudes about the speaker. A poorly structured speech, unsupported claims, or exaggerated conclusions may also interfere with communicating ideas effectively.

Theological Communication

Communication theory does not address the theological dimension in this process, but it does provide a helpful examination of human interaction. The divine factor must be added to the communication paradigm, for both God and the messenger play key roles in convincing listeners to change their thinking. Messengers cannot control or limit God's work, but they need to be aware of the human factors which influence good communication. This will complement God's work in the listener's mind, rather than discourage it.

When the divine factors are inserted at two points in this communication framework, a more complete model of prophetic discourse is portrayed. The impact of the transcendent power on the communication process is difficult to quantify, but prophetic texts insist on God's part in communication (Mic. 3:8; Ezek. 11:5).

The prophets transmitted God's message to their audiences to elicit a response. After the listener decoded these words (reproducing the speaker's intended meaning), the mysterious influence of God worked in the receptor's mind to bring about conviction and the will to act. The audience may choose to respond to human persuasion and the divine working either positively, with neutrality, or negatively.

Prophetic Cross-Cultural Communication

The prophets spoke to Israelites as well as foreigners from diverse cultural backgrounds. These people spoke several languages, had different laws, and followed unique social customs. They honored many gods and worshiped in a variety of ways. This cultural diversity was most evident when a prophet went to preach in a foreign city like Nineveh (Jon. 3:1-9), but it also existed in Israel itself. Not all the residents in Israel were Jews, and Israelites themselves differed from one another. Some grew up with rural values, while others were impacted by commercial practices in the city. A noble, a judge, or a priest in Jerusalem had a social status of privilege and wealth that poor nomadic shepherds in the Sinai desert did not share. Laws, family custom, and religious commitments varied from group to group and family to family.

Culture is defined as "the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, meanings, beliefs, values, attitudes, religions, concepts of self, the universe... hierarchies of status, expectations, spacial relations, and time concepts acquired by a large group of people." Culture is the learned behavior and thought patterns shared by a group of people. Although one can speak in a general way of an Israelite culture, it is more helpful to recognize that many subcultural groups existed within Israel. These smaller groups were the primary units that defined norms and behavior. They were the sources of information that provided paradigms for understanding the social, spiritual, and natural world.

Cultural differences need to be minimized if two people from different cultural groups are going to communicate. This can be done by finding common points of mutual identification that provide a basis for the transmission of shared meanings. For the word "knife," the cultural context of a woodcarver calls to mind a very positive image of a favorite and much-loved tool. The word "knife" makes a mother think immediately of a dangerous object that might hurt her child. The greater the social, behavioral, philosophical, and linguistic diversity between individuals, the greater the potential for misunderstanding not only what is connoted (the secondary meaning of a word), but also what is denoted (the main meaning of a word). The diagram illustrates the nature of the cross-cultural communication process.

The meaning of an idea intended by the source person passes through several cultural filters that define the encoded words in a culturally specific way. When the receptor hears these words, they are decoded and passed through a different series of cultural filters that may produce a meaning not identical to the idea the source intended. If a messenger does not recognize and compensate for the different cultural or social background of a listener, that person may not accurately understand the intended meaning. For cross-cultural communication to take place, the speaker must know how the audience thinks and then must use terms that fit that frame of reference. For example, a four-year-old would probably not understand the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, but might believe in God from a story about God's creation of humans.

The prophets did not need to address all of the unique cultural perspectives represented in their audiences, but they did need to speak so people could understand them. Many prophets mentioned how their view of the world contrasted with the cultural perspective of the listening group. Jeremiah reminded his Judean audience of their Baalism, using Baalistic imagery and illustrations (Jer. 2). Ezekiel corrected those who blamed the sinfulness of their parents and the injustice of God for their problems (Ezek. 18:1-29) by showing they were guilty and God was just. The cultural gap between the prophets and their audiences complicated the process of transmitting ideas, making it more difficult to convince people to reject their cultural patterns and accept new ideas from the prophets.

Communication to Bring About Transformation

Transformations involve significant change, alteration, or a major development. Transformations may alter the external form, texture, or looks of an object or person; but the most dynamic changes are internal variation. Changing clothes brings a minimal differentiation in the way a person looks, but information can change the way people think or behave. Minor alterations in the way people think take place on a daily basis. If a new discovery or a different way of looking at life proves to be advantageous, people will gladly change. Political philosophies or religious beliefs are usually deeply connected to the self-identity of a person and are more difficult to change.

The prophets desired to transform the way their audiences thought about themselves, their world, and the supernatural powers that controlled both. They wanted to change the norms that governed people's social relationships, to alter their sinful desires to fulfill their own wishes, and to bring their lives into line with God's will. Although many Israelites listened to the prophetic message and allowed God to transform their thinking, some refused to believe what God said.

The Failure to Communicate

Why do some people continue to worship idols generation after generation? Why do people cling to their old ways and not change their social behavior? Why was it so difficult for the prophets to transform the way the Israelites thought about God? Why did the message of pod which the prophets communicated bring about so little change? Several reasons explain why people do not change.

Because God Did Not Speak

Knowledge is liberating, powerful, and the basis for successful transformation. A lack of knowledge leads to fear, ignorance, failure, and an inability to take control of life. Parents teach their children how to act in order to transform their behavior from the selfishness of a two-year-old to the maturity of a high school graduate. Colleges provide detailed information required by various professions in order to change an unqualified freshman into a highly qualified employee. Spiritual knowledge about God's ways frees one from the fear of an unknown God who acts capriciously and without principle.

Before one can change, a person must hear about an alternative way of understanding life. Before a prophet can communicate God's way to live, God must reveal knowledge about His plans for a group of people and send a prophet to deliver that message. True prophets waited until they received divine knowledge from God. Receiving a divine message was a prerequisite because it gave the prophets purpose and authority. If the prophets were to be trusted, if they hoped to maintain their prophetic role as messengers of God, their advice and predictions had to be true. If God did not speak, prophets had no transforming, divine word to proclaim.

References to the infrequency of revelations from God during the time of the judges (1 Sam. 3:1), at the time of the destruction of the northern nation of Israel (Amos 8:11-12), and during Judah's exile (Ps. 74:9; Ezek. 7:26) show that Israel did not always have a new word from God. Since Eli and his sons despised God and were under God's punishment, they were not qualified to receive a message from God (1 Sam. 2:27-36). Israel and Judah rejected God's word through the prophets for many years, so God did not send any new messages at the time of their destruction (Ezek. 7:23-27). The false prophets deceptively claimed to have a word from God, even when He did not speak (see 1 Kings 22; Jer. 28).

Because No Messenger Will Speak

If transformation is to take place, a prophet must be willing to communicate the divine will when God reveals it. Knowledge kept secret has no liberating force. God's ability to change superstition and misguided behavior is frustrated if the audience never hears His wisdom.

The life of Naaman, the Syrian general who had leprosy, illustrates the importance of sharing what one knows about God (2 Kings 5). This valiant warrior had won numerous battles for Syria, yet the dreaded disease of leprosy was slowly eating away his flesh. His professional role as a soldier was brilliant, but his life was miserable because he knew no cure for this disease. A young Israelite girl, captured during one of Naaman's battles, knew a prophet of God in Samaria who could cure leprosy (5:2-4). This information would not help Naaman if the Israelite girl did not tell him about the prophet Elijah. After Naaman came to Elijah, the prophet communicated information about how to be healed of leprosy. Naaman needed to dip seven times in the Jordan River; an illogical act that would only humiliate a man of his stature (5:10-12). Once his servants persuaded Naaman to act on the prophet's advice, God miraculously healed him. As a consequence, his belief system and actions were transformed. Instead of worshiping and serving the Syrian gods, Naaman said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel" (5:15). Naaman's life was transformed because a young girl spoke about a prophet who could heal him and because a prophet willingly told a pagan what to do.

The failure to communicate stifles the possibility of transformation. Therefore, God (the primary source) sent Ezekiel (the messenger) to the stubborn sons of Israel (those receiving) to communicate the message God had spoken (Ezek. 2:3-4). Ezekiel was to "speak my words" (2:7; 3:4) whether the people listened or not (2:5; 3:11). Jeremiah introduced his message in chapter 2 with "the Word of the Lord came unto me saying." Micah announced a message of judgment against God's covenant people in chapter 6 by calling them to "Hear what the Lord is saying." In Isaiah 3:16 the prophet simply said, "The Lord said," but Amos shouted to the sinful Israelites, "Thus says the Lord" (Amos 2:6). These "messenger formulas" are a reminder of the prophets' willingness to speak God's message. Their words testify to the prophets' communication of God's word. If they did not speak, how would people hear the divine communication?

Because the Speaker Is Not Credible

A person dressed in ragged clothes, using poor grammar, and espousing questionable medical procedures could try to communicate a new cure for cancer to a group of doctors; however, the lack of a credible messenger might obscure the brilliant medical treatment. New information is usually accepted or rejected on the basis of answers to a few simple questions. People ask, "Who said it? Why should I believe what they said? What significance does it have to my life?" People ignore those who do not know what they are talking about, but people's lives are transformed when information comes from credible people who know what they are saying.

Since the time of Aristotle, teachers of rhetoric and communication have recognized the disadvantage of not being a credible speaker. Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of discovering the means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatsoever." Aristotle believed that one key means of persuasion was ethos, a term which describes the influence that a speaker's credibility has on the listener's acceptance of what is said. The factors which support a strong persuasive ethos for Aristotle were "intelligence, character, and good will." Whitehead's recent study of rhetoric concluded that a listener would accept a speaker's words if the speaker demonstrated "trustworthiness, competence, dynamism, and objectivity." A speaker of high status with a likable personality who identifies with an audience has more persuasive power.

When people in the Old Testament heard the prophets speaking, they would, consciously or unconsciously, assess the credibility of the speaker. They would be more open to the prophetic messenger who spoke with conviction, demonstrated trustworthiness, identified with the past history or present problems of the audience, and testified to being called by God to the role of a prophet (a status position).

The Israelites did not want to be deceived; they did not want to make fools of themselves by believing something that could not be supported. They wanted to know who the prophets were and where they got their information. Were their words derived from their own imagination (Jer. 23:16, 26)? Were they mouthing political propaganda, or were these the words of God? If the listeners believed the prophet was not trustworthy, honest, or objective, they would not accept what was said (Jer. 43:1-5). These examples show that God's words will seldom transform people's thinking if the messenger has no credibility.

Because the Listener Will Not Believe

Communication is an unpredictable task. God can reveal a powerful message of hope, and a credible messenger can willingly communicate the message in an effective manner; but the listeners may still refuse to respond to the message. The audience may fail to believe and change because they enjoy what they are doing, because their friends do it, or because they misinterpret the message.

When Jehoshaphat visited Ahab, the two kings decided to recapture the city of Ramoth-gilead (1 Kings 22:1-4). After receiving a promise of victory from the four hundred prophets in Ahab's court, Jehoshaphat wanted to hear what a prophet of Yahweh would say. Micaiah, the prophet of God, claimed that Israel would be scattered and be like sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:17); that is, Ahab would die, and the nation would be leaderless. Ahab refused to believe Micaiah's negative prediction and put the prophet in prison. Micaiah was not trusted because he never said anything positive about Ahab (1 Kings 22:8, 18). The king believed that God spoke to the four hundred prophets who predicted victory. Micaiah communicated God's words, and they were fulfilled (1 Kings 22:29-36). These true words, however, did not help Ahab because he would not believe them.

The human and the Divine mysteriously interact in the decision-making process. God sends His messengers to assist in the spiritual battles for the allegiance of all who listen. In the end, individuals are responsible for their actions because each person can choose to accept or resist God's prompting.

The Possibility of Persuasion

Many actions can improve the likelihood of success in communication. Messengers cannot control all the factors which bring about a changed life, but when God sends a messenger to deliver a message, He usually provides an opportunity to persuade the listener. Following the basic principles of effective persuasion makes transformation possible.

Of course, the prophets had no classes on persuasive techniques or communication theory like preachers have today. They naturally observed the culturally defined rhetorical patterns that parents, friends, politicians, teachers, and religious leaders used to convince others to change. One prophet was a better persuader than another; some audiences were more open to new ideas than others; at times God's convicting power moved with greater force than at other times. Although success was not totally dependent on the prophet's skills, the messenger played a pivotal role in the persuasion process. Since the attitudes of the listeners, the personalities of the prophets, and the controversial issues differed, the prophetic messengers used a variety of persuasive techniques. Nevertheless, some common factors influence most persuasive encounters.

Understanding the Audience Permits Persuasion

Since their audiences lived in diverse circumstances, prophets needed to know something about the cultural behavior, beliefs, needs, and attitudes of the audience to speak intelligently to them. What were their political leanings? Did the people have a need for peace and security? Did they honor Israel's God and believe that He was in control of nature? Did they see nothing wrong with praying to God and also enjoying the sensuous ritual at Baal temples?

These factors carry varying weights of influence on the persuasion process. Central beliefs, strong interests, core values, and physical needs were harder to change than peripheral values, nonessential needs, momentary interests, or socio-psychological needs. Persuasive interaction, logical argumentation, and demonstrating the truthfulness of a claim can bring about change, so the wise speaker becomes aware of the audience to increase the potential for transformation.

When Elijah went to persuade Ahab to recognize Yahweh rather than Baal, he needed to understand the attitudes and behavior of his audience. He could not destroy his credibility by accusing them of worshiping Ra, the Egyptian sun god, because no one in his audience believed in this god. He needed to know the weaknesses of their worldview in order to demonstrate God's superiority in a convincing way.

Elijah was aware of Ahab's marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. He knew Ahab built a temple to Baal in the city of Samaria (1 Kings 16:29-34). Elijah approached Ahab in the context of a three year drought that had already undermined the power of Baal, the fertility god (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1). The people were hungry not only for grain but also for the blessings of the god/God who controlled the rain. Elijah demonstrated fairness by setting up equal sacrificial situations for Baal and Yahweh. Everyone agreed to the appropriateness of the challenge (1 Kings 18:23-24). Elijah strengthened the effectiveness of his case by soaking his wood and sacrifice with water (1 Kings 18:33-35) before the lightning from heaven consumed the sacrifice, wood, altar stones, and water (1 Kings 18:38). Elijah's case was further supported by God's answer to his prayer for rain. The people who heard what Elijah said and saw what God did were persuaded to confess, "The Lord, He is God" (v. 39). The message and the miraculous drama supporting it directly affected those who were willing to change their thinking.

Evidence that Supports the Claim, Produces Persuasion

Most people need a reason to change their behavior or beliefs. An emotional appeal to fear, a promise of reward, trust in the integrity of a friend, or the logical relationship between cause and effect may motivate a person to accept another person's claims. People are often easily persuaded on minimal evidence when the issues are not that central to the person's identity or belief system. It is extremely difficult to change a person's opinion about things that are integral to one's core beliefs. The reasons that carry the greatest impact vary from person to person and culture to culture. Thus what appears to be logical and persuasive evidence to one person will be irrelevant to someone in another cultural context.