Several weeks ago, I began listening to the Audiobook The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. Brooks is a cultural commentator and a write for The New York Times.
As I began listening to The Social Animal, I was intrigued by its design. Brooks had compiled a massive collection of information from the areas of psychology, sociology, and biology in order to help give the reader (listener) insight into what it means to be human. Yet, Brooks rightly understood that there is only so much bare data that a reader can absorb without being overwhelmed. The solution that Brooks came up with was genius: He wrote a fictitious account of two people: Harold and Erica. As Brooks told the story of their lives, from conception to death, he created an emotional vehicle to attach his many theoretical observations and propositions.
As Harold and Erica’s life unfolded, opportunities arose for Brooks to share some fascinating research and scientific information for example:
- A disproportionately high percentage of successful people have had a parent die early in life.
- Men usually overestimate IQs while women tend to underestimate theirs.
- People who look at the faces of two candidates for a fraction of a second can predict with 70 percent accuracy the winner.
- The more people that are at a restaurant, the more food you are likely to consume.
- Most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years.
- If your friends are obese, you are more likely to be obese. If your friends are happy, you’re more likely to be happy. If your friends smoke, you smoke. If they feel lonely, you feel lonely.”
These “fun facts” make the book an enjoyable tour through the inner workings of development, life, morality, and relationships.
I was especially intrigued by the information about politics. Brooks mentioned something that I believe to be true. Most people do not choose their political party based on their values and beliefs. They choose their political party because of relationships (family, friends, etc.) then adopt the values and beliefs of that party. (I could go on a tirade at this point…why Republicans say they want a smaller government while wanting a larger military… or why many progressives are staunch fighters against animal cruelty but ridicule those who stand up for the rights of the unborn).
Yet, it was the last few minutes of this audiobook that made the biggest impression on me. In the end, when Harold’s death was being described in intricate detail, I felt true sadness. I was surprised by the wave of emotion which swept over me. I did more than hear about Erica’s loss…I felt it.
I finished this book weeks ago, and as I reflect on it now, I realize that there is a valuable lesson for preachers and other Christian communicators here.
You see, God has given us the Holy Scriptures to steward and proclaim to our generation. These truths are powerful and life-changing. Yet, many Christian leaders preach and teach as if their listeners are all seminary students in a hermeneutics class.
There is a trend in many seminaries to teach that the only Biblical form of preaching is expository preaching (preaching verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible, going deep into the inner meanings of verse). While this is a valuable preaching philosophy with a lot of advantages, I worry when one preaching philosophy is put on a pedestal and other methods are treated as unbiblical.
For example, when Jesus preached, he often used hyperbole, object lessons, or parables (storytelling). When Paul was on Mars’ Hill, he connected the gospel to a local statue to an unknown god. Today, missionaries around the world use chronological Bible storying to share the good news in a variety of contexts.
Brooks was effective in communicating truths because they were wrapped in a story. Modern preachers can learn from this. What if sermons utilized more narrative to communicate Biblical truth? Christian author Ted Dekker did just this in his book Tea with Hezbollah as he wrote a fictional story to accompany the information that he wanted the reader to understand.
At the end of the book, The Social Animal, I felt something. In the same way, many preachers want their listeners to experience God in their sermons. Maybe the most valuable lesson from David Brooks does not come from the data he shares, but his model of communication.