Sound Bites and Dialogue

Thanks to the video-ization of modern culture, humans have shifted our cognitive skills to largely visual with short attention spans, now shorter than a TV commercial.  This means that anything that is not visual, i.e. auditory or kinesthetic, is discounted.  This also means that anything that takes more than about 13 seconds of our attention is either discounted or ignored.  Hence, quickly pronounced “sound bites” have taken the central role of truth in our society, over and above having a substantive dialogue about a topic.  Heaven forbid that any of us would be required to engage our rational thinking skills more than 13 seconds. This unfortunate trend has led to a rhetorical technique of deflecting a bid to engage in serious discussion about any topic with a platitudinous sound bite.  These bits of acoustic slight-of-hand become beacons of truth in a complex world and badges of tribal membership.  The operating rule is, “No member of a tribe can ever question the veracity of its defining sound bites.”  We no longer rally behind our flag or our cross or our star of David or our crescent, but instead behind the sound bites that define our allegiance.    I fear that my role / calling / vocation of countering this dreadful trend is something like sticking my finger in a hole in the Hoover Dam which is about to explode.   But finger-stick I must.  Our religious sound bites are readily recognizable.  “I’m so blessed.”  “Have a blessed day.”  “Those people just haven’t been saved.”  “Those people are sinners.”  A careful examination of the bible reveals that Jesus exploded many such religious-sounding-but-damaging sound bites in his day.  Problem is, he did it with parables, metaphors, teaching and his own life.  All of which require a good deal more attention and thought than most people today are willing to engage.   When the operating rule is that you cannot question the ideological basis (sound bites) on which you stand, then you become an instant member of a self-contained cult.  We can see some of those cultic buildings in a 360-degree panorama from the bell tower of our church.  You could make a case that our own church is cultic with its own rules and norms.   Most cults on both side of an issue cause damage and human suffering.  That is why my hope for the year ahead is not so much that we will enter into a year of “Truth” as the periodical, “The Week” noted, but that we will engage in honest dialogue with one another.  Such work demands far more than 13 seconds of attention.  It requires consideration of demonstrable facts versus emotion-driven opinion.  Real dialogue also requires an examination of and revelation to others of our own biases, backgrounds and epistemologies.  That is the hard work of dialogue.  The goal of this is not the same as debate where there are winners and losers.  The goal of dialogue is to achieve mutual understanding, i.e. “Now I really understand where you are coming from.”    Can you imagine a religious dialogue where the goal is not to convert someone so they can go to heaven, but to simply unpack a parable of Jesus from two sides so we begin to understand each other?   Can you imagine deepening our understanding of the Holy Eucharist in a way that each of us is drawn deeper into the mystery through dialogue and understanding what it means to others?   I cannot fix society’s ills.  Some of it drives me crazy.  But I can help you learn what it means to be part of a diverse community of faith.  We are not a cult of like-minded people.  We have differing opinions and ideas and that is all good.  When we share who we are with our hopes, our ideas and our vulnerabilities, we draw closer to each other.  When we learn to abandon sound bites in favor of dialogue we join a long tradition going back before Jesus of people who really wanted to learn from each other.  That is the definition of the love that binds a community together.  I am here for you.  I hope we can do it together.