There are more than 249 distinct theories of communication. As a card-carrying communication
scholar, I’m pretty proud of all this resourceful work on the part of my colleagues scattered
across the world. But I have to admit that the sheer number of theories is passing strange. I mean,
really, communication is a pretty ordinary thing, isn’t it? Ordering coffee. Hugging your friend.
Waving the other car to go already at a four-way stop. Reporting to your supervisor about low
budget numbers. Clicking through to a movie review. Swapping stories with your
neighbor. Texting your mom two days after her birthday.
Nothing is less weird to you than being a sender or a receiver—or even being both at the same
So, yeah, it's strange how many communication theories there are. I’ve been thinking about
this proliferation recently, probably because it happens to be the last week a seminar about
theorizing communication when you need to...
- Get rid of uncertainty the first time you meet somebody
- Build intimacy through gradual self-disclosure
- Make choices about who to vote for
- Tell stories that make sense to a particular audience
- Resolve conflict with a teenager or a neighbor
In these last days of the spring semester of 2018, my students and I are having a fun
time organizing all these concepts and terminologies and applications and methodologies ahead
of a cumulative exam next week. It may be true that nothing is so practical as a good theory. But
I think my students would say that nothing is so impractical as 249 theories.
The fact that we humans have developed so many theories of communication suggests how
baffling ordinary life feels to most of us and how strange we are to ourselves and to each other.
We want to know what others are thinking and feeling. We want to collaborate on projects at
work in a way that makes the whole office feel good. We want to have conversations with our
kids. We want to come off well in our Instagram feeds. But all too often, like Cool Hand Luke,
what we have is a failure to communicate.
Or maybe I should say, we have a failure not be strange with each other.
Our weirdness doesn't seem to be lessening, despite the efforts of a thousand gurus, pastors, consultants, TED-talkers, and, yes, communication theorists in my little
undergraduate seminar. So many experts offer their assistance with the task of communication
that we begin to need advice on how to deal with all the advice.
Which is basically what Paul had to say to a community two thousand years back in a city in the
Roman Empire called Colosse. We're reading the Book of Colossians over this late-spring, early-
summer season and learning that Colossian citizens, like us, had a strong sense that everything
is always unmanageably strange. At least, that's what we can guess by reading between the lines of Paul's reassurances. (Why else would he say that Jesus holds everything together?) Faced with life’s persistent weirdness, the Colossians couldn’t turn to TED Talks and talk-show hosts; but they did have eloquent teachers with impressive credentials and all kinds of theories about how to deal with the strangeness of human life. Paul's advice for dealing with all this advice was pretty abrupt: don't get caught up in all the expertise. (His exact words were, "See to it that no one takes you captive.")
You don't need 249 theories for how to do life with others. What you need, Paul would say, is
what you already have. You already have Christ, or, rather, Christ already has you. So, hold on
to Christ, for in him all things hold together.
And, yes, that will be on the cumulative exam.