31 Oct Talking about Baha’u’llah
A couple of weeks ago we had a really great set of Bicentenary celebrations in my cluster near New York City. Literally hundreds of people showed up, spiritually connected with Baha’u’llah and each other, and I think I can safely say that a lot of spiritual energy and momentum were created.
I do have one (major) quibble, though. Something that I’ve always known inside and was revealed in full horror multiple times throughout the weekend:
We’re usually pretty bad at telling the story of Baha’u’llah.
And saying that doesn’t make me happy! I listened to multiple introductions on the life of Baha’u’llah geared towards seekers, and came away extremely frustrated pretty much every time.
It was LONG.
A couple were pushing half an hour, which is a long time for a speaker to talk about anything, much less a dry recitation of facts, which leads us to the next point….
It was DRY.
They were basically a chronological list of facts, which anyone with an internet connection could obtain from Wikipedia, which in this case might have been better because it would have taken less time to read.
It was EMOTIONALLY ILLITERATE.
The whole point of obtaining information from a public speaker (as opposed to a written source) is that a speaker gives you emotional context for the topic. A speaker helps a listener understand the meaning behind facts, and this is perhaps nowhere as true as in the case of religion. It doesn’t mean that the only way to successfully talk about the life of Baha’u’llah is to be overly emotional, in the style of an overly excited evangelical preacher or a self-flagellating Shia Muslim celebrant of Ashura, but it does mean that it’s okay to talk about what Baha’u’llah means to you, your city, or the world from an open and vulnerable standpoint. Maybe you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: people can disagree with your opinions or beliefs, but they can’t disagree with your feelings and experiences.
It had NO VALUE PROPOSITION.
A Christian would never introduce Jesus the way we talk about Baha’u’llah. It would be more: “I’m a sinner, Jesus lived and died for me (and you); therefore my life is now in a right relationship with God and I feel peace and purpose in this world”. Muslims aren’t typically as Manifestation-centric as Christians, but instead they generally talk about how Islam is a way of life that helps them make order out of a confusing, chaotic, dangerous world in a way that puts them (and their communities) in a right relationship with the Divine. We as Baha’is tend to assume that the point of being a Baha’i is self-evident; or almost as bad, we’re afraid to toot the horn of the Faith because we’re afraid we’ll look like some kind of religious extremist. Either way, if we don’t talk about what the Faith means to us and our communities, no one is going to want to investigate. After all, there’s a difference between being humble and hiding your light under a bushel.
It had NO STORY ARC.
Stories come in all forms, but good stories almost always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story of Baha’u’llah isn’t just important because he lived a holy life and said profound things — it means something because God is working through him to transform our broken world into a new civilization that will be based on nobility and justice. If you don’t include the story of world (and personal) transformation along with the facts about his blessed life, you’re not putting the story into full context for the listener. Otherwise, what would the life of an exiled Persian nobleman really mean to them? Our lives these days are filled with reams of interesting, but ultimately meaningless trivia. Just read down your social media feed — you’ll almost certainly see three or four fascinating tidbits of knowledge that you’ll promptly forget and never need. The Faith has to be more than a meme.
How can we do better?
Certainly, teaching the Faith is a skill that takes a lifetime and divine assistance to master, but we’re all capable of reflecting the light that Baha’u’llah has given us when others ask us about it. And most of all, we’re all capable of improvement — I know I will be making a special effort this coming year to get better at this vital skill.
How do you think we can tell the story better?