“Failure to Communicate”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

On Monday, July 23, news media announced the death, at the age of 87, of Frank Pierson, one of Hollywood’s most respected writers and directors. Among his credits are Presumed Innocent, The Anderson Tapes, Dog Day Afternoon, and A Star Is Born. But probably his most famous film is Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman as an unfortunate minor offender whose attitude in the local jail gets him deeper and deeper into trouble. The most memorable line ever written by Frank Pierson is spoken by the prison warden: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” The warden adds: “Some men you just can’t reach”; then he tries to”reach” Luke with a good old jailhouse beating.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” has become a useful part of the language of American culture. It’s been quoted and misquoted in many contexts since the film’s 1967 release. The musical group Guns N’ Roses use the line in two of their songs, and many public figures have incorporated it into their speeches, usually without knowing the source.

Some of us would have to admit that this might be an apt title for our life story. Married people often complain, “He/she just doesn’t understand me,” while their partner responds, “Well, she/he never talks.” Parents and children sometimes seem to live on different planets, speaking diverse intergalactic languages. A whole shorthand system has developed in internet communications – BFF, LOL, ITSFWI, JMHO, OATUS — that leaves old-timers in the dark. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Who knows what James Holmes, the Aurora, CO, alleged mass-killer, was thinking when he gathered his arsenal? He had stopped trying to communicate months before he took his drastic action. In the end, he decided that the only way he could speak his mind was with guns and blood. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” on a large scale.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

This “Son,” Jesus Christ, so eloquently expressed God’s love that we remember him as “The Word”:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14)

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” God has seen our confusion, and he has spoken by sending his Son. In Jesus, God has not spoken words of judgment over incorrigibles that “you just can’t reach,” but words of “grace and truth,” of love and acceptance.

* (The idea for this article was suggested by my wife Judy, who, of course is an expert on communication.)