I recall a friend of mine telling me how he once tried to explain the game of cricket to an American. Eventually the American said: “So do you mean to say that you can play for FIVE days and still nobody wins?!” He was completely dumbfounded. But almost in answer to that American`s exasperation in recent years the game of cricket has changed a great deal. There are now several different forms of the game which are noted for being much shorter than five or even one day and they are characterised as being quicker, a little more engaging and enlivening. Generally speaking this kind of change or evolution is just another symptom of how we`re compensating for what`s often referred to as our `shortening attention span`. Now who`s responsible for this is a matter of debate but this tendency towards let`s call it: `simplification` is everywhere.
To use another sporting picture I find myself a bit irritated by the coverage of football these days. I sometimes like to catch up on the week`s games by watching a programme on Saturday lunchtime. But instead of showing me a simple film of the goals going in one is treated to an array of dizzying camera angles and loud music. This they say, is designed to enhance the viewing experience but lurking in the background again is an attempt to compensate for my alleged inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes. But frankly I just want to see what`s going on from one, consistent and less migrane-inducing angle!
And the more I`ve thought about this it seems to me that the problem is not really a matter of attention span it`s actually a sign that the broadcasters no longer have confidence in their product. They shout more loudly and indulge in increasing degrees of novelty because they are fearful that they will lose their market share; and that I think gives you a hint as to what the real driving force is. Now I don`t want to get into a rant about this and in any case I`m pretty sure that anything I say about TV Production today would be ignored by the professionals and I don`t anticipate turning back the tide but I think we`re wise to be aware of what`s going on and to take note of its effects, particularly on our faith. That might sound odd but let me explain what I mean.
Firstly, think again about the way this perceived lack of attention span has effectively changed the nature of the game of cricket and how it`s completely changed the way we engage with this sport. So, I mean you can sit in the stands at any of these stadiums and ironically you could watch the whole thing on a giant screen- without any real need to look at the pitch at all!
Or secondly, think about how we`ve become used to talking about politicians using what we call `sound-bites`- you know, the gist of their policy boiled down into a supposedly memorable few words. Now, it`s one thing to have a memorable slogan to give us a sense of what someone stands for or what they intend to do but we`re becoming increasingly aware of how coupled with the pressures of 24 hour news this practice of getting out the sound-bite is also changing the way we regard and engage with our politicians and political discussion generally. And the casualty of this is an over-simplification. I would suggest that we`re losing the ability to handle nuance and complexity in some of the often darker or more challenging realities of life. For instance, how many international situations do we hear of in the news that that are effectively characterised as goodies versus baddies- and we know in our heart of hearts things are just not like that?
And when it comes to faith things are often treated the same. The story is told of the great theologian Karl Barth who had written a huge several volume work called `Church Dogmatics`: it`s a magnificent piece of work; and he`d spent years on it. When it was finally published a reporter asked him “So could you sum up what you`ve been trying to say?” to which he replied, “Jesus loves me this I know `cause the Bible tells me so”. Which is a brilliant and very humble reply and a wonderful example of how the heart of our faith is indeed profoundly simple. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and strength- and your neighbour as yourself” and so on. But having said that we need to be cautious of the simplistic sound-bite.
So for example- people will tell you “Old Testament God of Wrath- New Testament God of love”- It`s nonsense but a simple remark like that gets under the skin and gains the status of a truism. “God helps those who help themselves” is a phrase that actually has origins in the Koran and ancient Greece and isn`t actually in the Bible -indeed our faith teaches that God helps precisely those who can`t help themselves- but again it`s another simplification; something people regard as a moral truism by which they think they should live.
What I`m getting at is that we`re surrounded by examples of this and it`s impinged on me because this is the way Christmas is going. Just think of some the simplification that`s going on at this time of year and I hope you`ll see what I mean.
So for instance think of the Christmas that`s called- `a time for giving`. And you know that in the name of consumerism, what`s being side-lined is the God who gives his Son. Think of the Christmas that`s all about `Goodwill towards men`. And you know that in the name of a wholly praiseworthy good neighbourliness, what`s being side-lined is the celebration of the `Good will of GOD towards all that he has made`. And think of the Christmas that`s all about a baby in a manger. And the day after Boxing Day the BBC decrees Christmas is now over and let`s get onto New Year so what gets side-lined is all that stuff about Herod and the massacre of the Innocents. In other words the story is cut short. For fear that it might lower the tone the brutal world into which Christ is born is conveniently forgotten. Come to think of it, it`s been years since I saw a Herod in a Nativity play.
I`ve been wondering: “Is it just me? or are we also seeing here the outworking of a certain simplification? And importantly, a simplification which actually distorts and effectively changes the nature of the message?” I mean, let`s look more closely. People often say to me that their faith is challenged by what they read in the news each day and quite so. This is often followed up by that familiar question, “How can a God of love allow it?” and so on. Again, quite legitimate concerns.
But if your Christmas – if your understanding of God coming into the world – has been simplified to the point where the only inconvenience for that God was a problem with the hotel reservation and you ignore the simply savage reality of living as a refugee in a time of tyranny then your God will not connect with the worldly realities that trouble you. In other words, because you don`t enter into the whole of the Christmas narrative – because of the simplification, something important gets missed.
You see these inconvenient and less palatable parts of the Christmas story bring out the light and the shade, the very real battle between good and evil and they bring home to us the truth that what`s going on in this story is that grand narrative in which God remakes his creation. And the point is that he`s wanting to tell me about more than just `a baby in a manger`.
In the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke tells us of how St. Paul said goodbye to the Christian community in Ephesus. As part of his farewell he said something interesting. He made a point of reminding them that he had held back nothing in his teaching. He told them, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (20.27).
This morning I`d like to invite you to pray with the way that so much of our culture tends towards simplification; OK, let me say it, I`ve been trying to avoid the words “dumbing down”. And by this I don`t mean to imply that to be a person of faith you need to be especially clever; far from it. I`m pointing to the way our culture, which is so prone to simplification, has consequences for our faith. Because the pressure is on to live and communicate our faith in similar `sound-bite`, bite-sized, instant, entertaining and over-simplified ways to the point where in short, we don`t get the whole picture; indeed we get a distortion of what our God is about.
You see we need to remember that God is not there to adorn our world; he`s not given us `a few handy hints to get by in life`; or a few wise sayings to guide or cheer us up when things get difficult. He`s given us a Saviour, a relationship and a hope. As St. John reminds us, Jesus is God`s word to us. In other words he comes among us in flesh and blood; in a life; in a story. For example, that`s why, as I`ve said before Christmas makes no sense without reference to Easter. Ignore that and Christmas actually looks very bizarre indeed.
So, at the beginning of this new year, I want to encourage you to pursue that “whole purpose of God”. Don`t accept second-hand scraps of faith. Don`t live off what others tell you; make time and space to pray; immerse yourself in the Scriptures; re-claim your Baptism and all that God says about you. As Paul said “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” and strive for the whole counsel of God. Don`t tolerate the simplifications and sound-bites that seem so credible and convenient but which end up distorting the truth of what God has done and the life to which he calls you.