In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: “You know not, but I know.” Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: “Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.” – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 30.

Baha’is believe that respect for the ideas and beliefs of others stands at the heart of good human relationships. When you read a novel or see a movie, look for that kind of respect—you might find that it determines the ultimate effectiveness of the work.

When writers have an agenda, a particular belief system to promote, an axe to grind, or a point to make, their use of religion can easily become heavy-handed. The literary term for this is didactics—meaning the prose has the ulterior motive of instructing the reader.

Having decided that she wishes to prove a particular point to be correct, the writer may just lay it out—straight up. In non-fiction, this can result in the writer sounding as if she is preaching. She might resort to sarcasm or mockery rather than dealing with the ideas directly. This has the effect of engaging emotions, but seldom results in reasoned dialogue. It can also result in the writer making unsupported dogmatic statements, and almost always discourages real dialogue.

In fiction, didactics often ends in some type of verbal warfare; the characters don’t have dialogues so much as they trade sermons or dissertations… and the “good guy” usually wins.

The biggest drawback to sermonizing in fiction is that, while it may sound good to the choir, lay readers are very likely going to put the book down once they realize they’re being preached at. This is not good. The point of language is to communicate. Alienating the person you’re trying to reach is counterproductive. Simply put, if you scream your message, the listener will only cover her ears. When it comes to driving a point home, less is more.

One manuscript I critiqued in a workshop had, built into its synopsis, a section on what the writer was hoping to prove by writing the book. The story itself fell prey to a number of the problems that arise when a writer has an inflexible agenda, but the worst was the manipulation of the characters. A female character was described as being completely naked, though she was in a busy spaceport terminal awaiting a flight.


“Why is she naked?” I asked the writer. ”It would be dangerous, unsanitary, and uncomfortable, among other things.”

“Well,” he said, “I wanted to show how hung-up this other character was on sexuality and his prejudice against the people of this ‘cult’ that run around naked.” The dialogue between the naked lady and the protagonist was a dissertation duel about his hang-ups—not very believable.

I proposed the idea that the writer have his female character travel clothed so she’d blend in with everyone else. Then, when the protagonist later discovers she’s a member of this “cult,” he’ll have his prejudices shattered because she has already challenged his beliefs about what “folks like that” are like. I don’t know if he took my advice.

In my novels, when I pit opposing points-of-view against each other in a religious or philosophical setting, I try to write honestly from each point-of-view. I try to imagine what a person who holds a particular viewpoint would say or do under the circumstances. If I can’t imagine what a character with that mindset might advance as an argument, I can’t write it. That means I have to research that point-of-view and try to understand it.

A lot of writers of religious works, whether fiction or non-fiction, don’t do this.

Why not? Because it’s easier to knock over a straw man than a real one.

In the same way, any real, effective conversation about beliefs has to open up and go beyond facile, two-dimensional, straw-man arguments. In order to truly understand what you believe, I have to put aside my own opinions and prejudices and listen carefully. You have to do the same. In our culture, we tend to talk past each other when we talk about religion.

So in the next essay in this series, we’ll discuss why straw men should avoid people with matches.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.


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  • Jul 01, 2016
    That is such an important point, Darryl!
    I think we first need to learn the universal language of love and the rest will fall into place. I was on a travel teaching trip in Cyprus a few years back, and living in a village where no one spoke English and I didn't speak Greek. The neighbours were really friendly and were often bringing me gifts. I got to know my next-door neighbour quite well, through the help of a translator and learned that she was terrified of snakes. I went onto the internet and found article with pictures on what she could do to make sure they didn't creep into her home. I was so excited, I dragged her over to have a look, and we had a wonderful conversation in which she let me know she was distressed that she was in her house dress and hadn't changed into something better to come over; and it was fun to watch the light bulbs go off in her head as she realized what steps she could take to keep herself safe. It was only after she'd left that I realized we'd had a lengthy visit, both going away feeling rejoiced, and yet neither of us could understand a word the other had to say. Another visit I had with a neighbour, I brought a photo album showing my family and my home and the area in which I lived; and again, had a wonderful conversation through pictures; where my neighbour showed me her home, and her family. It was such a wonderful lesson on the importance of love and how it can transcend language barriers!
  • Jun 26, 2016
  • Paul Desailly
    Jun 22, 2016
    Coincidentally on this same topic dear Baha'i friend Susan Gammage is streaming now:
    Good Lord, Susan!
    Is there any other Baha'i matter in the holy texts that receives this amount of attention from our central Figures? I doubt it. Often overlooked is the fact that consultation has been raised by Them to the rank of a fundamental principle of the Faith, which collectively amount to the only means of bringing about the triumph of the Cause -
    "One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh.”
    Shoghi Effendi, 1924
    The primary inducement impelling me at some cost to pursue true consultation on the language principle is extracted in continuity from Shoghi Effendi’s 1944 tour de force, God Passes By, chapter xii, gratis on line at Bahá'í Reference Library:
    “Consultation He [Baha’u’llah establishes as one of the fundamental principles of His Faith; describes it as ‘the lamp of guidance,’ as ‘the bestower of understanding,’ and as one of the two ‘luminaries’ of the ‘heaven of Divine wisdom.’ Knowledge, He states, is ‘as wings to man’s life and a ladder for his ascent’; its acquisition He regards as ‘incumbent upon every one’; considers ‘arts, crafts and sciences’ to be conducive to the exaltation of the world of being; commends the wealth acquired through crafts and professions; acknowledges the indebtedness of the peoples of the world to scientists and craftsmen; and discourages the study of such sciences as are unprofitable to men, and ‘begin with words and end with words.’
    The injunction to consort with all men in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship’ He further emphasizes, and recognizes such association to be conducive to ‘union and concord,’ [Sixth Ishráq] which, He affirms, are the establishers of order in the world and the quickeners of nations. The necessity of adopting a universal tongue and script He repeatedly stresses; deplores the waste of time involved in the study of divers languages; affirms that with the adoption of such a language and script the whole earth will be considered as ‘one city and one land’; and claims to be possessed of the knowledge of both, and ready to impart it to any one who might seek it from Him.
    To the trustees of the House of Justice He assigns the duty of legislating on matters not expressly provided in His writings, and promises that God will ‘inspire them with whatsoever He willeth.’”
    In excess of 25 years in circumstances tantamount to propagation-deceleration for both the Bahá'í world community and the Universal Esperanto Association no community anywhere conducts face-to-face systematic consultation on Esperanto and the Bahá'í Teachings! (Refer essays in PROOF – for the lay person titled Accelerate the Teaching – 50,000,000 and Equal Rights for Principles. Worse yet, seldom do Bahá'ís present a paper on the principle itself or even discuss it. Given in all matters that consultation is incumbent upon all followers of Bahá’u’lláh how much more important it is vis-à-vis an eternal principle of the Faith vitally linked to its dissemination and to world peace!
    Let’s be crystal clear as to what’s at stake here whether the Bahá’í congregation is stuck, stagnating, stable or swelling: those leaders who obfuscate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instructions vis-à-vis Esperanto and those Bahá'ís who purposefully retard or deliberately shun consultation - itself a fundamental principle of the Faith - in regard to another fundamental principle of the Faith are so deep in denial that their demonstrable breach of the Covenant is perchance unclear to them. All of the principles are obligatory!
    “Observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world” constitutes the crux of Bahá’u’lláh’s opening paragraph of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, (*p42) His Book of Laws and the Mother Book of the Bahá’í Dispensation. (*p41)
    Yes, Susan, at times in words as mild as milk and at times forcibly
    Baha'i love
  • Paul Desailly
    Jun 21, 2016
    What dear Maya is eloquently explaining here with her references to communicating in a proper and seemly way can in a sense be put concisely as Baha'i consultation:
    "In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: “You know not, but I know.” Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: “Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be ...found.”
    – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 30.
    It's rather difficult to imagine that any one in their right mind would label Maya ignorant given her proven talent for penpersonship. I'd even add to Abdul-Baha's wise call above, his advice to use words as mild as milk.
    Nevertheless, there's always a balance in the Baha'i holy texts as Maya well knows. What's to be done with those Baha'is who wilfully and consistently refuse to consult on a fundamental principle of the Faith, let's say?. Please note that I'm alluding to individual Baha'is, especially those in leadership roles, without naming any individuals. In no way am I referencing the Baha'i institutions
    Well, Baha'u'llah Himself provides the definitive answer as to what must occur when all else fails to move influential members of the Baha'i religion as to their duties
    “In all things it is necessary to consult. This matter should be forcibly stressed by thee so that consultation may be observed by all. The intent of what hath been revealed by the Pen of the Most High is that consultation may be fully carried out among the friends, inasmuch as it is and will always be a cause of awareness and of awakening and a source of good and well-being.”
    Bahá’u’lláh, Compilation, p242. (From a Tablet, translated from the Persian.)
    What's to be done in the face of such recalcitrance and worse yet with those Baha'is who refuse to obey Abdu'l Baha's repeated and emphatic admonitions that all Baha'is must study and disseminate one particular language oft referenced in His discourses on the principle of a universal auxiliary language???
    Clearly, we can still be polite and respectful, for example by not accusing any particular individual of disobedience or hypocrisy, while forcibly pointing out the dangers of refusing to consult in that they seem de facto to prefer the English language or Farsi or whatever while ignoring their clear duty.
    One might say in a metaphorical way that there's a time and season for everything: the softly softly feminine approach is best I feel but there comes a time to hear strong fatherly advice when mum is ignored and rebelled against by the recalcitrant.
    Those anglophile and persophile believers un-named are in fact the ones with the agenda to conceal, the ulterior motive and the status quo to preserve that Maya depicts. It's a non sequitur to suggest that writers who are calling for consultation on a fundamental principle of the Faith, in my instance for example on the principle of a universal auxiliary language, are the partial and prejudiced.
    Forcibly, as you can see above, is ok too at times Maya. Actually it's desperately needed because this ignorance among Baha'is as to the language principle's overarching role in making world peace happen, in harmonizing inimical religions and in propagation is linked to a 30 year stasis in enrolments
    Baha'i love
    PS A compilation on Consultation:
    • Jun 24, 2016
      Actually, I realized I understated the case for English being the auxiliary language. I said it was taught in schools all over Europe. I should have said it is taught in schools all over the world. In Japan and African nations as well as European ones.
    • Jun 24, 2016
      While my articles are really not on the subject of choosing an auxiliary language, the fact that we need one is something that is on the minds of Bahá'ís and non-Bahá'ís alike who are engaged in activities that involve working across language barriers.
      Bahá'u'lláh, of course, has says that the universal language can either be selected from existing languages, or created. An attempt was made to create such a language decades ago with the promotion of Esperanto. And at various times in history, it seemed that a particular existing language became the "lingua franca"—that is, the language of trade ...for a wider group of people.
      In the US before it was conquered by Europeans, native alliances had trade jargon that facilitated communication between tribes. There was, for example, a trade jargon used by the member tribes of the Longhouse Federation led by the Iroquois, an organization that provided some of the ideas on which the US constitution is built.
      In the Roman Empire, Latin was the language that bound the diverse parts of the empire together. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French became the language of diplomacy.
      At this point in history, Euro-English has emerged as the language of diplomacy, business, and programming. It's taught from the elementary level in schools all over Europe and is one of three official languages in countries such as Belgium. When I was working as a manager of a software training team, we provided training for businesses in Belgium. Though Flemish, French and English were the official languages, we were asked to provide the training in English only because it had become the de facto auxiliary language for the country. It's entirely possible that Euro-English (which slightly differs from the English we speak and write here in the US in some particulars) will emerge naturally as the auxiliary language.
      It is not an easy language to learn for some people (for example, Chinese, Iranian and Russian speakers of English are often confused by parts of speech that English has that their native languages do not) but it is a flexible language that easily adapts to new technologies, terminologies and ideologies.
      The point I'd like to stress, though, is that whatever language two people speak, if they do not agree on what the words mean, they will still be hampered in their efforts to understand each other.
    • Darryl Braund
      Jun 23, 2016
      Yes Maya, and Jes Paul, the challenges of true consultation are many. Even just understanding what it is. The crippling difficulty of hearing others while someone is “screaming from the pulpit” is obvious to most. IE Are we writing to inform others of an important truth we have, (didactics) or are we seeking to learn more about it, welcoming other perspectives (consultation) ? Are we offering a polished jewel, or asking for help in faceting a potentially precious stone ? Even if we are cross-dressing these two in our confusion, Baha'u'llah instructs us : “If ye be ...aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill.” And so while there will be occasions that “This matter should be forcibly stressed by thee so that consultation may be observed by all” - it seems to me that before we “forcibly stress” whether our ‘disobedient hypocrisy’ or our attachments to Farsi or English, (or Esperanto), are actually causing a global ‘propagation-deceleration’ or not, we need to first learn the more spiritual and universal “language of utmost kindliness and goodwill”. (me too !) EG What would be the advantage if we all learnt Esperanto, but failed to learn the language of ‘utmost kindliness and goodwill’ ? It would just be a continuation of our Old World Order ‘bun fight’ in a different language. Perhaps even with more ‘buns’ than ever before ????…….
      Hmmmm…….(?)…..even writing that could easily be the ‘unkindly’ provocation of a ‘straw man’ (hiding behind his writing and personal delusion of ‘goodwill’) who is trying to expose a possible ‘man with matches’ as the bad guy ; rather than avoiding throwing even more ‘buns’ from the pulpit, and congratulating you both on your faithful courage and vulnerable audacity to stimulate meaningful conversation on a blog (could we really have true consultation via writing ?) Anyhow, Thanks, and Good on ya’ both, you certainly got me thinking and sharing ! Cheers