Atheist Takes Christians to School on Form of Message – A primer for us reg’ler folk.

Let’s pretend for a second that I believe that there is a God and Jesus is the Son of God. I think I can speak for Jesus – religious people speak for Jesus all the time – when I say he doesn’t need or want this brief summary of his resurrection displayed in plastic letters on a sign in front of a fast-food joint. I mean, the poor man was beaten nearly to a pulp, nailed painfully on a wooden cross, died there to save the souls of all mankind, and then miraculously arose from the dead. Is it really appropriate to put on a commercial sign, “Christ is Risen” just under the part of the sign that says “Try our Pick Up Window”?

When we consider art, music, and speech we also consider form. What is form? There are many experts on aesthetics, music, culture, and form; but we regular folk, well, we need it put simply. So, here’s a simple discussion on form for dummies like me.

Oversimplified Definition: Form is the container that holds whatever message I wish to communicate through my speech, art, and music.

(It’s more than that, but that’s enough for starters. If you want a more sophisticated sounding word try medium.)

With this in mind, I would like for all of us who are non-philosophical and just your basic, average-Joe American to see if we can agree on some basic principles which, for the sake of sounding really smart, I shall call “laws.”

Law #1: There is no human being in the world who is message-less.

Now, before we go further, we need to understand that human beings (which includes dummies like you and me) are hopelessly communicative. We cannot NOT communicate. Impossible. If you decide to not communicate to me any message whatsoever you have just communicated to me that I am not worth the time of day to you. You can not help but send a message. We all communicate. To be sure, most of us don’t communicate well, but no one ever lived that doesn’t have a message. We all have a message; and we can’t help but communicate it.

Many times the message that we communicate is not what we’d like, but we nonetheless send a message. The message may be

  • I’m an idiot.
  • I’m dull.
  • I’m thoughtful.
  • I’m a God worshiper.
  • I’m a pagan.
  • I’m dirty.
  • I’m clean.
  • I’m white.
  • I’m black.
  • I’m American.
  • I’m French.
  • Whatever.

This leads to the next law (and those of you that are already having your intelligence assaulted, please bear with us or move on):

Law #2: Every human being in the world is a form.

By virtue of being a human being you are not only irresistibly communicative, but you are irresistibly the form (the container, the medium) of a message or many messages. We’ll talk about this some more in just a moment, but let me give another law that we must understand:

Law #3: Every form is also a message.

Here’s the tricky part. It is impossible to separate the message from the form in such a way that the message is not in the least affected. This is because form itself is a message. The container is a message. You may, indeed, be able to serve fine wine from a milk jug and argue that the wine tastes just as good as it does coming from a bottle. But you cannot undo the irreversible message you conveyed by your choice of a container. Now, hold on, because the last sentence assumed another law that we need to add to our list:

Law #4: There is no communication if there is no living receiver.

Only living things receive messages. A book as a form can communicate a message, but because it is not living it cannot receive a message. Only living things receive messages. Indeed, living things cannot help but receive messages. Thus,

Law #5: Human beings are dyed-in-the-wool message receivers. They cannot help it.

For a message to be communicated there is another actor that we need to put on the stage to further this dramatic study: the receiver. A book says nothing until a receiver walks into its presence and then the irresistible and inevitable happens. It cannot be avoided. Communication happens! Consider this drama (pull out a hand kerchief!):

Thick Book and Thin Book lie haplessly in bare room. They are lifeless and therefore cannot receive any communication from one another, but they are quite communicative if a capable receiver, a living creature, walks in. Suddenly, Living Receiver walks in and communication takes place irresistibly and instantaneously.

Thick Book and Thin Book in unison: We are sitting on this desk!

Living Receiver: Who cares?

End of drama.

Now, I could have written a long drama about how Thick Book and Thin Book conveyed messages about themselves even before Living Receiver cracked them open. Thick Book said, “I’m thick and therefore have more to say.” Thin Book would probably say, “I’m thin and quicker to read.” Thick Book might communicate, “I’m serious.” Thin Book might communicate, “I’m efficient.” My imagination could really make a long drama out of the communication that took place between the non-living forms and the Living Receiver even before one syllable of the message within those two non-living forms was read!

But not only are human beings helplessly communicative (there are no message-less humans), and not only are they helplessly receivers (Law #5), but they are also in and of themselves forms!

Law #6: Because humans are irresistibly message, form, and receiver they cannot help but interpreting the container’s message even before they actually receive the message in the container!

Have your tears dried from the drama of the Thick Book and Thin Book? Do you recall how the Living Receiver could not avoid receiving messages from the forms about the books even before he opened them? No human being in the world can NOT receive messages. Now, with just these six laws, let’s ponder some Scripture before moving on.

Human beings, being part of God’s creation, cannot help the fact that they are containers of a message because  creation is a message. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). David said of his body, “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). His body was a container (form) with a message. And the message was “wonderful are your works.” The body with its amazing complexity is a masterful form, along with all creation, to communicate the message of the glory of God. That goes for even the body of an atheist who may disdain the fact, but his body is in and of itself a message.

Law #7: The container (form, medium) can be misunderstood, manipulated, and misapplied, but it cannot be rendered message-less. This is because of the following law:

Law #8: It is the Living Receiver that makes any form a message and inevitably affects the message.

The human being cannot help but receive a message and yet the message is unavoidably affected by the Living Receiver. Sometimes it is misunderstood. Sometimes it is deliberately manipulated. (Have you ever had anyone take an email of yours and, using your exact words, receive through that form a tone and spirit that you never intended to communicate? And did you think they were doing it because they had no intention of giving you the benefit of the doubt?)

Law #9: Not all forms are equal.

Some containers are better than others for the thing or message that it is carrying. It is true that a plastic jug is capable of carrying fine wine, but an artfully crafted glass bottle is a much better container for conveying the message that fine wine is better than tepid milk. Because  no human being in the world can help but interpreting the container’s message before they actually receive the message in the container, it seems like basic logic that Christians of all people might consider not only the content, but the container, of their message.

Law #10: The messenger has the primary responsibility of considering the container for his message even though he is not responsible for the ignorance or hostility of the receiver.

It is true that some messages will never be received, no matter how perfectly appropriate the form. Creation itself is a perfectly adequate form to convey the glory of God (Romans 1), but it is being rejected. Nonetheless, as image bearers of the Communicating God, we ought to agree that there should be a least a minimal consideration of the medium/form/container of our message!

The self-described atheist in the poorly written and poorly maintained blog thinks that declaring the message “Christ is Risen” through the plastic, fast-food sign form is incongruous. Living in the so-called “Bible Belt,” he seems to be amazed at the silliness of American Christians who seem unable to grasp the idea that their supposedly sublime message is trivialized by their provincial kitsch. He shows two pictures:

Cologne Cathedral

Then he asks:

Which do you think better pays homage to the resurrection of the Savior of All Mankind? Isn’t there a better place for this lame display of religiosity than on a fast-food sign?

My point here is not to determine whether the fast-food sign is an appropriate form or not. In another post I want to share why I think Evangelical Christians produce religious music that is less artful than other religious artists. There is one main reason that is both good and bad. However, for now suffice it to say that the Wendy’s sign as a container and the Cologne Cathedral as a container by themselves convey conflicting messages that share their shared intentional message, “Christ is Risen.” They both say the glorious truth that Jesus is alive. But only with one of them is anyone tempted to say,

Can I have fries with that?


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