The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

iPod Spirituality and Finding Meaning Again

First, a sidenote: In an age when many decry technology and excess as depleting the spirit of man, I have happily found a way to use technology to deepen my spirituality. I recently obtained my first iPod through a bank incentive. I was trying to decide whether to keep it or sell it; the deciding factor was the availability of podcasts. I have since subscribed to a number of spiritually beneficial and mind-challenging podcasts. What’s more, I use my suburban hour-long commute to multitask and listen to these podcasts and encourage my soul. It’s a great thing.

So, with that background, I recently listened to two different talks by two different spiritual leaders from two different generations. The first speaker chose the story of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den.” This podcast was maybe the third I’ve listened to. He is a well-known speaker whose outlook on the world is highly respected and rightly so. His worldview is one that I respect even if I sometimes disagree. And since I’m going to criticize his method, I won’t name him—we’ll call him Pepe. Pepe, in his talk, was a huge fan of p-words. I must agree that p-words are great; r-words are good too. He took this popular story and disseminated some observations from it, then categorized them into p-words like plot, penalty, perseverance, and some others I don’t recall. There were at least 10 p-words he had. This alone was a feat, to find a p-word for every element of his perspective. This lasted for 25 minutes or so, then Pepe drew 16 conclusions. I don’t remember any of them. 16 key points is way too many, even if they are all good. It just gets comical once it passes 7 or 10 or 12. That was the substance of Pepe’s whole talk: p-words and conclusions extracted from this story.

From a second speaker, C.H. Spurgeon, I have listened to about 5 different talks. Actually, they aren’t spoken by him seeing as how he has been dead more than 125 years. He was sort of the Billy Graham of his time. Some devoted fan has taken to recording his readings of them. These last about an hour, perfect for my commute home.

I think Pepe is a fan of Spurgeon if I remember correctly. However their methods are very different. Spurgeon didn’t tackle a whole story but rather took a sentence or two from what he called the “Holy Scriptures,” obscure passages we never read in this day in age. His method is then to bring personal, vital, effective meaning of those sentences.

For example in one, he talked about Jesus as the builder of the Church, comparing it with Solomon, the Hebrew king of yore, building the Temple of Yahweh. For Jesus, the building is not built with wood, rock, and gold like Solomon’s but with people. Then he said, “It is with the law Jesus cut out his lumber; and it is with grace that he shaped and smoothed the wood”—talking about the follower of Jesus. This was a powerful image to me. In another of Spurgeon’s talks, he said, “God takes us captive by his justice, and sets us free by his grace.” The intrinsic metaphor brings intense meaning to Spurgeon’s words, and he does this over and over, eloquently and poetically; he makes it mean something to his hearers; he brings these obscure passages home to them, makes them matter. It’s an amazing thing. If you have an iPod, I recommend downloading at least one; you will get lost in Spurgeon’s words and thoughts.

By contrast, Pepe’s method was to take a story with meaning and boil it down into p-words and bullet points. Perhaps it’s good for some hearers but not for me. It had no meaning; I barely remember any of what he said because I couldn’t connect with it anywhere.

I recently attended Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, where I heard Donald Miller speak three different times. He’s the one who gave me the context to evaluate Pepe’s method. Miller criticizes the way that Christian preachers have removed the meaning from the truth of Scripture. He talks about how we’ve boiled Scripture down into bullet points and keywords. He argues that Scripture itself marries truth and meaning in a beautiful way (often through story), but we’ve taken it and extracted the truth and left out the meaningfulness of the truth.

For preachers, this is how it plays out: they spend hours and hours reflecting on the Scripture for their upcoming Sunday until they have an epiphany, a sudden insight; then on Sunday morning they lay out the justification for their understanding instead of taking their hearers through the process to the insight. This is truth without meaning. Many, like me, are bored with truth that is irrelevant. Miller had spectacular insight as to how we might recover the meaning of Scripture.

Spurgeon takes the bones of an idea and puts flesh on them and makes them dynamic, breathing creatures that cannot go unnoticed or avoided. In another post, I will discuss some reasons I see for this, for why Spurgeon’s methods are more effective than Pepe’s. But I don’t think it simply matters for speakers on the stage; I think it is relevant for numerous other facets of communicating thoughts and ideas. Story is a powerful method for understanding truth married to meaning. I’ve tried to use story in this way—like my hero—in a previous post called “Fabled Faith.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Pepe to Spurgeon. It’s like comparing any pastor to Billy Graham: they’re on totally different playing fields. But I think there are Spurgeons out there today who are effectively and meaningfully communicating the good worldview Pepe has by marrying truth and meaning and not simply providing the justification without the journey using bullet points and mnemonic devices .

So, in conclusions, I would like to reiterate 24 points that I’ve covered in this post, each starting with R.

Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic
Roth IRA
Raggedy Andy
Rites of Passage