The Problem with Soundbite Theology
These days my social media newsfeed seems particularly dominated by three different types of posts.
First, we have the ads. So very many ads.
Second, there are the COVID memes. Most of them are hilariously perceptive.
And then thirdly, there are the theological soundbites. You know the ones? The quotations from well-known Christian authors or speakers (past or present) that are almost always accompanied by an appropriately thematic stock photo. My newsfeed is increasingly populated by these sort of soundbites (and, mea culpa, I’ve posted my own share of them too). Some of them are insightful. Some of them are provocative. Some of them are wonderfully encouraging. Some of them are mundane. But the one thing that unites them all is that they work brilliantly in the tl;dr world of which we are now all natives.
The appeal of theological soundbites lies in the way they give us the punchline straight away; the way they fit in with our time-poor and distracted lives; the way 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.
Soundbites are a great fit for how we do life today. But they are not a great way to be doing theology today. Let me illustrate by way of example.
Recently, a theological soundbite appeared in my newsfeed. I’m going to post a screenshot of it below.
Now. Stop. Don’t jump ahead to the screenshot just yet! Hold on one moment. Because I want us to try something together.
When you read it I want you to read it as you would a soundbite that appeared in your actual newsfeed. That is, read it in passing. Perhaps even skim read it if that tends to be your practice. But don’t stop and analyse it. Don’t think too hard about it. Just read it, form a quick impression and scroll on as you normally would.
. . .
Ok, ready? Here it is.
So, what did you think? What was your initial impression? Let me share mine with you. My first quick thought was:
“Huh. A Christian take on what it is to ‘fall in love’.”
That was immediately followed by:
“It’s so refreshing to read something different to the world’s rom-com, happily ever after, ‘you complete me’ notion of romantic love”.
“Gee, it’s really quite a lovely sentiment isn’t it? I can see why you might soundbite it”.
Now at this point, I could have just hit “like” and promptly gone back to my very important mission of scrolling as per usual. But then I had another passing thought. It wasn’t a particularly well-formed thought. It was just a brief musing which went something like this:
I mean, I guess that’s what falling in love in marriage could be described as? I’ve never been married. And I’ve never been “in love”. So… well… I wouldn’t really know, would I? But I guess this sounds like it could be right … ?
Now, remember, this was all happening instantaneously. The appeal of the soundbite (and of social media generally) is that it is short, sharp, interesting but not generally arresting. Momentary attentiveness is the name of the game.
But on this particular occasion, I now found myself standing at the junction of a crossroads. Most of the time my brain would probably let that little thought-bubble speed on past towards oblivion. But somehow, this time, the passing thought managed to get hooked on its way out the door. My next thought was:
Hang on. Is that what falling in love means? I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard it described this way before? I wonder if this is worth another read?
Again, let me emphasise that this is not my, nor I suspect your, normal practice when it comes to soundbites. Read, like, and then scroll on… remember? Yet, on this rare occasion, I somehow decided it was worth pausing and rereading. And so that’s what I did. And it’s what I want you to do now too. Reread the post, but this time read it a little more slowly. Pay a little bit more attention. Think about it some on the way through.
Here’s what went on in my mind during that second read.
Wait. Hang on. What is being described as “falling in love” with your spouse here sounds a lot like normal, everyday discipleship?! Like the kind of thing that all Christians are called to do with each other. Does the Bible connect discipleship with marriage and romantic love like this? What’s going on here?
And well, by then I was well and truly hooked. I remembered enjoying The Meaning of Marriage when I first read it and finding parts of it really helpful. But I wanted to know what Keller actually meant in this particular soundbite: whether the original context provided more theological rationale for his argument; whether he showed his biblical working in drawing this strong theological connection between “falling in love”, marriage and discipleship. Whether he was simply saying that marriage provides opportunities for discipleship—which I’d heartily agree with—or whether he was saying that discipleship is the purpose of marriage—which I would heartily disagree with.
[Spoiler alert: it was the latter. ‘What is marriage for? It’s for helping each other become our future-glory selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.’ The Meaning of Marriage (2013), p 120.]
Overthinking and Fuzzy Sentiments
Now if at this point you are thinking “Dani, you were clearly over-thinking it. It’s just intended to be a nice, encouraging sentiment that reminds married Christians to think of love in a biblical rather than worldly way”, then you are not alone. Because, as I was trying to work out where on earth I’d put my copy of The Meaning of Marriage, that very same thought was going through my own mind too.
But here is the thing—that is precisely the problem with these kinds of theological soundbites. By their very nature, they encourage us to not “overthink” things. They are designed to give us pithy insights, warm and fuzzy sentiments or perhaps a briefly jolting challenge … but not much else. In being removed from the broader context in which they were originally written (or spoken), they are presented as a standalone point or an isolated observation.
They are not designed to persuade us of a particular argument. They are not designed to help us trace through a line of logic. They are not designed to lead us through a sustained reflection. They are tl;dr punchlines that actively encourage us not to “overthink” things.
But is that how we want to do our theology? By just grabbing hold of the punchline? By not taking in a sustained argument? By not overthinking it? If you’ll excuse yet another one of my mind-reading attempts, I suspect your answer will be the same as mine. Of course not!
But the thing is, when it comes to those soundbites, that is what we are doing. Our theological perspectives on any range of issues are increasingly being formed by the pithy post, the quotable quote, the sermon sample. We may not be aware of it. It may not be intentional. But as people who are time-poor, greatly distracted, obsessed with the scroll and who live in a tl;dr world, it would be the height of naivety for us to think that our understanding of who God is and who we are is not being shaped in some way by theological soundbites.
A Digestion Problem
Again, let me illustrate with reference to our specific example. Some who saw this soundbite in their newsfeed probably won’t even remember anything about it two hours later. But others will. Some who liked it. Or who shared it. Or who tagged others in it. Or their friends who subsequently saw it.
At some point in the future, some of those people will be talking with their friends about the nature of romantic love between spouses, or hearing a sermon about marriage, or reading a book about spiritual maturity and they’ll remember that thing they once read by Timothy Keller which said that “falling in love” in marriage is all about discipleship. And how great that was. And how it helped them realise for the first time that marriage itself is ultimately about discipleship. And so how husbands and wives are able to grow to maturity more quickly than those who aren’t married. And how well that fits with that other soundbite they read recently from Gary Thomas  who said that marriage is the preferred route to becoming more like Jesus. And so how that means one disadvantage of being single is that you can’t expect to grow to the same levels of spiritual maturity as your married friends and…
Well, you get the point. And that is only one particular theological path relating to one particular soundbite amongst a myriad of potential other ones, all of which interact with these ideas of discipleship, marriage, romantic love, singleness, sanctification and lots, lots more. When it comes to the enduring impact of the theological soundbite, it is very much a case of choose your own adventure.
So then, what? Should we stop with the theological soundbite altogether? Not necessarily. After all, it is not the soundbite itself which is problematic; rather what we choose to do (or not do) with it. Given that what matters most is how we use and respond to the soundbite, here are some things for us to consider.
Biting and Chewing
For those of us who post theological soundbites, before we hit that post button there are some important questions we would do well to ask ourselves:
Who is in the audience that will be reading it?
Have I actually read and understood it carefully?
Is there something in it that means it really does need to be read in its wider context?
Who wrote it, and what impact might that have on how it will be read?
Would it be helpful for me to make some comments about it?
Should I also post a discussion question or two following it?
Would it be helpful for me to provide a link and encourage people to read the whole thing for themselves?
What do I hope to achieve by posting this? How can I most lovingly and faithfully set about that goal? And how I can best honour Christ in the process?
Those of us who read theological soundbites (basically, all of us!) also 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.
Most of us like a little bit of fast food every now and then. But it is no substitute for a nutritious healthy diet of real food. Knowing Christ; knowing who we are in him; knowing who each other is in him; knowing this world which finds its end in him; knowing the next world over which he already reigns—none of these things are ours through quick, chomping gulps of the fast-food soundbite. Why would we be willing to settle for a steady diet of that, when (like the prophet in Eze 2:9-3:3) we could be digesting long, slow, unhurried, nutritious mouthfuls of Scripture instead?
 Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage (2002), 17
This post was also published by The Gospel Coalition Australia on January 29, 2021.