The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Style And Content

Notes on an ongoing project. And an excuse to post a photo that begs to be shown.
In the effort to communicate, what lines get crossed when undue emphasis is placed on the target language? (Translation: when you're trying to talk in plain, simple English, when does simple become "too simple"?)

Factors to consider:
1. correspondence of ideas: what gets lost in translation?
2. associational pollution: what kinds of crosstalk do you get--what cognitive dissonance do you create--by the popular-culture associations that attend popular language? Can you really say, "It's the theology, stupid!" without making the hearer flash on Bill Clinton?
3. style as content: what (meta-)"information" is transmitted by style? Does use of a popular verbal style create a message that "college-educated readers may as well tune out now"?
4. media as content: what (meta-)"information" is transmitted by the choice of media? Does a visual presentation "say" "We are not bookish snobs! We speak TV just like you!" Does the "look and feel" of a presentation, with its power to create first impressions, prime the audience with some sort of predisposition?

Consider the photograph at the right. This is not some Photoshop creation. You can go to Manitou Springs, CO and see this sign downtown. The shape of the sign, its location, the shape and spacing of its letters, all say OFFICIAL CITY SIGN. I was ignoring it until I was startled to see the word "DUDE" appear in a place I wouldn't expect it. I did a double-take, and had to read it three times. Droll, huh?

Read more (and see another photo, too!)...

Yep, it's cute. We can see what the words say. But what does the existence of the sign itself "say"? Pick your favorite:
  • "We are a hip community, capable of mocking ourselves, but we would really prefer that you humor us: please don't skateboard here."

  • "Skateboarders can't read."

  • "Skateboarders can read but they are a bunch of scofflaws who routinely ignore posted rules. We wish to appease them with drollery. If we ask them nice, in a fun, hip way, maybe they'll give us a break and do what we ask for once."

  • "Nobody pays any attention to official signs anyway, so whatthehell, may as well have a little fun with taxpayer money."

I also found this sign. Is the joke getting old? Did you chuckle, groan, or bristle? Does it lower your opinion of the Manitou Springs city government? Does it make you more, or less, inclined to obey posted signs of any sort when you visit this town?

What happens to our Christian message when we abandon traditional Christian vocabulary, in a quest for relevance? What are the tipping points from "You are correct, if somewhat obscure" to "You have dumbed down" to "You are getting ridiculous"?

What happens to a content-rich message, traditionally delivered through words ("Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ," Romans 10:17) is delivered in a PowerPoint presentation, or a video, with pictures of smiling people (a suitably diverse mix of races and generations, of course) talking on cellphones? Do the smiling faces, the emotional cachet of the "show," eclipse or modify the message? Do they move the focus from faith (hard to depict visually!) to people, or networking?


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