Soundbite Theology Strikes Again!
Remember those (pre-covid) times when, as you were idly waiting to be served at your local deli counter, your eyes fell upon a little platter stacked high with tasty morsels impaled upon toothpicks? Ahhh, taste tests. One of those little pleasures of a simpler and less pandemic-y time. I was always a sucker for those free little morsels. Except for when they were olives. Because, gross.
But here’s the thing. I can’t ever remember a time when, after trying one or two (OK, three) of those free little delicacies, I thought to myself “I must have much more of this!”. I’ve never said “Righto. Where can I buy the whole jar?”. For me, those little mouthfuls have always been about enjoyment for a fleeting moment rather than thoughtful savouring at my leisure. So it is with theology by soundbite.
“Theology by what?”, you ask. “Theology by soundbite”, I answer. Followed immediately by, “Let me stop you before you ask more questions and encourage you to go read this and this first”. (No, really. You should click those links so you can understand what I’m talking about here).
Theology by soundbite is to the church what supermarket taste-tests are to the consumer. In a world where we are expected to make our point in 280 characters or less, theological soundbites rarely engage the Christian to think beyond the moment. Instead they just too often tend to either entrench the Christian in their current thinking or encourage them not to think too hard at all.
I’ve already written about a couple of examples of this (see those links above). In both of those posts I concluded that it is not the soundbite itself which is problematic but rather what we choose to do (or not do) with it. Well, guess what? I’ve changed my mind. I now think the problem can lie in both the soundbite itself as well as our response to it. Let me explain why
Yet Another Soundbite
Last night this tweet from Tim Keller appeared in my feed.
Now at this point I need to acknowledge a sizeable elephant which is sitting in the room. Here it is. My first post on theological soundbites also featured a comment from Tim Keller. On that occasion it was a brief quote from one of his books which had been posted on social media without further comment or context. I’ll leave you to read my thoughts on that for yourself. But I do need to make something clear – I do not have an anti-Keller agenda. Honestly. While (I think) he and I would agree on most (all?) of the foundationally important elements of our shared faith in Christ, I’ve actually never read much of his stuff or listened to many of his sermons. I’m no Keller devotee. But I’m also no Keller critic. In fact I don’t even follow him on Twitter. The only reason this tweet appeared in my newsfeed is because of the algorithmic dark magic mysteriously cast upon us by our social media overlords.
So, what I’m saying is the fact that two out of my three soundbite examples so far have been Kelleresque is genuinely a coincidence. Got it? Ok, so back to his tweet.
No form of ministry is more important than my marriage and family.
As soon as I read it I immediately noticed three things.
I noticed that I didn’t know whether I agreed with him. But I also noticed that I didn’t know whether I disagreed with him.
I noticed it had been posted about 5 hours before and that by the time I saw it, it had received around 1300 likes and 250 retweets. (As I write, I just saw the like counter click over to 3224. No wait. Sorry, 3225. And it’s now been shared 432 times. I mean, 433 times. Sorry. 434 times).
I noticed that for all those likes and retweets, there had only been 19 comments on the tweet, and half of those quotes were versions of “Yes”, “Absolutely” and 💯. (For the record it now has a total of 33 comments, a couple of which are mine!).
So, in summary I noticed that the tweet definitely left me uncertain about whether I agreed with it or not. And I noticed that clearly many thousands of others apparently weren't facing the same conundrum.
About 24 hours later and I still haven’t worked out if I agree or disagree with the tweet. But what I have worked out is that I probably won’t be able to work out whether I agree or disagree with it. Why? Well because what does it even mean?
What does Keller mean by ministry? Does he mean any sort of time or energy or relationships invested with any sort of gospel focus? Or does he mean a specific and identifiable ministry activity?
Which goes to the question of what exactly a “form” of ministry is. Does he mean a type or category of ministry (eg. bible teaching and exhortation, pastoral care, relational discipleship etc)? Or does he mean something else? And if so, what?
And then there is the question of what it means for something to be “more important” than something else. How are we to think about that? How do we measure importance? How do we express importance? Is it the case that if one thing is, for good reason, generally more important that another that it must always be more important? Could there be times or circumstances or particular needs which might mean a temporary re-prioristing of what we hold as “more” important might not only be appropriate, but also godly and even necessary?
What does he mean by “marriage and family”? We might be right in assuming he is talking about his wife (clearly!) and his biological kinship network. But, could he have a wider definition of “family” on view here (for example, one which aligns with Jesus’ definition of who his family is in Matt 12:46-50)? In what sense is it right for us to automatically read “biological family”, and only "biological family" into that tweet?
Not only that but, going back to the “more important” question, in what sense is one’s spouse and biological family always to be considered more important? Does he have disciple-making ministry to “marriage and family” on view here, such that this is always his most important ministry focus? Or is he saying that anything about his marriage and family is always more important than any ministry he might be engaged in or wish to be engaged in?
Keller’s tweet is just 12 words long. But look how much ambiguity is embedded in those 12 words. Given all of these outstanding questions about what he even means, how can we possibly decide whether we truly do agree or disagree him on this or not?
I’d argue that we can’t. But what we can do, and do actually do as individuals is decide that we agree with what we each think it means. And so, in light of that, there we each go clicking the heart icon. Retweeting it with no comment or context. Putting a 💯 emoji in the comments. Popping that tasty little morsel in our mouth, thinking “yum”, and then just moving on. No savouring. No real engagement. Just the dopamine hit of deciding that Tim Keller agrees with me, and I agree with him.
Man Ought Not Live By Soundbite Theology Alone
Earlier I said that it was coincidental that 2 out of 3 of my theological soundbite examples have been authored by Tim Keller. And that remains true. But coincidences are not always the result of all things being equal. For instance, it might be a coincidence when you run into a friend while both taste testing yummy morsels at your local deli counter. But that coincidence loses some of its glossy, random “Wow, isn’t this amazing”-ness when you both happen to live in the same area. Or when you both tend to do your shopping after you’ve dropped the kids off at school. Or when you both like deli meats and tasty (free) treats.
While I don’t follow Tim Keller on Twitter, it only took one visit to his profile to see that his feed is largely populated with theological soundbites. That is, all things are not equal here. A large portion of Tim Keller’s social media ministry strategy is to post tweets which are brief, somewhat cryptic and largely open to the reader’s interpretation. And he’s by no means alone in that.
Now in one sense we can hardly castigate Tim Keller—or any other significant Christian “influencer”—for using Twitter in exactly the way it is intended. That is, for posting regular short, sharp, somewhat provocative comments of 280 characters or less. But that is precisely the problem. As a general principle theology cannot be regularly done by short, sharp, somewhat provocative comments of 280 characters or less. Even more significantly, it most definitely should not be regularly done in this by way individuals who we collectively consider to be amongst the most important, influential and significant theologians of our age.
Theological soundbites do not promote sustained, intentional and focused growth in the spiritual maturity of the ones who are designed to read them. This is especially the case when they are consistently made as “Drop and Runs” posts—that is, without any intent by the author to follow up or respond or clarify or interact. They don’t foster genuine dialogue in community. The don’t facilitate the challenge of learning alongside each other. They don’t genuinely invest in individual or communal growth.
So what does that mean? Should be just get rid of theological soundbites altogether? Should we just ditch our Twitter accounts? Maybe. Though not necessarily. Like everything else, it’s complicated.
But what isn’t complicated is this. Both readers and authors of theological soundbites need to be honest about the fact that these social-media taste tests aren’t meant to help us slowly chew, digest and savour God’s word with one another. We need to recognise that they aren’t generally intended to make us think “I must have more of this!”.
Instead we must be honest in recognising that what they usually do is get 3325 people to say “Yeah! This! 💯”.
Sorry. I mean, 3,506 people.