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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Ghost Writers, Idea Inflation, & Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder

Os Guinness is an internationally renowned speaker and the author of numerous books, including Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, and Long Journey Home. An Englishman, he was born in China and holds degrees from the universities of London and Oxford.

“Why didn’t God wait for the Internet? He could have spoken at one time and in one place and reached everyone everywhere and won the world in one generation?”

I was asked that question once and answered by turning it around. “Why did God speak through the Incarnation when it was so limited—through one human being, in one generation, in one small, backward part of the earth?”

Surely, the question was suggesting, the Incarnation in comparison with the Internet is an inefficient, wasteful, and highly risky way to communicate. What if Herod’s soldiers had arrived an hour earlier and succeeded in their task of killing the baby Jesus?

Have you met people who talk like that? Over the years I have had countless conversations with enthusiastic Christians, including pastors, whose breathless logic ran like that. One more mission, one more management insight, one more innovative technique—and this time we really will reach the world in our generation.

The root problem of such attitudes is theological. There is no clearer, more powerful, and more effective human communication than a flesh and blood human being talking face to face with another flesh and blood human being, so “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But such people also overlook the fact that modern communications make communicating not only easier but harder too in some ways. So we need to be aware of the obstacles as well as the opportunities.

Let me point out three hidden oddities at the heart of modern communication that bedevil all we try to say. No state-of-the-art technologies will ever overcome these oddities, because they have created them in the first place, and they make them worse daily.

The first oddity is that the modern world is suffering from inattention. Successful communication requires attention. A listener must not only hear, which is a physical matter to do with the ears, but pay heed, which is the old term for a spiritual, moral, and intellectual focus of a heart and mind. Attention of any sort is extremely rare today and therefore valuable. Television, for example, is crucial for corporate advertisers—think of what they are willing to pay for Super Bowl commercials—but for one reason only: it promises to deliver mass “attention,” at least for a moment.

Here is the rub. Never have our technologies been cheaper, more powerful, and more accessible to all—think of cell phones and e-mails. But the result is a “mediated” society in which everyone is talking (or speaking, writing, e-mailing, texting, blogging, selling, and protesting) and no one is listening. We have a gigantic Babel of “noise” in which no one is listening with the focused attention that both hears and heeds. In short, we have an audience suffering from Cultural Attention Deficit Disorder.

That, needless to say, is the world to which preachers preach today. Whereas the average Puritan heard around 4,000 sermons in his lifetime, and each one was the most authoritative voice in the week, the modern sermon competes against thousands of rival voices every single day.

The second oddity of modern communication is that it causes an inflation of ideas and sources. Inflation results from the fact that when more and more of something is available, it becomes less and less valuable. We normally think of it as an economic matter, though that is relatively easy to deal with. But what we suffer from now is far deadlier and harder to deal with—an inflation of ideas and sources.

Take the example of ghost writing. Letters, speeches, books, and sermons would once have almost certainly been authored by those who wrote, signed, or delivered them; and would have come with all the authority, or lack of it, of those behind them. That is no longer the case in a day of ghost writing, letters by committee, autograph machines, public relations, and Internet downloading.

The result is one more contribution to the wider devaluing of the place of authorship, and therefore of an author’s responsibility and authority. It also leads to a corresponding rise in the minds of hearers and readers of mistrust, cynicism, suspicion, and the idea that any interpretation is as good as any other.

This inflation is damaging enough when it touches political life, for political speech now is rarely taken as seriously as it used to be. But the inflation is deadlier still when it affects the Church, for it reduces Christian speech to the level of television jingles and advertising by-lines. For example, there are so many ghost writers behind today’s celebrity Christian authors that Christian publishers have been described as “haunted houses,” and many of their books are no better than cotton candy for the soul. And when it comes to preaching, the power of “Thus says the Lord” evaporates entirely when pastors routinely plagiarize other pastors’ sermons from the Internet and deliver them as their own.

The third modern oddity is inertia, the challenge of the fact that in a fast-moving information society, the deepest changes of heart and mind are extremely slow and difficult to effect. When democracy rose, it was feared that its offer of universal literacy, universal education, and universal suffrage would make ideas flow so fast and freely that they would encourage a dangerously volatile public opinion and demagoguery. Yet in some ways the opposite has happened.

To be sure, we do think faster than ever at the level of our reflexes—with all our multi-tasking, split-screen viewing, and instant messaging. But at the level of our deeper reflections, where the deep changes of hearts and minds take place, we think and change our minds more slowly than ever. There is a simple reason for this. If you want to effect change in a monarchy, you really have to change only one mind: the king’s. Equally, in an aristocracy, you only have to win a few minds. But in a democracy you have as many minds to change as there are citizens to persuade—which is obviously a slow and arduous task. So, not surprisingly, we are up against a powerful inertia when it comes to change at the deepest level—which is precisely the level of change the gospel addresses.

So is it easier to communicate today? In many ways, yes. But for all the brilliance of many breathtaking technological advances, our human communication is as shallow as ever, if not shallower and more trivial in some ways. So if preachers wish to communicate in a manner worthy of the gospel and be true to the profound change it calls us to, they have wrestle with all the oddities of modern communication and overcome them.

Far from being easier, communicating in the modern world is in some ways harder. But just as the Word will always be more powerful than the Sword, and the Incarnation will always be clearer and more powerful than the Internet, so the more modern we become, the more basic must be our reliance—on the necessity of prayer, on the scandalous drawing power of the Cross, and on the indispensable and irreplaceable power of the Word and Spirit of the Great Communicator Himself: God.