Culture At Large

Salvation through information: TED talks and the church

Shiao Chong

In a recent New York Times article, “The Church of TED,” Megan Hustad compared TED talks to evangelical tent revivals. She sees TED as a “secular religion” of sorts. From their missionary zeal for self-improvement and world improvement to the emotional satisfaction engendered among the TED faithful, the parallels Hustad draws between TED and church are instructive. I tend to agree with Hustad that the parallels are there, and I think this is due to the over-emphasis in both the church and the secular world on information as the primary means of transformation.

The TED talk phenomenon is essentially premised on changing the world through spreading ideas. It offers “a buffet-style approach to moral formation,” as Hustad put it, as opposed to Christianity’s Scripture-alone approach. But it is largely moral formation through information. To simplify, TED talks assume that the way to change hearts - and by extension the world - is by changing minds. This is, at best, only half true.

This reductionist fixation with ideas and the intellect is also rife within Christianity, especially in evangelicalism. Often the church’s vision for faith formation is framed around information dissemination, from Sunday school to the Sunday sermon. But such a vision betrays a reduced view of human beings. We have bought into the myth that we are simply rational creatures, when in reality we are also emotional creatures, imaginative creatures and bodily creatures.

Moral and faith formation depend on more than simply downloading worthwhile ideas via a TED talk or a sermon.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith argues that Christian education and faith formation needs to move beyond this intellectual model of the human person. “By fixating on the intellectual aspect,” Smith writes in Imagining the Kingdom, “such a model of the person - and its corresponding picture of education - undervalues and underestimates the importance of the affective; by focusing on what we think and believe, such a model misses the centrality and primacy of what we love; by focusing on education as the dissemination of information, we have missed the ways in which Christian education is really a project of formation.” Moral and faith formation depend on more than simply downloading worthwhile ideas via a TED talk or a sermon. It also depends on virtuous practices and mentoring relationships within a community that embodies those worthwhile ideals.

Evangelicalism’s past penchant for information and individualism has inadvertently contributed to the foundations on which TED’s progressive optimism is built. Furthermore, this over-emphasis on individualistic information has also led to other problems within evangelicalism. The populist televangelist and the mega-church preacher phenomenon, for instance, are almost better parallels to TED talks than tent revivals. By inflating the importance of information sharing for faith formation, we have inadvertently downplayed our need for bodily, affective relations and communal experiences.

Is it any surprise, then, that many local church pastors are losing their flock to charismatic mega-church preachers, either on the other side of town or on the Internet, because their sermons don’t measure up? How can the small church preacher compete with them or with TED? And why has the quality of the sermon, and by extension the worship service, become the main criteria for many in choosing a church in the first place? If love for God and for neighbor is the highest ideal that Christian discipleship strives for, why do we measure a church’s ability for spiritual formation primarily through its information sharing medium, i.e. the sermon? Can love be nurtured simply by the sunlight of ideas, without the messy soil of embodied relational experiences watered by refreshing grace?

It is time the church reform its assumptions on faith formation. Otherwise, it might just evolve into the church that is TED.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, Media