Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.
A few weeks ago, I ventured back into the depths of my Documents folder and found my apologetics cards. It wasn’t long before I started cringing.
My conception of God, though still distinctly Christian, has grown significantly since graduation from high school two years ago. A large part of this has been reading some of the greatest works in religion and philosophy in college; only a few years ago, I had read virtually no significant philosophical works and had virtually no knowledge of any religion besides Christianity.
I want to tell a few stories, and then I’ll close with a few action items for both judges/parents and students who may be reading this article.
When I first started speech and debate, I never did very well in impromptu because I simply wasn’t very good at talking about something random. Then, I noticed that I would get noticeably higher rankings when I would pick a topic which involved talking about God. So, naturally, I began connecting even the most straightforward topics to some spiritual-sounding stuff like grace, Jesus’s sacrifice, or our sin nature. I remember thinking during one round “alright, and for the third point I’ll just drop my voice really soft and sound all distressed about our depraved nature and then close with Jesus.” The topic itself had nothing to do with the Christian message, but by golly I was going to put some spiritual-sounding junk in there somewhere. And that’s exactly what it was: junk.
But it got me the rankings.
I wasn’t glorifying God by using my soft, passionate voice to talk about the virtuous stuff I threw in there to get the judges to like me. I was literally only talking about God because I noticed the correlation between my rankings and the total amount of Christian spiritual content.
I tell this story because I want to warn students against doing what I did.
You might think that this phenomenon is rare. On the contrary, I’ve seen nothing but increasing numbers of competitors catching onto this. At nationals, I judged a round of illustrated oratory. Seven out of the eight speakers spent a sizable portion of their time talking about God despite the fact that only two or three of the topics were actually about spiritual matters. Some of the analogies and methods they used to tie in “God” were so laughable that I’m sure I just had a blank stare across my face for a good portion of the round. (As much as I’m tempted to share an example, I don’t want to call a particular speech out for doing exactly what I was guilty of.) A persuasive room was similar: this time, seven out of eight speakers spoke about some topic of spiritual importance or somehow tied in references to God without actually doing any real in-depth analysis of those spiritual matters. These people are discovering exactly what I did years ago: that judges evaluate speeches with spiritual content with a lower standard.
Now, the NCFCA and Stoa are Christian leagues. I’m not concerned that students are talking about God. I’m actually very glad that speakers are able to speak to religious matters in a Christian environment. Instead, I’m arguing that students should ensure that any reference to God advances the overall message of the speech. If your message is that “sailboats are really cool and interesting,” then make that point. Don’t leave me with a bunch of random spiritual concepts you threw out because they sounded good: leave me with knowledge about sailboats.
I’m also arguing that judges shouldn’t accept spiritual-sounding junk because it’s related to religion — more on this in a bit.
There’s a big gap between the NCFCA’s motto “addressing life issues from a Biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God,” and “mentioning God every thirty seconds to get points.” To quote Lecrae: “I used to do it too,” but I count it as one of the greatest mistakes of my speech and debate career.
So, action items:
1. For students: speak carefully about God. What you say really does have power to change your audience. Don’t use it lightly. Don’t just parrot “spiritual-ese” in spiritual-ish tones. Say something profound. Make sure your judge learns something: write your religious-themed speeches and apologetics cards such that you can teach everyone something. This means research — not just rhetorical devices.
2. For judges and parents: start listening consciously for speakers that are only throwing out Christian-sounding stuff without any real thought or consideration. Don’t excuse weak analysis or lame metaphors just because the topic is somehow Godly. I know there are judges who do this (I’ve seen it happen on my ballots) because there’s a tendency to think that talking about God is far more important than talking about non-religious things. However, this perpetuates the divide between the sacred and the secular. Listen to speeches about missionaries and spiritual matters with the same intensity that you would apply to listening to a speech about sailboats. I don’t want to disclaim any responsibility for having done what I did, but it only happened because judges actually rewarded me for it.
So that’s half of what I want to say. The other half involves an openness to new ideas.