Celebrating story in a sound bite culture

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Since cutting our cable, Dan and I have enjoyed a break from the endless speculation and drama of 24-hour cable news and instead rely on a few trusted print and internet sources for our information. This has improved our quality of life significantly, making us less angry and more informed…(although I have to admit I miss Anderson Cooper during disasters). 

This most recent flap with Shirley Sherrod reveals just how out-of-control our sound bite culture has become and why we decided to ditch cable news. The speed at which Sherrod’s words were lifted out of context, edited, distributed, and then subjected to reaction was truly astounding, and we should all be alarmed by the sloppy reporting the sequence of events revealed. 

Having worked in journalism for several years myself, I am familiar with the temptation of trying to fit a person (or source) into a predetermined story. When working with a tight deadline and a tough editor, it’s just so much easier when you hear what you expect to hear, when your “characters” play right into your headline or lead. This tendency is only exacerbated when certain networks actually require certain slants and when the demands of impatient consumers take priority over accuracy and caution. As newspapers sputter and fail and the talking heads on TV get louder and louder,victory is given to those have mastered the sound bite rather than those who have mastered the story. 

Because stories take too much time. 

Stories are too complex.

 Stories are too colorful and messy and inexact to fit into a three-minute segment on TV. 

Of course, journalists are not the only guilty parties.  We do the same thing when we cut people off, hurry through our conversations, and surround ourselves with those who look and think just like us.   We want people to fit our stereotypes because it makes them more manageable. We want stories to be brief and simple so we don’t have to be changed by them. We are running low on patience, and we are losing our love for story. 

 What strikes me about Sherrod’s story…when revealed in its entirety… is how beautifully redemptive it is. It is the story of a black woman grappling with the injustices of her past and overcoming personal prejudices to find common ground with her neighbors. It is a redemptive story precisely because it is complex.The characters are complex. The culture is complex. The history is complex.   It’s not a story that shoves people into neat and tidy categories of good and evil.  It’s not a story that resolves perfectly at the end.  It’s not a story that fits into a sound bite. 

 None of the good ones do.

 To exploit the part of the story where Sherrod is most vulnerable, most open about the darkness within herself that she must overcome, is nothing short of sacrilege. It is like interrupting a prayer or a poem.

Part of our challenge as followers of Jesus is to preserve his tradition of storytelling in a culture that demands we get to the point.  

We’ve got to slow down. We’ve got to listen better. We’ve got to be willing to risk being changed. 

After all, our very faith is rooted in a story. If God doesn’t speak in sound bites, maybe his children weren’t made to either.

(Photo by onkel_wart)


What are some of the effects of our sound bite culture? Do you think it has influenced how we read and interpret the Bible? What does it look like, practically speaking, to celebrate story in our day-to-day lives?

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