Signal to Noise Ratio (Part 2 of 2)

In the first part (which can be found here) I looked at the history of mass communication and how, as costs go down that amount of meaningful communication compared to the amount of meaningless noise also goes down. In this second part I look at what this may mean for the Church.

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Where does this leave the church? We have been entrusted with the most important message in the world—eternal life, salvation. How do we respond? Well, it is fairly obvious that there have been those in the church who have seized each new medium as a new avenue for spreading the word. Radio and television, for instance, have plenty of Christian broadcasters. And as the medium gets fuller and noisier, these televangelists and so on get louder and glitzier to stay ahead.

Surely this is a good thing: The word is getting out in more and more ways, to more and more people. How could this be wrong? And yet… Didn’t Jesus say something about casting pearls before swine?

What if Marshal McLuhan was right, what if the medium really is the message? What if, in order to preach the gospel on television, we have to subtly alter it, adapt it to the medium? Is it still the gospel?

Why do so many televangelists preach a health-and-wealth gospel rather than the gospel of suffering and voluntary poverty that Jesus preached? Is it not because if they preached the message Jesus did they wouldn’t attract such a large audience, and without the audience they would lose their bit of the medium?

Even if one could, initially, convey the real gospel over a particular medium, one would find that as the noise level went up one would have to get louder. And talking louder inevitably leads to polarization, the loss of nuance and balance, and the reduction of truth to slogan.

In the rock opera “Jesus Christ, Superstar” the question is asked why Jesus was born in such a backward time, without any means of mass communication. It is a good question and one we should give serious attention to. We cannot believe that god made a mistake, so could it be that it was better this way? Could it even be that the real gospel is actually inimical to mass media? But if that is true, how are we to reach the lost?

Here’s a thought: We have been trying so hard to get the word out, to attract the world’s attention. But no matter how loud we get, it is never enough. After all, there are many more of them than us, and they can each be just as loud as we can. We will never be heard that way, but what if we tried silence?

We might not reach as many people, but is that important? If we have been fishing with a big net but only been catching trash fish, perhaps the answer is not to get a bigger net still, but to toss the net and try a rod and line instead. One person who really pays attention is worth thousands who “hearing, do not hear”.

It isn’t a new idea, of course, though we seem to keep missing it. Francis of Assisi told us to “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words”. Earlier, Paul had told Timothy that “the servant of the Lord should not strive”. And earlier still Solomon told us, again and again, that “the wise man is often silent”.

This silence that speaks is not, of course, a quietist silence. We are not to just sit back and do nothing. On the contrary, it is a most active silence. Instead of talking about the gospel, we live it. Day by day, moment by moment, we become in our own way the word incarnate. For that is the only way the word can  exist, by being incarnate, lived. When Jesus said he was “the way, the truth, and the life” he wasn’t saying that he was three things, but one: The way is the truth, which is life.

But will anyone hear our silence? On the one hand, it doesn’t matter. Our responsibility is to preach the gospel, we do not, and cannot, control the response. That is God’s responsibility. And we may never see the result, just as Stephen didn’t know that his death would affect Saul. On the other hand God does, at times, give us the joy and encouragement of seeing it heard. Sometimes he allows us to be surprised to realise just how closely our quiet lives are, in fact, being watched.

Silence will never attract the kinds of audience that noise will but it doesn’t matter. God will assure that the audience it does attract is the right one. God has always valued quality over quantity. And there is always this: Our silence will always have an audience of at least one, and if he is in the audience then it is always a full house!

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