Lessons from 1st century AD (2) layering

This is the second in what is intended to be a series commenting on communication techniques found in biblical writings and drawing some summary comparisons. Let's talk about the layering of messaging.

Conventional wisdom in advertising used to hold that we chose a single message and then using a creative idea pushed it through different media channels. It is the interplay between the different media channels and the differences which emerge through the creative idea being adapted to the character of each medium used which made the message travel and theoretically made it stronger and not more diffuse.  It has become a lot more complicated now largely because there are so many channels, there is less control over the sequencing of messages across different channels and in any case there is less control because increasingly the commentary on the messaging via the internet is becoming more interesting than the original messaging. The most successful campaigns have almost been submerged in the level of comment, commendation and parody. But they are still considered successful because it is clear that they have been noted and embraced by hundreds of thousands of people.

Now turning to biblical writing you might be under the impression because of the volume of fundamentalist voices urging a literal interpretation of the Bible that the biblical writings are chronological and self evident.  Behind this is an authoritarian view of God which works on the basis that he only needs to say anything once – after which there is nothing to debate so the divine revelation is supremely economic.  It has always interested me that in every period covered by the biblical writings there is almost always 2 accounts – so there is a measure of corroboration.  Even where some one is writing about something which happened several centuries before. Again there will be another text written at the same time. And this gives dimension to the biblical world. Because there is never one way of looking at the world. I see this as different from media channels. Because the writers are often at odds with one another, they are writing from radically different perspectives.

You might wonder why it is really necessary to have 4 gospels. Couldn't the small group of witnesses have agreed on a standard version>  Why collect a series of letters written for specific churches in specific places? Alongside Acts a contemporary account of the establishing of those churches across Turkey and Eastern Europe. At its most extreme some of the psalms (prayers written for liturgical use in the temple ) are asking why God has abandoned his people. When contemporaneous with these are prophetic writings announcing the imminent demise of the culture because of God's displeasure. Both perspectives are included as valid. I could go on. But there are plenty more examples. Because the layering is constant – there are a chorus of voices.

Viennetta To this I would add genre – the use of chronicles, folk narratives, formal treaties, live declaimed poetic forms which are captured in note form.All of these add detail, and subtelty ambiguity even. Arguably the layering of genre is closest to the media channels we are most familiar with because of the norms inherent in the conventional uses of media.

None of the things I am describing is particularly complicated to understand. A reasonably bible dictionary would clarify all of these. There is a whole layer of interpretation which is much more complicated which involves the analysis of the original language, the connotations of particular words, and comparisons with other ancient literature. I leave that to one side. We don't need to be so abstruse.

So lessons here for the modern communicator. Don't be so worried about producing an authorised version. Provide different versions. The readership will have to engage with both or all and will have a deeper understanding than if you said it once and repeated yourself until the audience was bored into submission.

Leave messages half finished so the audience has to complete them. The parable as a communication form is meaningles without a community of hearers some of whom get it and most of whom who don't. Messaging shouldn't be complete.

It may be better to use the motif of point and counterpoint to communicate your message. Stire up some controversy by being contrarian. The devil is given a voice regularly in the biblical narrative. There's a reason for that – the accuser could have been edited out but even Belzebub expands and deepens the narrative.  

Irony is endlessly powerful. I am convinced the Brits have a special love of irony but I suspect that every culture has its own flavour. To say something and mean something different or to have the emotion direction of the message at odds with the rational direction.

Use a cast of characters – don't write monologues. The working out of messaging through a cast is what makes for great drama – but gives a message resonance. 

In summary layering is nothing to be afraid of. We need layering architects – those who can construct the cats cradle for a message or messages. Breaking down a message into meaty chunks may sell catfood but it doesn't engage human beings for very long.



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