“Sometimes I feel like when someone asks me if I believe in God, it’s like a blind person asking if I’m black so that they can put me in the right category.”

Hank Green

Shorthand and Dictation Books

Shorthand and Dictation Books (Photo credit: Blue Train Books)

“Do you believe in the Bible?” David asked. My chest clenched, as I emotionally resonated with Hank Green’s words. David is far from blind, but he was certainly trying to categorize me, or at least check a box on his relational necessity check list. We were about to have one of ‘those conversations.’

There are hosts of assumptions associated with the phrase ‘believe in the Bible’ that primarily reflect an evangelical understanding of scriptural authority, but not everyone is an evangelical, perhaps not even David. Thus, a dozen secondary questions demanded consideration: Believe? Literally or figuratively? Historical text or a moral authority?  The answers ‘yes’ and ‘no’ both had the potential to lead to inaccurate assumptions about my worldview. I sat in silence for a moment, unsure what to say because I knew that like pulling a thread in a sweater, I couldn’t answer David’s deceptively simple query without unraveling an unending string of ideas I hadn’t anticipated.

Over the last couple years I have grown increasingly suspicious of ‘yes or no’ questions because they tend to promote only the illusion of understanding. Firstly, ‘yes or no’ questions tend to present a false dichotomy—black or white, red or blue, left or right—when really the truth is a twisted or conditional amalgamation of the possibilities. Few things in life are truly binary. Secondly, the phrasing of ‘yes or no’ questions, at least in reference to politics or religion, often serves as shorthand for entire philosophies. Questions like ‘Do you believe in the Bible,’ ‘Do you support family values?’ or ‘Are you for marriage equality?’ are inescapably loaded, as any response is understood to indicate a particular thought process on one side of a contemporary debate. Furthermore, a person who uses a particular thought process to examine one issue is often assumed to use the same thought process to examine every issue. Thus the religious man is assumed to hold this political view, and the partisan expected to embrace that religion.

In turn, I tend to assume the person posing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question believes the answer will provide them with enough information to surmise my political or religious leanings, and thus further inform their opinion of me as a person. To borrow a phrase from Hank Green, it’s the same kind of pattern recognition people use to make everyday decisions, from whom to date, to what route to walk home. And just as a cluster of young men in dark and baggy clothes may dissuade me—a young female—from proceeding down a particular sidewalk, the answer to a ‘yes or no’ question may dissuade some people from getting to know me more, because they assume my way of life conforms to a pattern they have learned to recognize.

I don’t want to risk my relationships, or opportunities for relationships, on the understanding of a single word. So when someone asks me a question they expect answered in one word, I let those questions hang…or I point out the loaded nature of their query, or if I really trust the person (and I trust David), and I have time (and I always have time for David), I answer it truthfully; but never with one word, because—in the words of the other Green brother—“the truth resists simplicity.”


One thought on “Shorthand

  1. Yes and no questions can be misleading for the inquirer and for the recipient. However, often times people ask ‘loaded questions’ unthinkingly when they simply want to open up a discussion, without trying to seem to formal. For example most people would find it to formal to say, “I would like to talk with you about the Bible.” On the other hand you do make a valid point. We should not succumb to ‘shorthand’ in an endeavor to place a person in neat little category (such as Christian or infidel) A more thoughtful question would have been, “What do you believe about the Bible?” Boom! An adult discussion has opened.

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