TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

I was talking to a friend the other day about certain trends of the millennial generation. One of those trends that came up was my peers’ fascination with TED Talks. My friend was only vaguely familiar with the videos, so to help clarify what they were, I described them this way: “They’re essentially sermons for secular millennials.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the “TED Talk” series is a secular manifestation of the sermon. If you’ve never watched a TED Talk before, I recommend you do so. That’s not necessarily because all of the videos are helpful (most aren’t, actually), but because it is utterly fascinating to watch a homiletical exercise that attracts large, young audiences, for good amounts of time (20+ minutes). I’m old enough to remember when a lot of evangelical literature urged pastors and church leaders to change their approach to preaching. “The younger generation can’t listen to a 30 minute speech,” the thinking went. “You can’t just talk to people anymore.”

It turns out you can.

Now of course, all TED Talks are different. Some are less like others. But in general, the TED Talks I’ve seen share at least two distinct similarities with traditional preaching.

First, TED Talks are very propositional. It’s true that a lot of TED Talks deal with personal stories and narratives. But what strikes me about the TED series is how proposition and information-driven it can be. There are many TED videos that consist mainly of the speaker passing on raw information or data to the audience. Some of the information can be quite techincal, such as cognitive research science or sociological data crunching.

Good Christian preaching is, of course, also quite propositional. There’s a lot of information that has to be transmitted between preacher and congregation for the meaning of the biblical text to be clear. And it’s remarkable to me that in an age where many Christian preachers are urged to eliminate as much as possible the “dry” transfer of propositional knowledge to their congregations, there are millions of people joyfully watching a lone speaker talk about statistics and research, eager to know how to apply that information to their lives.

Secondly, TED speakers are authoritative. Again, there are exceptions, but in a large number of cases the speaker in a TED Talk does not seek to have a “conversation” with the audience as much as she wants the audience to grasp how their presuppositions about something are incorrect and possibly inhibiting their lives. The TED series is filled with titles like, “Forget What You Thought You Knew About ____,” and “Why You Should Immediately Stop ____.”

In a typical TED setting, there is a clear demarcation between the knowledge that the speaker possesses and the knowledge that the audience possesses. Most TED speakers I’ve seen don’t fumble over their main points through endless reminders that “This may not apply to you” or “Your story may be different.” There is an expectation in the very essence of the TED Talk that the speaker has something which the audience needs and otherwise will probably be unable to grasp. This is authority.

Obviously, in this kind of secular setting, the speaker would not lay claim to any sort of meaningful moral authority over the audience. There’s nothing to resemble the kind of revelatory authority that evangelicals believe is invested in the faithful preaching of Scripture. But there is a kind of authority, an authority of medium that betrays our hyper-egalitarian cultural instincts. The people who come to a TED talk are not coming for a self-actualizing experience through a “conversation” with the speaker (though that word is a cultural shibboleth and is thus used to disguise the authoritative posture being taken). They’re coming to learn from someone who knows, and to walk away with something they didn’t have.

Absent a theological center, TED Talks are merely inspirational speeches from qualified teachers. But the specter of something more is obvious. We may not be as “over the whole church thing” as we think.

One thought on “TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

  1. One big difference: TED Talks don’t discriminate – they give anybody a chance to step on the stage and deliver the information they know. The same can’t be said for certain denominations of Christianity where all too often a group of people will walk out on a speaker, or a church will get kicked out of the club for hiring a pastor that the rest of the churches don’t agree with (1 Timothy 2:12).

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