Does Your Mom Get It? (by Sheri Kling)

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

Ph.D student Sheri Kling

Just the other day, during a panel discussion on “Creating Women’s Theology,” Dr. Monica A. Coleman (who co-authored a book by the same name) said this was the first of her texts that her mother really understood.  After all, Dr. Coleman is typically writing about things related to process theology and philosophy, and anyone who’s read Alfred North Whitehead can attest that his work is not exactly what one would call “accessible.” Though it’s challenging for any scholar of religion or theology to translate their research into common language, it’s exactly this challenge that must be overcome if the chasm between the scholars and the pews is ever going to be bridged for the public good.

In his book, Pitch Perfect: Communicating with Traditional and Social Media for Scholars, Researchers, and Academic Leaders, William Tyson dishes up some excellent practical advice for how academics should approach traditional and social media so as to be able to tell their story. Like Chip and Dan Heath, who teach that ideas must be “simple,” “unexpected,” “credible” and “concrete” in order to “stick,” Tyson tells us that a story must be unknown or unexpected in order to be picked up by the media. “Dog bites man” is ho-hum, “man bites dog” is news.

There has been a lot of theological and religious “news” in the last century. Feminist theology, liberation theology, process theology and all kinds of other compelling ideas have been developed by those most committed to the study of the faith, yet if you asked the proverbial person “on the street” what they believed, it’s unlikely you’d hear much of anything other than theologies that are not only centuries old but that seem less and less viable after Darwin, the Holocaust and quantum mechanics. Why is this the case?

I think it’s because scholars of theology and religion have abandoned their responsibilities to always keep theology connected to real life experience. After all, if a theology doesn’t help transform one’s life, then of what value is it?

Tyson prescribes strong medicine when he tells us to lose the incomprehensible language: “When talking with a reporter, don’t speak Klingon, even if you are both attending a Star Trek convention.” Quoting William Powers, he takes scholars to task by pointing out that “most academics are used to giving long, tortured answers to a question.” Instead, Tyson reminds us to “Be specific. Use short answers and avoid jargon.”

People are abandoning organized religion in droves, both mainstream and evangelical flavors, and we all know more and more people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Yet I believe that humans, especially in Western cultures, are hungry for meaning, for connection, and for deep experiences of the sacred. I also believe that those of us immersed in religious and theological scholarship have satisfying nourishment to offer that will never reach starving people if we don’t lose the tortured language and break out of our academic bubbles.

There’s just one solution: it’s time to start talking to Mom.

Sheri Kling is a doctoral student at Claremont Lincoln University. Her research interests include the resonances between process thought and Jungian psychology as a spiritual practice of dream work and examination of synchronicities. She earned the MTS degree at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and she is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and the American Teilhard Association.

  • Jonathan Oskins

    I have long felt that scholars need to find better ways to reach those not in academia. Spouting academese not only prevents others from understanding the ideas we have been exposed to, but turns off people who might otherwise embrace those ideas, leading to familiar accusations of living in ivory towers (my graduate housing is more cement block than ivory). The easiest way to keep it real is to continue striving to share what i am learning with friends outside my field, which also has the added benefit of receiving feedback from people seeing my field from a whole different lens than my on. Thank you so much for this relevant article, Sheri- I look forward to you breaking down much more as time goes on!

    • Sheri Kling

      Thanks Jonathan. I feel there’s a huge gap between the scholars and the congregants, and I don’t think we can hope or expect pastors to shoulder the burden of introducing contemporary theology, because they are justifiably too fearful of negative consequences. We academics, then, must assume it’s up to us.

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Sheri – Great post! I like Dr. Coleman’s focus on speaking to your mom. Although sometimes I wonder if there is either a tendency to “dumb things down” for the masses or to stick to narrow academic speak. I would really hope that there would be a middle road. I think that many people in the church hunger for both an emotional connection to the sacred as well as an intellectual one. I think that the general theme emerging for me in this class is that I am a bit suspicious sometimes of any formulas or methods that seem to oversimplify messages. However, maybe in order to really engage as a public scholar, we need to find ways to say highly profound things in surprisingly simple ways. I need to get over myself, first!

    • Sheri Kling

      I don’t think it’s as much about simple messages – certainly not if they’re dumbed down. It’s not like we have to aim everything at a elementary school intellect, because I think most people are very capable of having intelligent conversation. But not if they can’t get past a flurry of jargon words, academese, that is completely unfamiliar (had you heard the words “ontology,” “hermeneutic” or “theological anthropology” before coming to graduate school?). For me, it’s the same as when I worked in technology marketing. I was always having to take the concepts the technophiles threw out about a new product and translate it into ideas that non-tech users (who typically worked in HR or Finance, and were not computer programmers) could “get” and buy into. If your audience doesn’t speak French, it’s best to translate your talk into something they do speak – it’s really just a language issue.

  • Jennifer Gutierrez

    I really like the analogy of talking to mom as a way of making sure your message is getting across. My mom’s an intelligent human being, very educated, but not in seminary. So it’s really wouldn’t be about dumbing anything down, it’s about accessibility.

    Also, in my pastoral experience I’ve found that the best way to say profound things in simple ways is to tell stories. Stories can be a particularly effective way to communicate across cultures.

  • Wes

    Thanks for the great post Sheri. I liked this book a lot! It is very timely too, with the controversies regarding accurate representations in the KONY 2012 video and the Mr. Daisy Apple story on This American Life. What I got out of the Pitch Perfect book was the need to be very clear what your point is, and then to back it up with the journalistic practice of 5 W’s etc. This book wasn’t emphasizing being truthful, per se, but I think that it is doubly important for religious scholars to be very clear what it is the mean to say, and to be truthful. Don’t you? I think simple clear answers are easier for people to understand and also more honest. Because how can people question something that isn’t understandable in the first place?