Probe: The Hyperbole is the Message

Billy Sunday preaching, which is not to assert that I agree or disagree with Mr. Sunday, but to illustrate that he understood how delivery and message worked together. Machiavelli is famous for espousing that the ends justify the means, by which he meant that the rightness or wrongness of an action is judged based on the out come, the greater good. As long as the outcome is positive, the wrongness of an action is probably justified. Some evangelicals use this approach in preaching and writing—the truth can be presented any way you want, so long as the truth is presented. We have terminology that illustrates our attitude: no-nonsense approach, unvarnished truth, tell it like it is. What this attitude fails to understand is that a message is altered by how it is presented. It can be extraordinarily hard to separate the message from the delivery. We remember both, but not necessarily equally. Delivery typically appeals to emotion, whether sorrow, joy, anger, fear or guilt. Emotions tend to have greater rhetorical resonance than logic or reason. So even if a message is technically true, how that message is framed will alter if not outright subsume the message. We typically remember by association, we will be unable to remember the message without the associated emotion.

The way we deliver a message always reinforces a narrative, and narratives are always rhetorical.

Probe: Icons

The problem with politics, at least as we picture it in the U.S. is that we do not elect men and women; we elect traits, ideals, ideologies, and dogmas. Thus, we elect icons. And being icons, we revere them. They become living saints to a secularized way of doing government—secularized even in spite of our attempts to inject religious adherence into the process, into the icons; we are still revering a man-made system, autonomous in itself, and following its own operational rules—the machine is tuned and oiled. As a result, we tend to place our political icons into a position of substitutionary activism and responsibility—a substitutionary virtuism, if you will. Just as Christ took our sins upon himself, leaving us with only one obligation—to come—so do we make our politicians Christ-figures by which they take on our duties and obligations to our neighbors, the poor, the outcasts, and the non-Christian. We place these roles on our politicians because (we believe) only they can truly do the good work of Christianized social construction, leaving us with only one obligation—to vote.

Probe: Idolatry

In evangelical culture there is a constant search for idols in a person’s life. We must identify and destroy the idols, typically of luxury cars, money, television, and so on. While there is an element of truth to this, could it be that the focus on idols as a graven thing blinds us to more abstract concepts of idolatry, which would probably be best understood as religious—or at the very least, ultimate concern? We conflate veneration with worship, the protestant mind unable to differentiate between the two, but the analogous mind able to differentiate between the honor-imitative form of veneration and the transcendent-subservience form of worship which asks us to re-order our lives around a liturgy of devotion. We have mistaken one form for another, and are thus able to easily identify the idolatry of a fanatic of comics, movies, television, the idolatry of a collector of cars, memorabilia, and physical consumer products. What we miss are the abstract, conceptual forms of idolatry or world-view formation, thus missing politics (of which we are quite guilty) and the understanding of sin being that which separates us from God, which may be a physical thing or a conceptual thing. Thus we miss the theological rhetoric behind events such as Black Friday or the co-mingling of incompatible worldviews with Christian ideas. It isn’t the idol we should be afraid of, it is our daily, behavioral liturgy.