Last Friday, I found myself engaged in an epic struggle with Stephen Hawking. The Professor Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes, the Cobra Kai to my Karate Kid, Hawking and I were at odds, but not for the reason you might imagine.
Stephen Hawking and I were engaged in a popularity contest.
Turns out CNN.com wrote an article about Stuff Christians Like. And it was the second most popular article on CNN.com that day…behind Stephen Hawking. So, much like a cobra and a mongoose, we circled each other all day. On one side, the world’s most celebrated scientist. On the other, a blogger whose 4 year old recently asked at the pool, “Can I go check the lost and found and see if they’ve got anything new?” as if it’s a magically replenishing toy box.
All day we danced, until finally I bested him and took the spot of most popular article on the site. I was going to call him and thank him for the battle but then I quickly lost the top slot.
Alas, I am not the only Christian engaged in a bit of a wrestling match with Hawking right now. Recently, he caused a bit of a stir by claiming:
“Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”
Now it’s easy to see why some Christians have been up in arms about those statements. It’s a direct affront to our belief in God the creator. But I think that in our frustration at quotes like that, we might miss part of the reason they were made. What’s one of the key reasons Stephen Hawking wrote those ideas that way?
To sell books.
He’s got a new book coming out and few bee hives are as loud or as profitable right now as the religious one.
I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I can’t. The Guardian, one of England’s largest newspapers, recently published an article titled, “Stephen Hawking gets some PR help from God: By invoking the deity, the eminent scientist has discovered the formula for creating a popular success from abstruse science.”
I’m not saying that he, as a scientist changed his theories to sell books, but the way he expresses them in press releases certainly indicates, as journalist Richard Lea noted, “You may not need God to create a universe, but a little religion goes a long way in creating a bestseller.”
I personally blame Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” film.
When that movie made a bajillion dollars, it sent a pretty intense shockwave through mainstream media and culture. Suddenly, the sleeping giant of Christianity appeared very profitable. It was large, deep pocketed in many ways and loud when provoked. Companies specifically designed to market products to Christians sprang up, films about God were greenlit, even important scientists took notice.
But some of it feels very much like manipulation. I don’t like feeling like a hand raising, Jesus loving, holy piggy bank. And I don’t like seeing us get prodded into action by press releases.
So here are the 4 ways to tell when someone is trying to “Sell Christianity Something.”
1. They do the math.
Right now there are lots of web entrepreneurs who have inventions that are simply combinations of other technologies. They will say, “My new software is like Twitter + Facebook – FourSquare + a smidge of Flickr.” Marketers do the same thing with Christian products. They’ll say, “This new movie is like Fireproof + Lord of the Rings times 3 of the 5 Love Languages.” If you hear something like, be very wary. (By the way, the math equation works for any topic. I described the show “Swamp People” as Hoarders + Deadliest Catch + Ice Truckers times Alligators.)
2. They make a “Christian Cameo.”
Sometimes, authors or musicians or entire movies will make a quick “Christian Cameo.” Without any background into speaking into faith or faith related issues, they’ll do the equivalent of “ring and run,” sprinting to the front door of Christianity, saying something wild and then running away. I think anyone is welcome to jump in the faith discussion but when someone parachutes in out of nowhere like a James Edward Olmos cameo, says something and then backpack rockets right out of there after dropping a grenade, I don’t get that worried about them.
3. They pull a reverse.
Few things are as exclamatory as claiming the opposite of what you’ve said before. Hawking did this by ending his book, “A Brief History of Time,” with what appeared to be a God inclusive statement: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason – for then we should know the mind of God.” People were interested that a scientist of his stature was creating a space for God to live in the midst of the discussion. So when he u-turned with his new book, the impact was even bigger than it would have been otherwise. Watch out for the reverse.
4. They have timing issues.
This is the most obvious of them all. If they’ve got a book they’re releasing or a new album within two weeks of their proclamation, they haven’t really made a proclamation, they’ve made a press release. And that’s OK. I think press releases are great, just don’t pretend you’ve shared a deep truth that your heart wouldn’t let you contain any longer. In the Hawking case, his Amazon numbers went crazy, the press gave him much love and his publisher was thrilled. This was not an accident.
It’s tough to break through the clutter of a culture that sees more than 3,000 marketing messages a day. I completely get that and it’s easy to get hooked on topics that will start conversations and get you attention. That’s why I’ve only written about sex 7 times. Out of 849 posts, 7 of them have been focused on sex. I know that if my blog numbers dipped, I would be too tempted to raise them up by bringing sexy back. But then I’d be manipulating you like a movie that combines Samson + David times Stephen Baldwin.
What do I really think about Hawking’s theory? I guess the obvious answer is that you can’t talk about Hawking’s latest work without touching on Richard Feynman’s quantic experiment, which famously involved a double-slit barrier that particles were projected at. You have to accept as Jose Rodrigues dos Santos says, the Hawking explanation that “it was inevitable that a universe fine-tuned for life would emerge – it’s just a statistical accident.” (Admit it, you never saw that paragraph coming. It was like a tightly coiled puma, waiting to pounce.)
There are smarter, more talented Christians than me arguing the Hawking theories and I think that’s great. Ultimately, Hawking is another fallible, incomplete human like me. Years ago, the greatest minds in the world, the Hawkings of their time, thought the earth was flat. Years later, with better technology and knowledge, we know that’s not true. So it’s difficult to get that wrapped in Hawking’s latest idea.
As simplistic as my idea is, it’s inevitable that the next Hawking will argue the opposite of Hawking’s latest idea. Or I will, when it’s time for “Stuff Christians Like, Part 2, the Revenge.”