Sticky Theology, Part 2: Sound-bite Theology

If we assume that memetic transmission is in play for folk theology, then beyond emotional selection we might also consider the simplifications that occur to make theological positions more "packaged,"

For memetic transmission to be effective, messages must be simplified so that they can be remembered and communicated with a high degree of fidelity. I'm sure you'll recall that school game where a group of people transmit a message by whispering in their neighbor's ear. By the time the message reaches the last person the message has morphed into something completely different.

Thus, to keep good copying fidelity good memes tend to get compressed, streamlined, simplified, and packaged. Basically, good memes become sound-bites.

Obviously, politicians know this secret. They are masters of the high-impact, simplified "message" that they trasmitt over and over during a campaign. I want to suggest that something similar occurs in sticky theology.

The transmission of theology involves a lot of catechesis, both formally and informally. Preachers, persists, Sunday School teachers, ministry leaders, and parents are all trying to transmit a theological system. All this repetition raises the specter of copying errors. How to maintain high copying fidelity?

Well, we can develop sound-bite theology. Simplistic formulations to convey the faith. We see this all over the place. We see it in TULIP and, in my faith tradition, the Five Steps of Salvation (Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, Be Baptized). We also find in the standardized (and impoverished) responses to issues like theodicy (the problem of pain).

In sum, sound-bite theology is meeting a need: Copying fidelity. But the problem is also clear: A sound-bite theology is good for transmission but it isn't good for theological reflection. Sound-bite theology is spiritually and intellectually impoverished. Which means that loads of people are trying to solve or confront deep issues in their lives with a theology amounts to a slogan. (BTW, good theological memes tend to make good bumper stickers due to this sound-bite dynamic. Yet another way to see theology-as-slogan or theology-as-advertisment.)

Next Post: Part 3

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9 thoughts on “Sticky Theology, Part 2: Sound-bite Theology”

  1. I think you first have to ask the question whether or not the current situation we are in (bad folk theology) is really a result of transmission errors. I don't think this is it.

    Take the "irascibility of God" theology that you mentioned earlier. Did this really arise from poor transmission? It seems like there are other, more diabolical reasons for its prominence.

  2. "We also find in the standardized (and impoverished) responses to issues like theodicy (the problem of pain).

    oo, like that actual bumper sticker I saw on Tuesday: "God is in Control".

  3. I just spent one year in central China teaching English at a university. When my wife was chronically sick the entire time, we continued to do what we remembered hearing: "Ask and you shall recieve", "God is a healer", have faith, lay hands on, pray, read the Bible, etc. I continue to believe in such power, but we are not the center of the universe. God is, and is holy (seperate, above and beyond). I have heard these health and wealth sermons ("pray, believe, and it will happen") before and they are disasterous for real people when they really happen. It is in these times that it is doubly hard. 1) You have to deal with the sickness/pain. 2) You realize that these things you have heard repetitvely from people you trust are wrong and are having to deal with all the stress of reevaluating what you thought was truth.
    Instead, I wish I had heard over and over again that life sucks sometimes, and there are times that our greatest comfort is that we are not dead yet; however, God-- I am that I am-- is.

    P.S. I would not wish a Chinese hospital upon anyone who is sick or used to Western standards.

  4. Richard,

    I am not certain of how "sound bite" or bumper sticker theology is even good for transmission. It may be one brick but it ain't the building.

    It seems to me that the problem with theodicy is "theodicy" itself--whether we speak in sound bites or great tomes. It asks a question which parallels "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" or "Do these jeans make my butt bigger?" Theodicy is intellectual entrapment, the thinking of Job's friends. Either God is trapped or humans are trapped. And usually God is the one protected and the human, suffering or not, is dumped on by theolgy--high or folk.

    In my opinion, God and suffering (as opposed to pain) are powerfully linked together because both are ultimately without explanation. I make a distinction between suffering and pain. What is helpful to me is to understand pain (I may have read this somewhere but cannot remember) as suffering which has some kind of rational (even irrational)explanation. Somehow, having the "causes" of our suffering explained makes it easier to bear (at least up to a certain point). (I know, I know: the issues of pain and suffering is a lot more complex than my easy disintctions.)

    To anonymous I can say there are American hospitals I wouldn't wish on anyone.

    In San Antonio, I once saw a beat-up Cadillac with two bumper stickers on its rear bumper. The one of the left read: "Praise God".
    The one on the right of the bumper said: "Eat more beans". How's that for marrying to relevant memes: it's praise music in down-to-earth folk theology!


    George C.

    P.S. My blog is just about ready.

  5. Richard,

    Wonderful posts!

    You have me thinking about the irascibility of momma bears when anything gets between them and their cubs and of dads (at least one) when kids don't put their seat belts on... Do these suggest counterexamples to the idea that a sinner in the hands of an angry God must be thought of as being at risk of God's wrath? Might the anger be thought to be directed at risks to loved ones brought on by sin?

    If so, angry sound bites might be superficial expressions of an underlying love...

    Perhaps Christians need to consider the possibility of "just anger" as thoughtfully as we have considered the possibility of "just war." Then it might be possible to figure out whether there is a baby in the bath water of God's irascibility.

    Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" might be an interesting place to look and see to what extent anger and love can be construed as opposite sides of the same coin in American popular religion, which--I think--has a large branch stemming from the Great Awakening in which J.E. played a major role.

    The devil to your advocacy,


  6. 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).


  7. What I see at work is not the use of sound bites which result in poor theology but "academics" coming up with poor theology because they don't understand what "folk theology" is saying. This whole thread of discussion started out with a statement about God and his attitude toward sin that was attributed to folk theology. Your fellowship experience must radically differ from mine--I have heard the conclusions made or preached that were presented.

    Here is my "folk theology" The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness. He will not always strive with us, nor will he keep his anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our inquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.

    Even the 5 step presentation arose from the restoration movement going awry--we started teaching correct doctrine rather than Christ. Sermon outlines were passed from one generation to the other. We used scripture to proof text rather than to understand God and what the scriptures are saying to our generation.

    Incidentally,Emotion is not bad--in fact our problem has been to dwell on facts [doctrine] with not emotional response. Thus many attend "church" and do not worship but go away feeling justified because they obeyed the "law". If we are under a new law--we are in worse shape than the Israelites.

    The sacrifices of Gopd are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

  8. Pecs,
    Point taken. Maybe the simplifications that occur don't create the problem but simply exacerbate it.

    I wonder about that sentiment. I know deeply spiritual friends who find great solace in that formulation. I don't. So I wonder, what is the difference? What is going on psychologically, spiritually, and theologically that makes the difference between us?

    I've been thinking the same things lately. In fact, I've been reading a lot of the Stoic philosophers who articulate some of the sentiments you express. Look for a post in the next few weeks on "Stoic Christianity."

    I can't wait to see you blog! Regarding theodicy, I've been wondering about Job lately. I don't like the conclusion I'm coming to but it mirrors your own. Basically, it deals with this conundrum: Why is Job repenting in the end when God says he spoke truthfully? More on this later.

    I agree that there is a deeper vision of God's anger. Anger is an important moral emotion. I see it like this: I should be just as wrathful about the sin in my life as God is. Thus, I should invite God's wrath upon me insofar as God and I are working together on the same project: The destruction of sin in my life. This reframing, similar to what you are saying, helps cast God as a loving parent whose anger is always an expression of love then a God who is an irascible, perfectionistic SOB.

    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).

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