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Sound Bite Theology

August 24, 2010

Personally, I blame Neil Armstrong. Ever since he walked out onto the surface of the moon and said those immortal words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, we’ve been a society in love with the sound bite. We’re far too busy to sit down and hear the entire story, so just give us a quick one liner and let’s move on. Sometimes they’re serious, other times not so much, but either way they only have to be mentioned and we know the reference immediately.

“Mission accomplished.”

“I know its tuna, but it says chicken of the sea.”

Of course, the world of marketing has taken this love of one liners and maximized it to its fullest potential. We hear things like “just do it” or “have it your way” and without skipping a beat we know exactly what is being sold.

We think that these sound bites tell the story, but most of the time they don’t even begin to scratch the surface. Even worse, sometimes they completely misrepresent what actually happen. We see this in the news all the time. Just recently a USDA worker named Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign from her job after a blogger posted a video clip in which she seemed to clearly be making racist remarks. The brief sound bite took off quickly and before she knew it Washington was calling her directly and asking for her resignation. Eventually, it was discovered that her words on the video were taken completely out of context and the picture of her as a racist couldn’t be further from the truth. All of this was constructed from a sound bite.

The very way in which we communicate with one another has by and large been reduced to 140 characters or a quick text. There’s just no time anymore to carry on a full conversation. We need to say what we need to say and keep moving. It should come as no surprise then that this sound bite phenomena has carried over into the world of the faith. As Christians we are constantly looking for new and better ways to share the faith, so a great one liner would seem to fit perfectly: “What would Jesus do?” “Everything happens for a reason.” “I know the plans I have for you…” We are every bit as prolific as the marketing companies at exploiting our one liners. We make them into bumper stickers to put on the back of our cars. We fashion them into bracelets or t-shirts that we can wear. And in keeping with the advancements in modern technology these one liners always make a great tweet or status update.

So is reducing the faith, or even parts of the faith, to a quick one liner really the best way to share the gospel? On the surface, it seems like a quick, easy, and effective way to share the faith. In theory, these great one liners either sum up the key points of our message, or at least challenge the hearer to make some change in their life. Take for example the line “what would jesus do?” As we all know so well, this sound bite was put on a bracelet and became a phenomena. Everyone from the 6th graders at our church to celebrities were wearing them. It was a great way to ask a great question. It didn’t make any claims about anything, or sum up some deep theological point. It simply asked a question.

More often than not however, our Christian sound bites, aren’t questions, they’re answers that lack their equations. And, more often than not, we would find that if we had the equation we would see that that answer was completely off the mark. This is true, of course, everywhere, but regardless we can’t allow such important issues of our day like sexuality, immigration, creation, or other religions to be reduced to sound bites of “biological” and “natural”, “legal” or “illegal”, “science” or “god”, or “hell” and “terrorist”.

As much as it pains our on demand mentality, we owe it to everyone involved to take the time and do the hard work of understanding the entire nature of our various issues, rather than skipping ahead to a nice sound bite. The only hope we will ever to find a real honest “answer” to the various problems and controversies of our time is to think and talk them out peacefully and completely.

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