One of my favorite professors at Colorado State is a man named Greg Dickenson. As a speaker and as a scholar he is amongst the most accomplished and effective in his practice. I’ve had only one class with the man but I adore him.
This week he came to my communications “capstone” class to speak on rhetoric. To prepare for his lecture, we were assigned a reading by Kenneth Burke, a communications scholar whose work I’ve enjoyed. The reading was one I had already done, “Literature As Equipment for Living,” from Burke’s 1937 book Perspectives by Incongruity. The last time I read this article I was 19 and had just realized that physics wasn’t for me. Anything I heard about communications was bright and exciting and new. I think all I took from “Literature as Equipment for Living” the first time around was a shallow understanding of the main argument. Kenneth Burke, if you’ll allow me to nerd out even more, says so so much in everything he’s ever written. His main argument is always skirted by a ton of smaller but similarly weighty arguments that are delicious to the mind. This time around, in my last class as a communications major, I got a great deal more out of Burke’s article.
All of that introduction was to explain a realization I came to during the lecture. Dickenson spoke a little about Burke’s discussion of self-help books. Burke writes (the bold things were originally italicized by himself):
We usually take it for granted that people who consume our current output of books on “How to Buy Friends and Bamboozle Oneself and Other People” are reading as students who will attempt applying the recipes given. Nothing of the sort. The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that these readers are “succeeding.” I’ll wager that, in by far the the great majority of cases, such readers make no serious attempt to apply the book’s recipes. The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the reading itself.
I don’t even remember reading this the first time, but sitting in class tonight I was wow’ed by it. Kenneth Burke isn’t just making an argument about self-help literature or the readers of such, he’s making an argument about the way we consume literature; ideas even.
When we sit in service on Sunday mornings we often hear a message that is rich with emotion and carefully constructed to have three or more points designed to lead us to a better relationship with God or to more effective leadership or to better marital…whatever. I don’t mean to undermine these kind of sermons like I don’t think Burke meant to undermine self-help books. Also, I think sermons with 3+ points on effective leadership (for example) are already on a completely different plane anyway than books with 9+ ways to make money overnight in the travel industry. So don’t hear me talking down those sermons. The point is that, like with readers of self-help books, we like to assume that we listen to sermons as students that want to apply the teaching to our lives when really we may just be getting some superficial “feeling” of righteousness by being present for a discussion of righteousness. Does that make sense? It becomes easy, then, to feel like we are more righteous for the sake of attending a sermon on the topic of righteousness.
To put it in Burke’s terms, this kind of passive sermon listener may want a form of easy godliness which they find themselves able to realize, if only symbolically, from the sermon itself. To actually apply the points of the sermon would take much more effort and would probably cause us to see our own lack of godliness instead of whatever mild goodness we feel by only listening to a message in church. What brilliance though, to see in bright color our imperfection.
The point here is that we may need to consume sermons, even the bible for that matter, more actively. I wrote a post last year on the idea of Facebook “clicktivism,” or the idea of “symbolic activism.” People were changing their Facebook profile pictures to images of cartoon characters and then posting statuses that read something like “Change your profile pic to your favorite cartoon character to help support the fight against violence toward children!!1!1” We laugh a little at that now, but it was literally all over Facebook. Millions participated. When I wrote on it I applied some ideas I had learned in a different communications class, explaining how these people were engaging in a false kind of activism. Not only is changing your Facebook picture almost completely ineffective in fighting childhood violence, it may also convince you that you’ve taken action. What good are 10 million “awareness raisers” when there are still so few working against the violence? For an issue that really does need people to take action, nothing could be more harmful than people with real agency thinking they’ve done something to help when they’ve really done very little.
Similarly, we are often a church full of inactive churchgoers, among whom I am chief. While going to church and hearing good sermons may allow us to feel like we are living in the power of the biblical truths of those sermons, if we are not applying them we are being fooled into only “easy” or “symbolic” godliness. If our world is as cold and broken now as it ever was, nothing could be worse than for the church of Jesus Christ to be convinced that they are becoming more righteous just because they are enduring the duration of their church’s Sunday morning sermons and even being “moved” by them on occasion.
While I could stop here, I also think this really applies to reading the Bible. I can get so fired up about something Paul wrote to Timothy or something Isaiah said to Israel on behalf of God, but then I can go about my day being as foolish and rebellious as Israel ever was. What’s worse is that I may think that reading about Israel’s rebellious past and feeling bad for their actions has changed anything about mine. Even if the reading does draw attention to my lifestyle or my actions as wrong or sinful, simply feeling bad and mourning my decisions does not mean I have enacted a plan to repent and turn; to engage in new God-fearing.
All this might seem kind of obvious. “You need to apply the biblical things you hear and read to your life to be a healthier, more effective Christian.” You’ve heard that. Maybe a better message to take away is something like “Hearing of the power and potential of biblical truth to change your life may cause you to feel changed, but that feeling is probably only symbolic and not necessarily functional. That feeling may instead be a recognition of the desire of your heart to be changed, calling you to pursue change that will inevitably require some effort on your part but may leave you an entirely new creation.”