Island Lagoon, SA 2016

How Sound are your Sound Bites?

I've been enjoying Experimental Theology, the website of Dr Richard Beck

He has four short articles called ‘Sticky Theology,' which ask ‘Why is bad theology so popular?' This is a good question. Dopey, and downright harmful theologies, often seem to be incredibly resilient to criticism and reason. As I read the articles, it occurred to me that if Dr. Beck's insights were valid, perhaps they might be applied to 'good' theology. Could we express 'good' theology in ways that would make it more popular?

Dr Beck begins the first article with Dawkins' notion of the meme.

A meme is a unit, a piece of cultural information that can get transmitted or imitated in a population. Think of a good idea (like making a wheel), a cultural trend (like wearing wedding rings), or a juicy piece of gossip. As memes, these cultural replicators spread through populations.

He describes the idea of "stickiness," which he takes from Malcolm Gladwell. Stickiness is an idea that is memorable and "sticks in the mind." It's something that people want to pass on, or talk about. Non sticky ideas get forgotten. I still remember "chicken fryers, enthusiasts and pious types," from a 1975 sermon, by James Glasse, about 1 Corinthians 13. That was a sticky illustration!

Beck says

If we think of theology as a meme then the most successful folk theologies will be those that "stick." Sticky theology will be the dominant theology.

(As I re-read this for the second draft, I notice both Beck and I use two terms interchangeably. We have talked of 'bad' theology, and ‘folk' theology. I'm not sure these are necessarily the same. Some bad theology is long, detailed, and decidedly 'un-folk.' I remember my foolish purchase many years ago, of the collected works of Carl Henry. Some ordinary folk's theology has a deep intuition of the gospel and its compassion.)

Beck asks what a recipe for "stickiness" might be. This is part of his reply:

... if a meme can create a strong emotional response it is more likely to be remembered and shared. Better still, if the meme elicits a strong shared emotional response then it is even more effective.

I think all this has application for folk theology. That is, we may ask "Why are very poor theological ideas ascendant in our churches?" One answer is that these theological formulations, although poor on theological grounds, are effective on emotional grounds. That is, folk theology has gone through generations of emotional selection where the configurations that are the most emotionally evocative tend to get remembered and repeated.

A lot of emotionally powerful stuff in church is also fear mongering, and emotional blackmail. It emphasises our danger of hellfire. It encourages us to feel guilty if we do not do those things the preacher says we should do. This is bad use of emotion. As Beck notes at the end of the first article, the emotion may have very little to do with theology at all.

There are good emotions. Healthy community, with genuine sharing of story, and non exploitive caring for the weak and needy, surely have their own stickiness.

Dr Beck calls the second article "Sound-bite Theology."

For memetic transmission to be effective, messages must be simplified so that they can be remembered and communicated with a high degree of fidelity. .... Basically, good memes become sound-bites.

He calls these sound bites "simplistic formulations to convey the faith." An interesting discussion about these followed in the comments. One author noted

And let's not forget the ever popular folk theology of "WWJD". As if anyone could know what Jesus would decide to do in every day decisions.
Yet, it gives people that psychological peace via a superego boost to come up with what they think Jesus would do (their best understanding of what a righteous self would do).

There is truth in this, yet a respondent said

Yes, WWJD? I don't think people actually understand how frightful that prospect is. In my own life I rarely consult WWJD because it scares the hell out of me (literally).

I think this writer makes my point for me. What would Jesus do? is a simple question, perhaps, but not simplistic. What makes it simplistic is the attitude of the person answering the question. "As if anyone could know what Jesus would decide to do in everyday decisions," said the first writer. We don't of course. Good theology is well aware of this. It understands the task of exegesis and interpretation, and that to imagine what Jesus would do is a speculative act of prayer and self examination. The fact that some people will use WWJD as a means of self justification, does not mean a sound bite is intrinsically bad.

Sticky Theology, Part 3: Metaphors, Emotional Selection, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

In this article, Dr Beck lists common metaphors of scripture. He bases his conclusions around work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, mentioning two of their books Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh.

He lists metaphors such as Purity, Rescue, Economic, Freedom, and many others. He reminds us of the tendency for memes with strong emotional appeal to survive. He says

Now, if take this list .... and connect it with the idea of emotional selection .... we can note that a few metaphors stand out for their emotional oomph. These are the rescue and crime and punishment metaphors. That is, although growth metaphors of salvation are huge in scripture (i.e., the notion of sanctification), they just don't pack an emotional punch. Salvation as "journey" is a deep metaphor, but it isn't really emotionally powerful.

But let's say I tell you a story where you are about to die. And someone suddenly (or with forethought) steps in to die in your place. Like falling on a grenade in a WWI foxhole or pushing you out of the way of an oncoming train. Now these anecdotes, expressions of particular metaphors, do have a lot of rhetorical or emotional punch.

Interestingly, these are the very metaphors behind the salvation schema called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). One of worrisome things about PSA is that it is, at root, simply a metaphor.

As he goes on to suggest, PSA is often presented as the (only) unvarnished, actual truth.

I'm not sure what to make of this article. Partly this is because he does not fully develop the very suggestive discussion about metaphor. I think he is saying that certain metaphors resonate deeply with our cultural obsessions. If you have a theologically inferior meme that taps into this, then it will be a successful, or sticky meme.

Theological ideas are certainly attached to the metaphors which resonate with our cultural obsessions, but I don't see anything which means such an attachment will necessarily reflect bad theology. Indeed theology ought to gather around our cultural obsessions.

I wonder how much the lack of what we might call ‘theologically good' sound bites with emotional oomph, reflects confusion and loss of faith. How much is our failure to provide a vivid imagery which competes with older sound bite theology, a sign of our own tentativeness and lack of confidence in our spiritual experience? In my own escape from a fairly systematic fundamentalism, it took me a while to be brave enough to trust my own experience, and tell my own stories. The power structures within the church discourage originality.

Article Four is called Persuasion and Bivalent Theology.

Christianity tends to be an evangelistic faith. ... This means that folk communications about the faith tend to have persuasion as the main goal... Generally, persuasive speech tends to manifest bivalent logic: Right versus Wrong or True versus False.

Beck calls this ‘bivalent' theology. He says

The trouble with a bivalent theology, despite its "stickiness," is that it is a theology that lacks depth and nuance. Worse, depth and nuance are seen as symptoms of unfaith. Complexity is devilish.... bivalent theology... is a theology that lacks depth and nuance. Worse, depth and nuance are seen as symptoms of unfaith. Complexity is devilish. ....

The point is, deep, considered, critical, and reflective theology is NOT sticky. ... Deep theological ideas will be too difficult to communicate via the sound-bite and bumper sticker.

Bivalent theology is a curse, and a besetting sin. Simplification into un-nuanced good and bad categories is antithetical to compassion, which is always considerate and accepts the complexities of human lives. It also means things correctly really are bad and wrong, can 'get lost' in the trivialization and static caused by unreflectively calling so much 'bad.'

Is emotion and persuasion necessarily bivalent? Or do some of us come to our faith with a bivalent mindset? If I think you are wrong, and need to be converted to my way of thinking, then bivalence, however gentle I may be, is at the root of my persuasion. If I respect you, and wish to learn from you, bivalence is not present. "Something in your faith-path attracts me.... Tell me more... that's fascinating- it reminds me of the story where Jesus...."

What can we conclude?

Occasionally we come across articles telling us how to write a pop song. A successful pop song has certain elements. People can analyse these, and then set out write a song which has similar elements. Some of these become hits; most don't.

Reading Richard Beck's four articles, it seems only one characteristic of popular folk theology should be avoided. Bivalent expression of theological ideas is risky, at best.

By contrast, seeking to engage the listener emotionally does not compromise my theology.
Catchy, well crafted words, concise to the point of being sound bites need not talk only about bad theology. They could be an invitation to something deeper.
Vivid images which stick in the mind are not bad. They are an aid to remember, and a starting point for further reflection and imagination.

Whilst pop songs deal with a few eternal themes, love, betrayal, hope etc, the successful ones all do something new. They restate the old truths and themes in a new way. They have something unique in rhythm, or sound, or a fresh metaphor.

Bad theology of the kind Richard has described is not like this. It not only has all the sticky elements he outlines. Its key marker is its lack of imagination, and its unreflective repetition. I suspect it betrays a lack of courage (in the way Tillich uses it) (see here ). At base it is traditionalist:

Tradition is the living faith of dead people to which we must add our chapter while we have the gift of life. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people who fear that if anything changes, the whole enterprise will crumble. -- Attributed to Jaroslav Pelikan

What were once valid and useful sound bites not only become reified into theology because we all tend to laziness, and often want the easy and simple way. They become 'old standards' because there is no new song being sung.

Will I have the courage to write a new song about the old story? Whilst respecting my elders, (and with apologies to Barth,) will I have the courage to read the bible with today's newspaper in my other hand? Will I then have the courage and integrity, to re-read the bible, seeing new stories?

Perhaps then I can write a new song, instead of a cliché. There will always be those who want to live on clichés. Too many other faithful people exist on clichés because we have never given them anything else.

Andrew Prior


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