More on theology by soundbite
Elsewhere I’ve written about The Problem with Soundbite Theology. For those who haven't (or won't!) read the original post, here is the tl;dr version!
What are Soundbites? They are those social media quotations, usually from well-known Christian authors or speakers (past or present) and often accompanied by an appropriately moody stock photo.
What’s the appeal of Soundbites?
Their appeal lies in the way they give us the punchline straight away. Soundbites fit in with our time-poor and distracted lives. They allow us to pause ever so briefly as we hit the like or share button before getting back to our important business of scrolling.
What’s the problem with theology by Soundbite?
Soundbites are a great fit for how we do life today. But they are not a great way to do theology today. Why? Because they are designed to give us pithy insights, warm and fuzzy sentiments or perhaps a briefly jolting challenge … but not much else. They are not designed to persuade us of a particular argument from Scripture. They are not designed to help us trace through a line of biblical logic. They are not designed to lead us through sustained theological reflection.
In that earlier blog post I provided a specific example (from Tim & Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage) as to why theology by soundbite can be problematic (go on, you know you want to read it ;) ) . Recently, I came across another example.
But before I share this new example with you, I think it is important to once again emphasise that the problem I’m identifying does not lie with any specific individual or ministry or resource itself. The particular soundbite below was posted by a para-church ministry who I follow on Instagram. While I haven't had any personal interaction with them, I wholeheartedly endorse the vision and mission as it is outlined on their website. I thoroughly agree with their doctrinal Statement of Faith. I have a lot of respect for a number of their featured contributors.
In other words, I’m not trying to make an example of this ministry whatsoever. Remember, it’s the methodology of theology by soundbite which is my concern here.
With that said, let’s take a look at this new soundbite.
OK. Pause for a moment. Take stock of your first impression. What did you think? What was your initial instinct?
If you’re anything like me, you’re first impression was “Great!”. I mean it’s elevating marriage to something grander than mere obligation and duty. It’s emphasising the need to apprehend a biblical vision of marriage. It’s placing marriage in the context of Christian maturity and relationship with God. And it’s highlighting the importance of friendship in marriage.
What’s not to like about that!?
But that’s the thing with theological soundbites. Those buzz words interest us enough to momentarily pause, skim read, hit the like button (because, again, what’s not to like?), and then scroll on by. But what they don’t do is encourage us to savour the taste; to chew carefully; to properly digest what we are reading.
So, let’s do that now.
Read the soundbite again and this time, ask yourself what it is actually seeking to teach you about the problematic view we have of marriage, and the necessary solution.
Q: What’s the suggested problem with our view of marriage?
A: That we too easily see it as a mere obligation. As a duty that we’re bound to fulfill.
Well, I guess that could be true. Personally, I tend to see the greater problem as being our idealising and even idolising of marriage. But sure, I can see that the problem identified here is a genuine one, a perspective which we need to remedy.
Q: What’s the solution to this problem? What do “we need to see” about marriage if we want to correct that problem?
A: We need to see marriage for what it is - an ‘opportunity to display mature friendship between man, woman and creator’.
Now you may be thinking, “What’s the problem with that Dani?! After all, friendship is a really important part of marriage”. And I would absolutely agree with that. Friendship between a husband and a wife is wonderful and delightful and important. Consider for example the words of the bride in the Song of Songs. After waxing lyrically about her groom’s “radiant and ruddy” appearance for half a dozen verses, you can almost hear the delighted sigh in her voice as she concludes:
This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem. (Song of Songs 5:16).
Friendship in marriage is wonderful!
But here’s the thing. Friendship is not the purpose of marriage.
Digesting Marriage and Friendship
For a number of years now I’ve been mentally writing and rewriting an article that works through my concern with the way we evangelicals have increasingly collapsed the theological constructs of marriage and friendship into one another. I’ve never actually gotten to the point of putting fingers to keyboard on it. Why? Because it feels big and bold and potentially very unpopular. And no, this post isn’t it either. Why? Because it’s a discussion which deserves far more than I am able to give it here in our soundbite analysis. Which brings us right back to the point…
While this soundbite might hit a bunch of key notes which resonate with us as we scroll past, if we stop, chew it over, take time to properly digest it, I think what we discover is that its proposed “solution” for our problematic view of marriage actually undersells what we really "need to see" about biblical marriage.
You see, marriage’s ultimate significance and purpose isn’t as a demonstration of mature friendship between a man, a woman and God. Marriage is much more distinctive and unique than that! Human marriage is ultimately designed to provide us with a glimpse of the incredible wonderful, magnificent one-flesh relationship which we, the Church, will have with our bridegroom for all eternity.
This is what we ultimately “need to see [about] biblical marriage”. This is the ultimate solution to any problematic view we might have of marriage.
Yes, like the bride in Song of Songs, we ought to rejoice in friendship between a husband and wife. But here’s the thing—that verse seems to be the only verse in the Bible which links friendship and marriage. Yes, as far as I have been able to discover, it is the only one. (Please, correct me if I am wrong on that count!)
On the other hand we have an abundance of verses which speak about:
1) the unique character of the exclusive, covenanted, one-fleshly relationship between individuals who call one another husband and wife—and ultimately between Christ and the corporate Church (Eph 5:31-32).
2) the unique character of the non-exclusive, non-covenanted, non-one-fleshly relationship between individuals who call one another friend—and ultimately between Christ and his individual disciples (John 15:14-16)
Friendship in marriage is a wonderful thing. But friendship is not the purpose and meaning of marriage. It’s not what “we need to see” about marriage in order to correct an impoverished view of it as simple obligation. Indeed, if we want to rediscover marriage as more than merely burdensome commitment, then our solution is to gaze upon the cruciform love of the bridegroom for his bride, a love whose grace and mercy magnificently transcend any notions of duty and responsibility and obligation. That is what we need to see about biblical marriage.
Biting and Chewing
And so with that we come back to the problem of theology by soundbite.
Like nearly every soundbite I see from people and ministries I trust and respect and admire, this one is obviously well intended. It’s designed to encourage. To exhort. To correct. To teach.
But the problem is that while soundbites often hit all sorts of notes which might resonate with us, they simply can’t provide us with a sustained opportunity to hear those individual notes within the broader musical movement; to interpret those individual notes within the full biblical symphony.
So then, what? Should we stop with the theological soundbite altogether? Not necessarily. After all, and as I concluded in my earlier post, it is not the soundbite itself which is problematic but rather what we choose to do (or not do) with it.
Those of us who read theological soundbites (basically, all of us!) have a responsibility to ourselves, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as we interact with them. We need to become more aware of their potential to shape our theological thinking. We need to be willing to think discerningly about their content. We need to read them thoughtfully, carefully and in light of Scripture. We need to be intentional about whether we “like” or share or tag other people in them, and why we would do that. We need to determine what we hope to achieve by interacting with them. How we can most lovingly and faithfully set about that goal. And how we can best honour Christ in that process.
So friends (pun intended), bite away. But as you do so take the time to taste it well. To chew it over. To digest it properly. Don’t settle for a steady diet of hurried theological bites, when (like the prophet in Eze 2:9-3:3) you could be digesting long, slow, unhurried, nutritious mouthfuls of Scripture instead.