If you took a straw poll of educated, professional people- perhaps those you work with, your Facebook friends, or the coffee queue at Starbucks- what might be the last talk that they listened to? Those who are regular church attenders might say last Sunday’s sermon, but probably the majority would mention a TED talk.
TED talks have become a modern phenomenon. Speakers such as Amy Cuddy on body language, Simon Sinek on great leaders or Brené Brown on vulnerability have been watched by millions of people, and have become well-known names. It is easier to listen to a talk online for 20 minutes than to read a book. (Although watching a TED talk may lead to reading the book later.) It’s also more compelling watching and listening to a speaker. The quality of the presentations is high- the slickness of the technology enables the speaker to use a style that persuades us that this is informal and even personal- even though we know we are watching online!
Should we applaud the fact that more and more people are making time to listen to some of the world’s best thinkers? TED is intentional in allowing all genders, races and backgrounds a platform, and the speakers usually come with impressively academic accreditation for their ideas. So what is there to worry about?
James K. A. Smith writes in his book “You Are What You Love- The Spiritual Power of Habit” about how we can unconsciously acquire dispositions and habits by regularly repeating particular routines and practices. He names these as secular liturgies, and asks that we begin to become more conscious of when and where these cultural liturgies might be influencing our thought and behaviour.
If you think of love-shaping practices as “liturgies”, this means you could be worshipping other gods without even knowing it. That’s because such cultural liturgies are not just one-off events that you unwittingly do; more significantly, they are formative practices that do something to you, unconsciously but effectively tuning your heart to the songs of Babylon rather than the songs of Zion (Psalm 137). Some cultural practices will be effectively training your loves, automating a kind of orientation to the world that seeps into your unconscious ways of being. (page 37- Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies)
How might watching TED talks be orientating the listener to the world, in opposition to the vision of human flourishing presented in God’s word? Here are some of my thoughts on how regularly watching TED talks might be retraining your heart….
- I am in control of what I watch. I choose the subject that interests me, and I have the freedom to stop watching at any point. I don’t have to watch talks that I find disagreeable or challenging. There are thousands to choose from, so I can select those I find most entertaining and interesting.
- The content of a talk is usually authenticated by the speaker’s academic credentials- which University do they lecture at, where did they do their research etc. Academia becomes the arbiter of truth.
- The speakers are dynamic, engaging, often attractive and skilled presenters. Because of their skill, I don’t notice it and assume I am being convinced by the message rather than the presentation.
- The most popular talks are self-help…they promise greater understanding of who I am and why I behave in the way that I do, with the goal of making me more successful in my relationships and career. The implied message is, If you do as I say, you could become as successful as me.
I have watched many TED talks myself, and used them as a resource for students I teach. I think they are a great way into understanding someone’s ideas. But I do think that Smith is right to sound a note of warning, especially as we consider that many of those we live and work with do not have the regular practice of sitting under the authority of Scripture every Sunday, but instead are practising a different liturgy.
Perhaps we can learn from Paul, who visited Athens and was distressed to see that the city was full of idols. However, rather than berating the citizens of Athens for their idolatry, he took the opportunity to ask them what they were really searching for.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”
Acts 17: 22-27