Dr. Haddon Robinson

A Tribute

The expositor must also be aware of the currents swirling across his own times, for each generation develops out of its own history and culture and speaks its own language. A minister may stand before a congregation and deliver exegetically accurate sermons, scholarly and organized, but dead and powerless because they ignore the life-wrenching problems and questions of his hearers. Such sermons, spoken in a stained-glass voice using a code language never heard in the marketplace, dabble in great biblical concepts, but the audience feels that God belonged to the long ago and far away. Expositors must not only answer the questions our fathers asked; they must wrestle with the questions our children ask.” (1)

The Baptist preacher had a mysterious look on his face as he gestured to me across a crowed hall at Denver Seminary. He was using that discreet come here” index-finger waggle folks use when they’re trying to get a specific person’s attention without getting anyone else’s attention. He spoke in a low voice, like an embarrassed teen in a drug store asking the person behind the counter to sell him a copy of Playboy.

Look, Mr. Mattingly,” he asked. What did YOU think of Thelma & Louise?”

I need to set the scene. You see, this is a parable about how clergy end up on a different wavelength than the people who sit in their pews or who live in neighborhoods surrounding their churches. And it sheds light on one of the toughest tasks that Dr. Haddon Robinson has faced while teaching men and women how to preach.

It was the fall of 1991, a few months after I left my work as a religion reporter at the Rocky Mountain News to work with Dr. Robinson on a project attempting to integrate studies in popular culture and mass media into the seminary’s core curriculum. On this particular day, I was the speaker in luncheon for clergy, alumni and others interested in the seminary and, in particular, its post-graduate studies.

I told them what I had been telling my students: that they live and minister in a culture built on language and symbols created by mass media. Modern media are so invasive and pervasive that church leaders simply cannot afford to ignore them.

Clergy can respond to this reality in one of two ways:
No. 1: They can be so threatened by it that they remain silent.
No. 2: They can learn to think like missionaries and use popular culture as a source of insights and information for ministry.

Popular culture is a warped mirror of our lives, but a mirror nonetheless. To use approach No. 1 is to be purely negative. Approach No. 2 mixes criticism of mass media’s contents and social role with a sobering realization of the power that media have in modern life. It is realistic, critical and, ultimately, constructive.

At one time of another, most of the people at that luncheon had heard Dr. Robinson say that they needed to exegete their culture as well as exegete the Word of God. That was bad enough. Now here was a journalist standing at a seminary podium telling them that they needed to try to pay critical attention to magazines and movies and television and talk shows and then take what they learned with them into the pulpit.

Many of the preachers were not amused and the discussion after my lecture was lively, to say the least. One pastor bluntly said that he couldn’t get up in his pulpit and talk about movies, because that would mean admitting that he had SEEN them. Another added: If I do that, I have a couple of deacons and big givers who will kill me.”

We broke for lunch and that was when the Baptist preachers began pulling me aside. One after another, three different pastors found a way to raise the same question: What did I think of Thelma & Louise, referring to director Ridley Scott’s explosive feminist manifesto that had been making headlines all summer. Eventually, actresses Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis ended up on the June 24, 1991, cover of Time, with the confrontational headline Why Thelma & Louise Strikes A Nerve.”

I gave the preachers an honest answer. I hadn’t seen the movie. But I did have an entire file folder full of essays and reviews about the film. I was aware it had served as the latest spark igniting the gasoline of our culture’s ongoing debates over sex roles. I was planning to wait and see if the movie would have a lasting impact. Then I would rent it on videocassette and, with pen and notepad in hand, sit down in a responsible and controlled environment — perhaps with seminary colleagues — and take careful notes.

But clearly, I needed to turn this question around. I didn’t have a pulpit. They did. They were pastors, with the responsibility of guiding pilgrims in the modern world. They were experienced preachers. Plus, it was these preachers — not me — who had on this occasion ventured into the risky environment of a multiplex sanctuary.

By the time the third Baptist cornered me, I was ready to ask the questions that needed to be answered: What did HE think of Thelma & Louise? Why had HE chosen to go see it?

Well, yes, he saw the Time cover. And, yes, he had heard about the movie from his wife, who heard some of her friends talking about it. And then he overheard a conversation in the church office. He knew that some women in the church had seen the movie and were still talking about it. His instincts told him this was something worth pursuing.

So far, so good, I said. What nerve did he think the movie struck?

Now he was on uncertain ground. Clearly, he said, it had something to do with female anger.

OK, I asked, what were Thelma and Louise angry about?

Well, he said, husbands and lovers had abused them, or abandoned them, or both. Other men tricked them, or attacked them, or failed to make or honor commitments. Even good men who were sympathetic managed, in subtle ways, to keep a safe distance. Thelma and Louise felt stranded. Then they got mad. Then they tried to get even.

This is very interesting, I said. Why did he think this message appealed to more than a few women in his conservative Christian flock? Why were they forming packs, or slipping off solo, to sit in the dark and watch this movie? And, come to think of it, did he have any angry women in his church?

Now he was very uncomfortable. Sure, he said, some women in his church were angry for some of the same reasons. His congregation contained its share of divorces and some had been messy. There was emotional abuse and one or two cases of physical abuse. A few husbands had vanished and there were times when he wished some other men would take a hike, too. Behind the scenes, many wives complained that their husbands were workaholics and emotionally distant. Some of them felt like single moms.

Yes, he said, there were angry and grieving women in his church.

Are some of them, I asked, the women who were going to see Thelma & Louise?

He nodded — yes.

Well, to me this sounded like this might be worth a sermon.

Yes it did, the pastor said. But he knew that there was no way he could preach it. For one thing, he wasn’t sure he could afford to preach about such an emotional, volatile topic. He also knew that many in his congregation would be upset if he quoted an R-rated movie, let alone suggested that it raised questions relevant to the church. Even some who had seen Thelma & Louise, and identified with it, might be upset if their pastor said that the film asked valid questions, but offered dangerous answers.

It would just be too risky. He could go and see the movie, but he couldn’t admit that he had done so. The insights and feelings inspired by the movie couldn’t be applied, at least directly, to the lives of his people. He was caught in a painful dilemma, a wrenching separation of church and life. Trouble was, this signal was coming from a sector of life that his church had declared out of bounds.

I asked one final question. So, his people went to the mall and the movie multiplex to find sermons on these kinds of life-wrenching issues?

Once again he nodded — yes.

Men or women who speak effectively for God must first struggle with the questions of their age and then speak to those questions from the eternal truth of God. To expound the Scriptures so the contemporary God confronts us where we live requires the preacher study his audience as well as his Bible.” (2)

Day after day, our culture sends us signals.

Many, if not most, are worthless. Thus, we have a tendency to ignore them. This is especially true of visual media — especially television. Television is everywhere, so we no longer notice many of its messages. As media researcher Neil Postman has noted: Television has become the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering gray light.” (3)

Some people have a gift for sorting through the static and seeing the patterns, hearing the signals and then figuring out a way to deliver a response. This doesn’t mean that this work is easy. This doesn’t mean that anyone has found a perfect way to teach others how to learn to perform these kinds of intellectual and spiritual gymnastics.

But somewhere in the middle of his ministry, Haddon Robinson began urging his students to try to take the leap.

Perhaps this had something to do with the lessons he learned studying communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he used an early computer the size of a warehouse to help pinpoint patterns in his data on religious broadcasting. Or perhaps something clicked earlier in his live — much, much earlier.

As a boy, Robinson attended the 1938 World’s Fair in New York City. It was a day packed with wonders, but what intrigued him the most was the exhibit on the emerging technology called television. The thought of being able to see movies at own home was astonishing. In the 1940s, Robinson worked as a bicycle courier. By then some of the city’s bars had televisions and, in between jobs delivering messages, he would linger at the doors watching snippets of baseball games. He was fascinated. He was changed. Years later, it would be crucial that he could remember a time when television was new. This is one reason he has always been able to study it, as well as watch it.

As a teacher, Robinson stresses that preachers must understand the forces that shape the lives of the people they want to reach. This is an obvious point — elementary oral-communications theory. Yet preachers don’t seem to have noticed mass media’s role in the changing lives of their people in the second half of the 20th Century. Almost overnight, television went from being an innovation to being so common that it is all but invisible. Modern church leaders live in the world of television, yet most act as if the medium and the culture it has helped create do not exist.

Most of you cannot conceive of a world without television and television has come to dominate the life of men and women throughout the world as books did three and four hundred years ago,” said Robinson, in a 1991 Denver sermon ranging from oral tradition and clay-tablet libraries to satellites and computer networks. Television is omnipresent. We have now moved in our society into a post-literate society. The way in which people get ideas, the way in which they shape their ideals, comes not because they read books, but because they see it, they visualize it. It’s on television.” (4)

Most church leaders have been taught how to work and preach in the culture of books. They feel comfortable with books. They know how to respond, in the pulpit, to most concepts that they encounter in print. They are less comfortable with the barrage of images, concepts and feelings that they encounter at the multiplex in the mall, in lobbies and waiting rooms, at the local video-rental establishments or on the TV screens strategically located throughout their own homes and those of their parishioners.

If asked to do so, most seminary-educated pastors could write a paper or preach a sermon about why it is important to believe that the Word of God contains absolute truths that can help people make tough decisions in daily life. Many pastors would be able to debate a representative of another world religion, drawing lines between its beliefs and centuries of Christian teaching.

But it’s highly likely that those same preachers would struggle — or be totally lost — if shown episodes of Oprah in which she winsomely tells story after tear-jerking story about how people follow the whispers in their hearts and then find happiness and wholeness. In other words, truth is rooted in human experience and there are few, if any, moral absolutes.

These pastors may have been required to take a seminary course that would help them debate a Hindu believer. But no one told them that screenwriters and producers would take the same concepts and, backed with multimillion-dollar budgets, beam them into living rooms in the form of mesmerizing myths and parables. Odds are that their apologetics professor didn’t apply the Bible to Star Trek and its Prime Directive.”

We live in an age of visual sermons. We are entertained by them, but do not take them seriously. Above all, we do not understand that how visual media communicate is just as important as what they communicate. We soak up the symbols and stories, while waiting for the secular media’s principalities and powers to send us a book containing propositions we can refute with logical, linear arguments based on chapter and verse.

Look at advertising. One of the few things on which most Americans agree is that they are not influenced by advertisements. Yet most folks walking in the mall can sing dozens of jingles, fill in the blanks in hundreds of ad slogans and their likes and dislikes have, in large part, been shaped by years of images — a video catechism of what it means to be alive.

But few ads today make their pitch using lines of type and linear arguments. Instead, they show us images. Some are funny and some are stupid, but they are almost always colorful and gripping. Truth is, these images are the first step in a kind of sacramental system. Step 1: See this image, experience this feeling, feel this need. Step 2: Buy and consume this product. Step 3: Accept, by faith, that using or consuming this product will help you become like the people in the images. The goal is to be able to say, I am the kind of person who consumes this product.” Whether they realize it or not, millions of people make professions of faith at the shopping mall.

This transcends logic. Media theorists Luigi and Allesandra Maclean Manca note that consumers tend to act toward a product as if it had a soul or a personality of its own. The function of advertising is therefore to suggest or even create this soul in the minds of the consumers. This is obviously a pseudo-spirituality. Viewing the crime, fear, organized violence, poverty, racism, and genocide that are also part of our daily lives, it seems likely that we actually have a great spiritual void.” (5)

Visual images are especially effective at telling stories and stirring emotions. They paint in broad, symbolic strokes, with the images building in layers, shaping opinions and attitudes.

There is a debate going on in our culture, stressed Dr. Robinson. The problem is that someone changed the rules and very few church leaders noticed.

We are in an antagonistic environment,” he said, in that 1991 sermon. It’s an environment that communicates with images. It doesn’t come out and argue. It just simply shows you pictures — day after day after day after day. Before you realize it, in the basement of your mind, you discover that you have shifted your values and many times you’ve lost your faith. That’s a change. When you watch television, people are robbed and raped and murdered and they never pray. They never seek out a minister. They never bother going to church. That world of television is a world in which God has no place. It’s the world we live in.” If the church doesn’t take this change seriously, he noted, then we are going to be left in the exhaust fumes of the society.”

Few church leaders will come right out and say that the church should ignore these changes, said Robinson. But when challenged to address the symbols and sermons in popular culture most preachers respond with silence. They have not been taught how to respond. Often, they have been taught that they should not attempt to do so.

In quoting the Greek poets and philosophers, of course, Paul was not endorsing Athenian philosophy to Athenian philosophers. In quoting the pagan sources, Paul merely took advantage of insights consistent with biblical revelation and more easily accepted by his hearers.” (6)

The Master of Divinity student was confused and angry. Why was it so important, he asked, to analyze news and entertainment trends? Everyone knows that the secular media are liberal and opposed to the church. So why spend so much classroom time talking about popular culture? After all, he said, he came to seminary to learn how to be a pastor. What did this media stuff have to do with that?

“Now, pretend that I don’t speak fluent evangelical, I said, in response. “Tell me, in simple English, about a subject that really matters to seminary students.”

In the front row, a student answered: Discipleship.”

That’s a code word, I said. What does discipleship” mean?

The student said that he wanted his ministry to touch the real lives of real people. He wanted to affect their views on the big issues, such as jobs, marriage and money. I want the faith to affect … how they really live,” he said.

I agreed. Discipleship,” if taken seriously, should have an impact on checkbooks, pocket calendars, parenting and daily life. Then I pivoted and pointed to my list of the major forms of modern mass media — television, advertising, movies, print and video news media, popular music, etc. Of course, these secular media, I joked, don’t influence how people view work, success, sex, family, divorce, children, life, death or eternity. And the folks who run the media never ignore or knock Christianity. Right?

Looking around, I could see lights clicking on. At that moment, I improvised a kind of journalistic definition of “discipleship,” consisting of three questions: How do you spend your time? How do you spend your money? How do you make your decisions? If pastors can answer these questions today in America without colliding with the power of mass media, then they have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.

Yes, this is a secular, highly statistical definition.’ But asking and answering these kinds of practical questions will force church leaders to study the lives of the people they want to reach. Again and again, Dr. Robinson reminds speakers that they must try to understand what is inside the heads and hearts of those to whom they speak.

Think of it this way. What are the basic subjects that foreign missionaries study? Obviously, they need to learn to speak the language of the culture in which they will minister. They must study its myths, symbols and taboos and the forces that shape family life, education, politics and commerce. They must be able to analyze a culture and anticipate opportunities to meet needs and answer questions.

When it comes to these kinds of issues, any missionary who came to North America would quickly grasp the pivotal role mass media play in this culture. Often, Americans cannot see this because the subject is too big. It is like the old Chinese proverb about the fish that, when asked to describe its life, forgot to mention water.

How can preachers learn to think more like missionaries? Every time St. Paul entered a new land he seems to have headed straight to the synagogue and the marketplace. Any preacher who wants to do this today will need to study the signals that people receive while sitting on their couches or strolling through their malls.

So what is a signal?” I define this as a single piece of media or popular culture focusing on a subject that is of vital interest to the church. It can be a newspaper article, a single episode of a television show, a compact disc, a movie, a new video, a best-selling book or some other item. The goal is to tune in a single worthy signal, out of the millions the media pour over us every day. Above all, preachers must learn to recognize when the media launch a major invasion into biblical territory.

In the Thelma & Louise case, those preachers had found a solid signal. How? They spotted evidence in other media that this was an important film. This kind of crossover effect is common. For example, newspapers usually write advance stories about controversial movies or television programs. Also, these preachers listened to members of their families and congregations. It’s crucial for preachers to find some forum in which they can talk to the unchurched. Youth ministers can ask young people to provide news clippings about their favorite artists, or videos by their favorite bands. Above all, church leaders must listen and pay attention. I have never stood in a packed church lobby and failed to overhear people talking about movies or television shows. Once again: think like a missionary.

I have found that most signals fall into three categories.

The first is so obvious that even the secular media themselves recognize that it has moral and theological content. These signals reach a very high percentage of the population, in and outside the pews. The movie version of The Silence of the Lambs put the subject of evil and sin on the cover of Time and a preacher that read the novel would have found a revealing study of theodicy. Every year or two, the culture rides another wave of interest in life after death and near-death experiences. A list of such obvious topics would go on and on.

The second kind of signal” can be seen as a rifle shot at a specific niche” in the population. Anyone who works with single adults knows that their media lives are different from those of adults who are married or who have children. Today, a youth worker must ask WHICH youth culture is most relevant. But they can never forget that cable television and satellites have wiped away many regional differences. Members of a youth group in the Appalachian hills may have been just as devastated by the 1994 suicide of grunge rocker Curt Cobain as teens in big-city suburbs.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of mass media to most church leaders. The same media that create national trends and myths also carve congregations into tiny camps of people who speak different languages. One day, the young people are talking about aliens and the paranormal. The next day, it’s on 60 Minutes or The Today Show and grandparents are asking for guidance.

Preachers fear that, by addressing a signal that hits one part of the congregation, they will alienate everyone else. There is no one spirit of the age — they are legion. But the solution to this problem isn’t silence. Here is the general rule: the broader the audience touched by a signal, the more likely it can be used effectively in the pulpit. If the niche is small, then this issue should be addressed in smaller forums, such as retreats or seminars.

Finally, there are signals that are important precisely BECAUSE they haven’t exploded into the public consciousness — yet. Often, it is possible to hear whispers in the popular culture about issues that will soon be shouted from the rooftops. This is where church leaders must concede that screenwriters and musicians and journalists often do a better job of monitoring the public pulse than do religious educators, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Musician and writer John Fischer has noted:

No one can paint a picture of being lost better than someone who is lost and cannot see the way. In many ways, the world is its own best critic. The keenest indictments against the world come from the pages of its journalists, commentators, artists, and comics. The funny pages of a newspaper can convey the most scathing of social criticism, showing how the world’s attempts to solve its own problems often come up short.” (8)

Once, the so-called men’s movement was a whisper. Once, The X Files was just another obscure cable television show for curious teens. It turned out to be the tip of an iceberg of doubt about the wisdom of modern science. For that matter, the creators of Thelma & Louise may have thought they were making a niche movie for feminists who yearn to handle guns.

Preachers may fear that they will wander through the pop-culture fields, picking through mass-media haystacks in search for the right illustration to plug into one of their sermon outlines. They’re right. That would be a tremendous waste of time. Instead, they should listen to their own people as they describe the truths and lies they encounter in popular culture. Once again: How do they spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?

So a preacher finds a worthy signal. Now what? While working with Dr. Robinson, I developed a four-step process to get from the mall to the pulpit.

Step one, obviously, is to find a specific media signal, as previously defined.

Step two requires honest, open-minded analysis. We want to find what I call the signal’s secular subject,” as the artist would define it. Interviews often contain clues.

Remember that artists must attract and hold an audience. In one way or another they have to deal with real issues or with what we could even call big ideas” — life, death, love, hate, money, marriage, sex, fear, children, anger, pride, hatred, war and so forth. We must ask: what was the subject that the artist wanted to address?

Step three is mirrors step two. Once you have found this “secular subject,” it will almost always have moral or theological overtones. It will be a “sacred subject” that we share in common with the saints and sinners down the ages. Stories change. Images change. Questions often sound new and strange. But the “big ideas” are remarkably constant, because the stuff of human experience is the same.

Doctrines exist and the Bible is relevant to each generation because the “sacred subjects” don’t change. At this point, seminary-educated pastors and other church leaders are within shouting distance of the media-dominated lives of millions of Americans.

Step four is the hardest part, because it requires church leaders to think of ways to respond. This does not require a television network or digital equipment. I believe the church must respond by using its strengths — preaching, Christian education, prayer groups, retreats, and other traditional forms of ministry.

However, I remain convinced that it is crucial to actually quote media signals as part of a response. In other words, we must confess that the myths and messages we consume on our couches and at our malls matter. We must talk to our people about their real lives and, like it or not, this means talking about popular culture. We must admit that we are listening. We must try to understand. By doing so, we are not letting the world hijack the church’s agenda. We will merely be taking part in a debate in which the church cannot afford to remain silent. We cannot do so without studying signals from popular culture and then openly discussing them in the church.

Preachers who dare to do this will find that people will discuss these subjects — a lot. They will not be dispassionate. They will challenge opinions and criticize judgments. They will bend the preacher’s ear. They will ask questions. Many will ask for help.

For many church leaders these reactions will be scary, at first. But this is a reason to address media issues, not a reason to turn and run. We must admit that most of our people do not have the media under control. If anything, it’s the other way around.

It would be easy to get depressed. It would be easy to be discouraged and to say that this task is impossible, that it will require a kind of honesty that is impossible in our churches. Others will say that the church is already too far behind, so it is better not to even try to defend timeless truths from those who attack them in the modern age.

Dr. Haddon Robinson knows all of that. But he still believes that God can use preaching to shed light in our time, in this age. If churches and seminaries will not do what needs to be done, then God will go on and do other things,” he said, as he concluded his sermon that day in Denver. We always live in the light of his triumph. He doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need folks who are sure that they are going to do it the way they’ve always done it. He passes by churches. He blows out lamps. He moves on to other things. The only question is whether we are going to move with him, or stay where we are and let the fire fall someplace else. That is the challenge and if we do not rise to it, someone else will. God’s work will be done — with us or without us.”

  1. Biblical Preaching, pages 77-78.
  2. Biblical Preaching, pages 78-79.
  3. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (New York: Penguin, 1985), page 79.
  4. From a Haddon Robinson sermon at Denver Seminary on Jan. 4, 1991, focusing on mass media, seminary education and the church. All other subsequent Robinson quotes in this chapter are from this same address, unless marked otherwise.
  5. Luigi and Allesandra Manca, The Siren’s Song: A Theory of Subliminal Seduction,” published in Mediamerica, Mediaworld, Fifth Edition. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1993), pp. 298-300.
  6. N.B. Stonehouse, The Areopagus Address,” in Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 1-40, quoted in Biblical Preaching, page 85.
  7. The remainder of this chapter is based on material in Prof. Terry Mattingly’s annual And Now A Word From Your Culture” lectures, given in the Doctor of Ministry program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. See also the chapter with the same title in Shaping Our Future: Challenges for the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge-Boston, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1994), pp. 130-144.
  8. John Fischer, What On Earth Are We Doing? Finding Our Place as Christians in the World (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications, 1996), page 119.