Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Defense of One-Liners

A lot has been written in recent months about Rob Bell, author of the controversial book Love Wins, which I have not read and which for the purposes of this post it's not necessary to have read. In Love Wins (or the anagram some of its critics might make of it, "Evil's Now") Bell explores the complex and controversial notion of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment, juxtaposed with the notion of a God of love. The "love" camp likes the conclusions Bell draws or the conversation he prompts; the "hell" camp is concerned about what's eroded from Christian orthodoxy if hell is not what we've historically taken it to be. I don't know, something like that; like I said, I haven't read the book and honestly don't intend to.

I'd like instead to focus on a snarky sidebar conversation that has kept pace with the more theological debate about Live Wons, which might best be characterized as a question: Why does Rob Bell write so many infernal one-sentence paragraphs?!?

Honestly, he's known for it, for scarcity. Bell may or may not be a universalist, but he is undeniably a minimalist. I once sat through a presentation he gave to a banquet hall full of pastors; one of his Powerpoint slides was a black screen with three little words in the upper left corner: "Chocolate-covered turd."

It says so little, and yet evokes so much.

Rob Bell is known as a "next-generation preacher," or a "preacher of the Great Emergence," or any number of other future-oriented monikers. That's in part because of the way he uses multiple media or the way he smirks through those punk glasses he wears, or the product he applies to his gently mussed hair. Bell isn't the only "new wave pastor" out there; I've watched starry-eyed Christian girls creep tentatively up to Dan Kimball (author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and ask sheepishly if they can touch his carefully crafted pompadour; I've heard him enter into long discussions about theological topics, yes, but also about where he got his jacket or his jeans or his hair gel. Bell and Kimball are both great preachers, but they're also cultural icons--visual representations of what the future of preaching may well look like.

Bell in particular is also known for the way he talks, and the way he writes, a staccato style that frequently punctuates and, apparently, frustrates.

I find myself leaping to Bell's defense whenever I hear his style critiqued--not at all because I also speak staccato (obviously I don't; it'll take me another five hundred words just to get to my point) but because he's not by any means the first. One-liners are a grand tradition in preaching and really in all communication. In that respect . . .

Bell hasn't created a style, he's simply innovated it.

See what I did there? Your eye is drawn to the one line. I don't pretend to know why, although I could speculate with what I think, at least, would be informed speculation. Either we're hard-wired to look for the simplest distillation of things, or we've come culturally to expect it. We associate simplicity with speed, and so the fewer the words, the more likely the simplicity. And when we see a one-line paragraph after a series of long paragraphs, we infer a synthesis or summation, a bottom-line.

The bottom line, I'd argue, is how the one-liner was used prior to the Bell era in Christian publishing. Modernist megapastors, whose defined core audience tended to be the busy business executive, gave special attention to the executive summary. "It's not all about you," the opening line of The Purpose-Driven Life, is an example of this executive-summary approach. If you don't want to commit forty days to letting Rick Warren help you find your purpose, you'll make some headway on your own with his bottom-line thesis. You're welcome, America. Back to work.

The one line also implies emphasis. Similarly minded writers and pastors use the one-liner in ways they heard comics use one-liners when they were growing up. "Take my wife . . . please," the classic Henny Youngman line, always got a laugh because it was so stark. You could almost hear the comic's eye winking as he said it. One liners for modernists can serve a similar purpose: to remind the reader/congregant that the expert on stage or behind the book is human and hip and fun to be around. It's an opportunity to breathe, a verbal rim shot. I once read a book by one such modernist megapastor type who was leading off a chapter by telling a story about singer James Taylor. He concluded the story with something along the lines of "Some people would go so far as to say that James Taylor is the voice of a generation." Then paragraph break (read: "pregnant pause"). Then "Guilty." Then paragraph break (read: "wink"). Then on to the point.

Rob Bell's pregnant pauses are generally neither bottom lines nor winsome winks. His intentions are typically neither emphatic nor synthetic; they're more . . . atmospheric. Empathic.

Bell's one liners draw attention to the blank space surrounding them, evoking the idea that there's infinitely more to be said, that words require more space than we often allow them. The speaker/writer's brevity and the emphasis on open space invites, even compels, the hearer/reader to fill the space, to continue the thought. Such a one-liner evokes feelings, intuitions, imagination. The plot has twisted, the mood has shifted. If the comic one-liner elicits a "tee hee" and the synthetic one-liner elicits a "to do," the atmospheric one-liner elicits a "tell me more . . ." or a "dum dum dummmmm . . ."

The fact that people are expressing fatigue over Rob Bell's innovations on the one-liner, to me, suggest that we're getting tired of feeling, of intuiting, of imagining. We don't want to simmer in our thoughts; we want to get on with it. We didn't pay good money for blank space; we want direction, and we want it now.

Just because we're tired of a thing, however, doesn't make the thing obsolete. We need the moments of identification that come with the winking one-liners because we need to be reassured sometimes that the "experts" we invite into our lives are human like us. We need the takeaway utility of the synthetic one-liners because we have things to do and need the skills and know-how to do them well. But we also need to have our imaginations prodded, our emotions evoked, our intuitions brought to the surface. Because we're human beings, and so we need to regularly be human.

If you don't like how Rob Bell uses one-liners, that's fine. You can leave Levi Snow on the shelf where you found it. But if you don't like to feel or thnk or imagine, I don't know what to tell you.

Or maybe I do . . .

No comments: