Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alastair Roberts: If the theologian of the 16th century was a laywer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man

... 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.


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 evangelical teacher who takes this approach becomes the product or maybe this doesn't go far enough, such an evangelical teacher makes you the product by seeming authentic enough that you relate to the teacher. 

As he's done before, Alastair quotes from this succint observation about different styles of reading.

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.

For those of us who actually keep track of what a person says or argues at point A all the way to point Z this other type of reader can be difficult to account for.  The internet seems to have spawned, in the last two decades, some kind of reader who responds to their emotional reaction to the gestalt they constructed from what they felt when they read something rather than what was actually written.  This sort of reader will seize upon a single word and his/her emotional reaction to that one word, regardless of authorial intent, and build an entire response to that and apparently just that.  Writers can be sloppy and need rewriting but even accounting for that there's no stopping a reader of the sort Fearsome described from misreading what was written. 

Alastair observes how Rob Bell's approach is that of the ad man and the way he described Bell's approach as a speaker and a theologian I found myself thinking, "This whole approach seems kinda familiar."  It's fascinating to consider that whether the evangelical left or right both guys credited with founding two very different kinds of Mars Hills could end employing more or less the same set of rhetorical tricks to win big audiences. 

Alastair Roberts refers to Rob Bell's Oldsmobile, I'll refer back to Mark Driscoll building a case that Esther was not a very godly woman in a sermon that hinged on, among other things, appealing to the moral intuition of Mark Driscoll's teenaged daughter Ashley.  There were a few sloppy references to OT literature that don't add up but the zinger for personal impact was Driscoll mentioning his conversation with his daughter.  The point was about the emotional sell rather than the substance in both cases, far as I can tell.  Object to Bell's whole approach and you're in favor of the Oldsmobile.  Object to Driscoll case that Esther was somehow not that godly a woman, and that he's not only poisoned the well by saying that your view of Esther as a godly woman makes Esther as a book "worthless", but has also thrown in an anecdote about his sweet daughter Ashley to boot then you're objecting to the competence and sentiments of a teenage girl.  Well, okay, since we know that the opinions of teen-aged daughters of celebrity pastors always and automatically come armed with a mastery of biblical languages and ancient Persian and Jewish social conventions ... .

Or we could point out that both Bell and Driscoll are selling junk but saying that ad men are just selling something has the protection of those who have already bought the sell, which is the ad man feeling something.  The same thing works in reverse these days, when once someone has decided they see through the ad man's persona and techniques nothing is acceptable, because the halo effect and the sunk cost emotional investment work in both directions, both for and against. 

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