Do you recall an old idiom, “Don’t steal my thunder”? It protests one person carelessly or maliciously misappropriating another’s idea, invention, or particular social role. Curious about its origin, I did a bit of research and here’s what I found. Two hundred years ago dramatist John Dennis devised a way to simulate a thunderclap for his play performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. He had metal balls roll around in a mustard bowl to achieve this special effect. Well, the play flopped. Sometime later he attended a Shakespearean play during which his thunder-making devise was employed. Considerably agitated, he yelled, reportedly, “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!” (Martin, PhraseFinder)
For written material an obvious example of stealing thunder is plagiarism–misappropriating and/or not crediting someone else’s documented ideas. Patents and copyrights offer legal protection for texts and inventions. In social interaction; other idiomatic exhortations include: “don’t hog the show”, “don’t monopolize center stage”, “don’t trample my turf”, and “don’t be a spoilsport.”
Such idioms all signify a failure to defer to others, to honor their centrality in particular place/time circumstances. A Biblical foundation for such deference appears, among other references, in Romans 12. Verse 11, reads “in honor preferring one another.” (KJV. The Message opts for an apt idiomatic rendering: “practice playing second fiddle.”)
We are called to be deferential, not differential. In calculus differential equations show how new input changes function. This model doesn’t fit social discourse well. Often one responder does clarify another’s ideas and group dialogue does advance understanding. But we’ve all experienced, with irritation, how, in response to an address or in discussion, someone twists, minimizes, or distorts our meanings in order to support their notions or their yen for center stage—a common occurrence on political panels, talk-shows, and sometimes, alas, in professional and religious gatherings.
So, how can we rightly honor and defer to one another in the area of public discourse? Here are a few suggestions. First, in discussion settings, serious or friendly, consider whether your critique, rejoinder, anecdote, question, perspective, or addendum serves truth and honors the other(s). Resist subtle pressure to stroke your own ego—to “hog the show”, to “steal someone’s thunder.”
Second, in participatory worship or serious church dialogue prayerfully honor shared insights, giving respectful space for others when they occupy “center stage,” when they seek to articulate God’s message to the group.
Third, apply the principle of deference in respect to sermons and lectures. As a minister and professor, in churches and in academic settings, I’ve often served both as the one who presides and as a featured speaker. When I am presiding it is a subtle temptation to forget I’m not center stage–that I must defer to the other. Sometimes I’ve had a feeling (a subtle temptation!) that because I’m presiding I must be dominant. In practice it’s not always been easy to be the instrument accompanying the soloist, not the other way around. So I’m tempted to steal another’s thunder by summarizing or recapitulating the vocal ministry, or embellishing it with my stories and my applications. If, as sometimes may be the case in oral discourse as in music, a concluding coda or postscript is needed to bring coherence, I should keep it brief and deferential. Personally, I’m honored when upon conclusion of my message a time of silence and a short final prayer by the presiding person caps my ministry. And if I am the speaker I must work and pray to conclude my message with sufficient rational, rhetorical, and spiritual force that a presiding person doesn’t have to straighten up my mess-age in order to bring coherence to listeners and aesthetic closure to a shared experience!
Finally, prayerfully defer to the preeminent voice– that of the Shepherd, whether sounded through the human voice (spoken or sung!) or within Christ’s gathered community. Above all, let’s not steal the Holy Spirit’s thunder!
Do you resonate with these reflections? If we Friends take to heart that Christ is indeed our leader we will find right ways to heed Paul’s exhortation, “in honor preferring one another.” Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is present to guide us!
Peace and joy