I find Rob Bell fascinating.
Sure, I disagree with his theology, but when it comes to engaging communication, the man is virtually without peer.
If you want to see a masterpiece in clever communication, look no further than a promotional video for a Rob Bell book.
This is Bell in his element.
Take, for instance, this recent offering:
The dislocated camera shots.
The fractured statements.
It’s all there.
You start with the evocative image of the Velvet Elvis, reminding you of that summer you read through that book as a teen.
How that book resonated with you at the time!
Rob begins by telling us that a lot of people in our culture ‘can’t do the God-sort of belief system or idea.’ A ‘very, very popular movement’ tells us that this is all that there is. However, lots and lots of people, when they experience vaguely defined moments of transcendence – your kid is born, you hear that piece of music, you find yourself in that natural wonder – find that this doesn’t work for them.
And then, suddenly, we are snapped into another line of thought: ‘There’s just such extraordinary, great, interesting, fascinating truths and insights and discoveries.’
Indeed there are, but whose exactly and on what subject?
Who cares! That was a nice bundle of adjectives and the sense of wonder that they evoked is lingering…
Where did the idea for the book come from?
‘It actually started years ago. Kept having all these ideas. And it all seemed to have something connecting it, but I didn’t know what.’
Italian monkeys eating peanuts. The strangeness of the universe.
Rob then tells us about his sense of a need to study and read. We see his books. His cue cards, each of which bears an idea. Scattered like buckets to catch the rainfall of inspiration.
Cosmic significance. Crying for the divine. We’ve all been there.
And all at once, Rob isn’t talking about ‘I’ anymore, but about ‘you’. And then we experience the writing of the book through Rob’s eyes.
The words slow down. The camera pans its unfocused gaze over close ups of Rob’s features. The passion exudes. The smile widens.
And we’re in that feeling and that moment. Right with him.
‘And it doesn’t matter who’s going to read this or like it or not like it it’s all totally irrelevant the only thing that matters is you know that you are here to make this and so your feet get planted under the table and you … start typing.’
‘The desires of your heart are revealed.’
‘Do you want to make the next thing?’
‘Do you love it?’
‘…and so you just give a big giant “YES”!’
Oh, so what is the book about then, Rob?
‘The book is essentially: God is not behind us dragging us backwards into some primitive, regressive state. God has always been ahead of us, pulling us forward into greater and greater peace, integration, wholeness, and love.’
Amen. Who could be against that?
Rob followed up the above tour de force with this offering:
Rob begins with an engaging story about an old car: the Oldsmobile that he owned as a 20 year old. A masterful storyteller, with an economy of brushstrokes, he paints a picture of the car that draws in our humour, our affection, and our nostalgia, all while the music plays in the background.
But the Oldsmobile that he once loved, while serving him well for several years, wasn’t able to keep up with the times. And then it becomes clear that the engaging story is designed to serve as a compelling metaphor.
‘…for a growing number of people in our modern world, God is a bit like Oldsmobiles…’
As the video cuts between panning and refocusing shots of the shabby and disintegrating car interior, Rob informs us:
‘Things have changed. We have more information and technology than ever. We’re interacting with a broader more diverse range of people than ever. And the tribal god, the only one many people have ever heard of, appears more and more small and narrow and irrelevant and in some cases just plain mean and other times, not … that … intelligent.’
Then Rob gives us three anecdotes from his friends, Cathy, Gary, and Michael, which invite us to share their feelings of shock, disgust, or bemusement at the antiquated views that still exist in some Christian circles. For the God of such Christian circles is the Oldsmobile of the story, ready to be gracefully retired before he embarrasses himself further.
‘And, as a pastor over the last twenty years what I’ve seen again and again is people with a growing sense that their spirituality is in some vital but mysterious way central to who they are as a person and yet the dominant perceptions and conceptions and understandings of God that they’ve encountered along the way aren’t just failing them, but in many cases are causing … harm.’
The hand gestures become at once more pronounced and more animated.
‘…because I believe there are other ways, better ways of talking about God and understanding God. Because I believe God is with us and for us. And I believe God is actually ahead of us, calling us and drawing us, inviting and pulling us all, every one of us, into a better future than we could ever imagine.’
If the theologian of the 16th century was a lawyer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man.
For this is what Rob Bell is. If we are to understand Bell, it is imperative that we recognize the sort of movement in Christian discourse that he exemplifies.
The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.
Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor. Its non-confrontational and conversational tone invites ready agreement. Even if you don’t agree, Bell hasn’t pinned himself down. He’s only asked a question, quoted an acquaintance, or related an anecdote, and could easily distance himself from any of them.
We aren’t accustomed to arguing against metaphors, quotations, questions, images, and anecdotes, Bell’s stock-in-trade. We often don’t see them coming, and when we do, we are often uncertain of how to respond to them. Artfully employing such tools, someone like Bell can move you much of the way to his position before you even realize what is happening.
Bell’s distinctive rhetorical style is taken straight from advertising (before writing this post, I bet myself that Bell had studied something along the lines of advertising or psychology in the past: a quick Google search revealed that I was correct). His fragmentary and impressionistic statements, single sentence paragraphs, vague, one-size-fits all observations, generous deployment of unspecific adjectives, frequent uses of the second person singular to describe states of feeling, and heavy dependence upon narrative, anecdote, question, quotation, metaphor, and image are all fairly typical of advertising style.
Advertisers can be masters of eliciting feelings and states of mind in a manner that makes you think that you are on exactly the same wavelength, without actually telling you anything. They give you the bucket and you fill it, without recognizing what you are doing. Vague and indefinite terms that will be filled with highly emotive states (e.g. ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘wonder’ – words which almost always carry great emotional resonance for any hearer) and prose that seems to be saying something profound without making much of a specific claim is fairly typical here. They hold up a mirror and you see yourself in it.
While much modern preaching is about entertainment, I believe that advertising is a better category within which to understand Bell. When Bell brings a goat on stage, or shaves a person’s head while preaching on Numbers 6, he isn’t seeking primarily to entertain or even to inform, but to create a strong visual impression to bind to his message. The purpose of such a pastor is less one of reasoning with people to persuade them of a truth than one of creating an impression with them in order to get them to buy into an idea. Lest I be seen to dismiss the use of lessons learnt from advertising in our communication entirely, let me make clear that they can have a place. My point is that they should not be allowed into the driving seat.
I am a fan of the TV show Mad Men, set in an ad agency in 1960s New York. The show’s chief protagonist, the charismatic philanderer, Don Draper, puts this point well:
As Don says, ‘You are the product. You, feeling something.’
The ad man knows this secret, and so do many contemporary evangelicals. Much of the time Bell isn’t trying to communicate a particular abstract theology to people. Rather, he elicits desirable emotive states from his audience and connects those with a heavily chamfered theology while tying undesirable emotive states to opposing viewpoints. All of this can be done without actually presenting a carefully reasoned and developed argument for one’s own position, or engaging closely with opposing viewpoints.
The advertising style comes with a fragmentation of thought. Even the way that Bell describes his thinking and writing process – trying to find a theme to bind together hundreds of detached impressions – seems to manifest this. The advertiser does not make lengthy and involved arguments and those who are raised on advertising can seldom handle them.
And this is a key point, one which, having been raised without a television, it took me a while to recognize: the overwhelming majority of people today were trained in the process of making up their minds by advertisers. They also picked up the art of persuasion, not from classic texts of reason, but from advertising. As a result, many people fail to demonstrate genuine literacy in understanding and creating reasoned arguments, but are adept at producing advertising copy for their impressions. They have been taught both to process and to persuade using impressions. I think that Josh Strodtbeck expresses this well (I’ve quoted this before):
Then there’s this other type of person. As nearly as I can tell, they seem to create collages in their mind as they read. Turns of phrase here and individual metaphors there get thrown into different places in the collage until they have what appears to them to be a fairly complete picture, then they react to the picture in more of a qualitative way (this reaction is usually emotional since they don’t really do “critiquing logic” or “refuting ideas”). This sort of person really doesn’t do very well at all with complex writing, especially writing that goes in directions they’re not used to. In my experience, explaining what I wrote to a person like this is a lost cause. I inevitably find myself repeating ideas over and over, quoting my own text, and dissecting my own grammar to prove to this sort of person that I said what I actually said. If your audience is this sort of person, you need to be extremely careful in how you choose your individual words and phrases, or you will set off a negative emotional reaction that makes further communication impossible.
If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).
In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.
It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.
I wanted a pretext to include the following Mad Men clip, which shows Don Draper accomplishing this process masterfully.
By the end of Don’s pitch, you have a strong emotional bond with the product. Don hasn’t spoken about the technology itself, or argued its merits relative to other products on the market, but has just told us a compelling story, shared a smart anecdote, quoted someone, given us some compelling and emotionally resonant images to hang our feelings on, and taken us on a journey. And we are sold. This is how much Christian communication operates today. It is no less slick and clever, but we risk forgetting that we are not called to be salespersons.
Some might think that some of my points above are falling a little shy of the mark when it comes to Rob Bell and several others, who are often very smart people, making lots of clever points in their writings and sermons, referencing the original biblical languages, the cultural context of scriptural passages, and scholarly insights. I don’t dispute this for a moment. Advertisers are frequently incredibly intelligent people, as are many people who, whether intentionally or not, employ their methods. The point to recognize, however, is the way that such learning gets framed when we adopt the model of advertising.
One good example of how learning gets framed by advertising is the graphical or computer visualization of the operation of the clever science behind how the shampoo makes your hair so shiny. The actual science is not the real message of this graph or visualization. The real message is: trust us, trust our product – we are smart people who know what we are doing. The point of the science visualization is to relax your critical faculties more than to engage them. You’re OK, we have the science covered.
While making another point, this recent article compares Bell’s style to that of speakers at TED conferences. I think that this is a very illuminating analogy. The TED talk is a further example of the way that advertising techniques can shape the processes of thought and communication. While not being explicitly framed as advertising, the TED talk is all about pitching and selling an idea to an audience. For this reason, the style of the TED talk is typically emotive, focused upon ‘engagement’ and ‘inspiration’. It often aims primarily for people’s sense of curiosity or wonder. It aims to create strong impressions, though audio-visuals, demonstrations, or general stage-presence. It aims to put the mind of the viewer at complete rest concerning the validity of the science, hiding much of the messy working, allowing them to bask in the sense of insight that the ideas produce.
As this piece observes, what the TED context discourages is disputation or a devil’s advocate. A devil’s advocate would put such a damper on the sense of epiphany that the TED talk is supposed to produce. While it would produce a more informed audience, it would make it much more difficult for the TED talk to achieve its primary purpose of making the audience feel something. The problem here isn’t that speakers at TED are stupid – they are some of the smartest people around. Rather, the problem is with the adopted style of discourse.
One finds the same thing in other contexts where the goals of advertising are substituted for the goals of thought: disputation and challenge are consistently discouraged and resisted. Once we have recognized why this is taking place, we are halfway to answering an interesting conundrum: why is it that many of the people who most champion ‘questioning’ within the Church can be the most unwilling to expose their own thought to direct challenge and close interrogation? If questioning is such a good thing, then surely being questioned must be too.
A clue to understanding here is found in recognizing that critical thought and the requirement to reason are far more inescapably engaged when we have to commit to and defend a fixed position than when we can merely question. As long as we don’t have to respond to questioning, we can easily operate according to how we feel about different positions. We can relax and be at ease, because ideas don’t come with the heavy responsibility of thought, of reasoning for and defending them. Our critical faculties don’t have to be engaged.
As soon as we have to reason – something that being questioned forces us to do – we may find that the truth doesn’t underwrite our feelings, but often wounds them. The current celebration of ‘questioning’ in many quarters of the Church can play to pleasant feelings of novelty, curiosity, inspiration, superiority, popularity, and intelligence, and quell the negative feelings associated with certain beliefs that we would like to avoid. Questioning frees us from unpleasant commitments, from being tied down. However, situating this questioning within a context of rigorous mutual questioning would destroy this dynamic, as feelings are seldom salved and can never be settled in the driving seat when we are forced to reason for our impressions.
This new form of discourse is very weak when it comes to commitment. Traditional contexts of thought require commitment, a need to nail your colours to the mast, and preparedness to face opposition and accusation. Within such a context ideas are presented in a didactic or dogmatic style, one that confronts us more directly. The new context doesn’t require the same commitment of us, but is about ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’. It often couches its claims in non-confrontational rhetorical questions: ‘isn’t it interesting that…?’, ‘have you ever wondered whether…?’, etc. There isn’t a sense of the deep responsibility and accountability of thought.
The new evangelical communicator is all too often just such an ideas guru, spreading non-conventional, novel, and cool insights that make us feel good and encourage us to buy into their teaching, without being prepared to engage in the same costly work of thought and defence. Accusing such a person of possible heresy is such a buzz-kill and creates the sort of negative feelings that we don’t want to buy into. It isn’t heresy, it’s rebranding.
While recognizing the power and potential uses of advertising, we need to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that it works and the manner in which it can distort our thought and discourse. As Christians, maintaining the integrity of our discourse is one of our primary duties. This duty does not merely demand an attention to the content of our discourse, but also to the weaknesses, temptations, and inclinations of our chosen forms. Is the fragmented, vague, and emotionally-oriented and disorienting discourse of advertising, with its dense maze of interlocking narratives, questions, anecdotes, quotations, images, metaphors, and suggestions, the most faithful means of communication? I don’t think that it usually is.
The gold standard of Christian communication is provided for us in 2 Corinthians 4:2:
But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
To the extent that our forms of discourse obfuscate the truth in order to evoke feelings that allow us to sell our ideas, we have fallen short of this goal.