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Never before have we been fed so much information in such condensed packages. At one time soundbites dwelt solely in the domain of radio and tv news. These audible quotes served the purpose of supporting or illustrating the main points of a story. For example,
News anchor: Mayor Jones reserved special praise for his team of volunteers after winning his third term.
(Cut to Mayor Jones soundbite) “I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for your tireless and sacrificial service without which we wouldn’t be here today!” (Boisterous applause and cheers)
The soundbite in this fictional account doesn’t add much in the way of information, rather it draws the listener or viewer into the mood of the occasion that mere description tends to lack. Soundbites continue to be used this way, which is fine. I have no issue with the soundbite itself, it’s that it has become all too common as the culture’s chief communication medium. This is not to say that the traditional soundbite hasn’t been misused. It is all too easy to isolate a comment or part of a comment to create a false narrative. Quotes taken out of context are no different from outright lying, especially when done intentionally. But even apart from intention the soundbite as an information nugget is always somewhat dangerous because for it to effectively represent reality it must be presented within its original context. Otherwise there is no control on how it might be taken.
Soundbites and context
We are not normally conscious of how context controls even the simplest of communication. When you walk down the street you don’t abruptly stop at the corner because the red octagonal sign tells you to. Neither do drivers of vehicles require a “go” sign. Stop signs don’t state, “Vehicles stop here before proceeding when safe.” They simply display the word “STOP.” The humans are expected to understand the intent of the command, which we do most of the time. We are not conscious of the vast amount of prior knowledge that is assumed for the stop sign to be effective. Soundbites function in a similar manner. As long as their context is sufficiently grasped, they can communicate effectively and truthfully. Without that context, they are meaningless at best and misleading at worst.
We live in a soundbite culture. Not that it is due to the soundbite itself, but that most of the information we consume today is presented in very small bits. Technically these are not all soundbites. They are headlines, memes, short clichés, scripted and non-scripted talking points, and brief portions of larger items. How many of us simply peruse social media without taking the time to thoroughly read the accompanying article when there is one. We watch clips of interviews, not the whole interview. Even then, entire interviews are rarely available. Instead we are given edited versions tailored to suit the agenda of the information provider.
The soundbite culture feeds on itself. We have easy access to more information and a greater variety of information resources as at no other time in history. It isn’t possible to take it all in, however, and so we scan and skim, thinking we are in the know. But there is no way to retain all the bits of information we scan, and due to the soundbite nature of the information, we are acquiring impressions not content. After all, soundbites provide mood and illustration, not information. That we also tend to engage information sources solely according to our own ideological preferences further skews our perception of reality.
Truth and reality
Truth is the word we use to describe reality. If someone says it is raining, then they are creating an image in our minds of a weather condition that has the potential of affecting how we might prepare to go out. Either it is indeed raining, confirming that the statement “it is raining” is true, or it is not, thus rendering the statement false. This illustrates what truth is. Much of life is far more complicated than whether or not it is raining. As in the case of the stop sign, even a simple example assumes a very complex context, but the essence of the nature of truth is clear. Truth requires matching what is being communicated to reality.
Traditional soundbites, quotes, headlines, and other examples of concise communication by their very nature cannot convey truth. They can potentially highlight it, illustrate it, even summarize it. But as standalone isolated phenomena they are not sufficiently capable of being a vehicle of truth. Reality by its very nature is complex. Even the smallest cell is an intricately complex system. How much more are human affairs. Yet we seem to be satisfied with boxing up complex issues into supposedly manageable simplistic categories. It’s far easier to define people with terms like “left” and “right,” for example, than to take the time and energy to unpack who they really are and what they are truly saying. Complexity cannot be captured in soundbites. The only way to effectively communicate truth is to give it the time and energy it deserves.
Anyone interested in communicating truth needs to accept the reality of our soundbite culture. But accepting it as the overwhelming driving force it is needn’t mean we have to play by its rules. And how can we? If truth can’t be conveyed in a soundbite culture, truth providers have to play by a different set of rules altogether.
Building a culture of truth
Some of the most successful players within new media aren’t playing the soundbite game. Who would have thought that some of the most popular YouTube videos would be in the form of three-hour-long, in-depth political analysis shows? If the trend continues, it’s likely that traditional media companies will get on board and provide similar long-format shows.
This is not to say that long-form communication always equals truth. Inaccuracy and deception aren’t dependent on format. On the other hand, long-form is necessary for truth, because truth is dependent on context which is always larger than a soundbite container.
Recently a Facebook friend posted an image of a very nasty message on a religious organization’s outdoor sign. The sign was taken as evidence of the alleged nefarious nature of this type of group. The problem is both the sign and the organization were faked. All it took on my part was a quick web search. It turns out that there is a website that allows users to create realistic photos of various signs by adding your own wording. This is potentially damaging stuff. But it can only do damage within a soundbite culture. I posted a correction along with a suggestion to delete the post, which they did.
This is one way we can work to restore truth in a soundbite culture. However, no one person can analyze and respond to every soundbite. But if more of us insist that information be provided with supporting context, then perhaps others will become more sensitive to this need.
What we expect from others, we need to demand from ourselves. To be part of the solution and not the problem requires that we no longer give in to soundbite culture’s lure. We should make sure we do the necessary factchecking before posting something, and, even better, draw people into the necessary depths of real information by only sharing within broader context. This likely would entail sharing less often, but then what we do share will be that much more accurate and effective.
The Bible’s role in building truth culture
As God’s only authoritative inspired revelation, the Bible is the remedy for any form of information breakdown, soundbite culture included. But in order to effectively communicate God’s written Truth in a soundbite culture, we need to do so on the Bible’s own terms. The Bible isn’t a collection of soundbites, but rather a complex, profound, and remarkably cohesive collection of diverse writings.
Understanding the Bible requires great sensitivity to context. Because of the lack of biblical literacy in our society, something that was taken for granted not that long ago, we can’t broadcast quotes, memes, and pithy sayings based on Scripture and expect them to be understood. That some people are courageous enough to bear the stigma of flashing “John 3:16” at a large public gathering is commendable. But who today knows what John 3:16 means, let alone grasp the depths of biblical truth within this verse. I expect that there are some people who, deep down in their hearts, have retained the genuine meaning of such a Bible verse, and who when encountering such signs may be awakened to its ancient Truth, but these people are quickly disappearing.
An adequate defense
Peter reminds us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). A simple “I believe in Jesus” doesn’t cut it today. To give a reason for our hope requires a careful and sensitive unpacking of biblical truth. That might be difficult at a bus stop, but quite possible if you continue the conversation on the bus.
Years ago, I heard Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis Schaeffer, speak on one of her favorites subjects, “Christianity Is Jewish.” She even wrote a book on it. As she related stories of discussing this subject with interested folks, she would say how she would resist giving quick answers on this topic. Instead she would arrange another time to sit down and explain in detail. Quick answers, such as “Jesus was Jewish,” or “the early Christians were Jewish” accomplishes little. So much misunderstanding has occurred on this essential biblical topic that it takes time and patience to properly unpack it. It’s the same for almost any biblical topic today. We do no one a favor by shortchanging them on Truth with soundbite theology.
Does this mean that biblically based soundbites (Bible verses, pithy sayings, etc.) have absolutely no place today? Not necessarily, as long as you make sure to also provide their broader context. Putting up a stop sign where needed and understood is helpful. Traffic signs that do nothing but confuse, kill people. Before sharing a soundbite, think carefully of how it will be taken. Use soundbites to point to a well-thought-out article or book. You can lead people directly to the Bible as long as you don’t create an expectation that it, too, is an expression of soundbite culture by being nothing more than a collection of heart-warming sayings.
The biblical context
How you yourself read the Bible makes all the difference. The soundbite culture drives you to mine the Bible for soundbites. We might call it reading, but how many of us who read the Bible with any measure of regularity don’t actually read it at all. Instead we skim a chapter or part of a chapter hoping to find a nugget that might warm our hearts.
But didn’t Yeshua (Jesus) quote Bible verses? Yes, but he understood them within context. It would have been common for Jewish men like himself in those days, regardless of his being the Son of God, to have at least the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) memorized. Insisting we read the Bible within context is the first step to overcoming the control of soundbite culture. Almost every statement of Scripture is related somehow to its immediate and broader context. Think of how the Bible opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To some extent this is an introductory statement, but it actually assumes prior knowledge of the concepts therein. God is not explained. Besides the fact that he is never fully explained in Scripture, the only way to gain a reasonable grasp of God’s identity and character is to keep on reading. It isn’t until early in Genesis chapter twelve that the reader is given sufficient information to identify God. This is when he first associates himself with Abraham and the Promised Land, which is the primary context of almost all the rest of Scripture.
Considering context when reading and studying the Bible must be done on several levels and all at the same time. This needn’t be as daunting as it might sound, especially if we are patient with the process. Words need to be understood within the context of the phrases and paragraphs they are in. Just because a word means something in one context doesn’t mean it means that in all contexts. Every sentence or paragraph is also part of a sectional context which in turn is an essential part of its book. Each book needs to be read within the scope of the overall unfolding of the entire Scripture. Paul’s letters, for example, would make no sense unless they are read knowing that the long-awaited Messiah has come. The older books of Nehemiah and Esther are meaningless unless one understands the Babylonian Exile. Finally, in order to grasp how the historical scope of Scripture functions, one must also be aware of the overall storyline.
God’s epic story
Tragically, many attempts to describe the storyline of the Bible is through a collection of soundbites. Instead of highlighting the actual story elements of Scripture, it has been all too common to exclusively focus on its Messianic highlights. Messianic expectation and fulfillment is an absolutely essential aspect of Scripture. Without it we are all lost. Even so, the messianic component of Scripture is a theme of the story, not the story itself. Yet by focusing almost solely on the messianic theme, we are reinforcing the soundbite culture not confronting it.
But if the messianic component is not the story, what is? The Bible is God’s epic story of his rescue of his creation through Abraham and his descendants. Paul’s soundbite on this is found in the book of Galatians (remember, there is nothing wrong with soundbites in and of themselves. Within context, they can be most helpful). Paul writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8).
This greatly packed statement is a wonderful summary of the biblical narrative. And yet soundbite culture has skewed its meaning. The common assumption that the term “gospel” is code for “Jesus died for your sins,” collapses this inspired summary of the plans and purposes of God as revealed in the Bible into a prooftext of overly individualized disconnected spirituality. If the gospel (good news) is no more than a reference to what Jesus did, then mining the Bible for messianic soundbites is in order. But the good news is much bigger than that. The sacrificial death of the Messiah is core to the Bible’s story, but it isn’t the whole story. Paul’s soundbite summarizes how the nations are included within God’s rescue operation of the creation. The good news is since Jesus is now King, the curse that has oppressed the creation and its inhabitants since Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience has been broken, thus providing the opportunity for every tribe, nation, and language to experience the blessing first promised to Abraham.
Experiencing and being the instrument of God’s blessing requires we confront the soundbite culture. Attempting to reduce truth into bite-sized digestibles, robs it of its fullness. Thus, the soundbite culture misrepresents reality. Through Scripture we have been entrusted with the only divinely authorized resource that can break the destructive nonsense derived from oversimplification. Let’s not buy into soundbite culture any longer. Instead, let’s embark on the long and sometimes difficult journey of complex truth. It may be challenging at times, but well worth it, not only for ourselves, but for others as well.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version