Monday, January 21, 2008

Sound Bites

The recent issue of Newsweek magazine has a picture of Hilary Clinton on the cover with the quote: "I have found my voice." It was a phrase much repeated in the media following her New Hampshire win. So often in an election year issues of all sorts are reduced to a minimum of digestible words. Speeches capitalize on brief images easily captured by the memory, instead of deep thoughts that require extended contemplation. One commentator noted not long ago how frequently the single word "change" was evoked by all the candidates, often repeated extensively in a single speech. Living in a world where visual and voice media often predominate in the public square, those who wish to promote their ideas and identity feel forced to proclaim their words in the convenient capsule of communication known as the "sound bite." Unfortunately sound bites are open to a range of interpretation, and for this reason they fail to communicate anything clearly. Change? Change of what? It doesn't matter. You decide.

Sound bites are also the plague of the church. Too often popular preachers provide a diet to the masses of little easily digested portions of thought, that end up offering the spiritual nutrition of a candy bar to a diabetic. Not only do they not feed the soul, they harm it.

Pastors are often pressured by parishoners to shorten and simplify their sermons, especially after they have sat at the feet of the entertainment gurus who pass themselves off as prophets. Concerned by increasingly empty pews and lighter collection plates, they feel caught between the realities of hard-edged economics and the call to faithfulness. Compromise, often a hated word by any who value the truth, is probably more a part of the modern day pastor's work than any would care to admit. Surviving in a world of sound bite communication places the pastor in the tightrope walk of getting the Gospel out, but reducing it in the process so that ever shrinking attention spans will remain alert long enough to hear.

However, if we must reduce the words, let us learn from St. John the Baptist from this Sunday's Gospel. Seeing the Christ pass by he captured the essence of the Gospel in a few powerful words: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! The reality is that we daily face a world that is on the one hand overwhelmed by words and information, and on the other hand pulls away from them. If the word must be simplified at times, then, let us not forget the name of Christ and the work of the cross. We can continue the proclamation in extended catechesis for those who have the faith to learn more.

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