Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Capture the Flagging Attention

The other day I attended a presentation on another faith path, and it really got me thinking.  Oh, not about their traditions, but about the presentation.  In fact, it reminded me so much of so many other presentations I have heard in the past that I felt I had to comment on it.

I have nothing against the particular tradition that was shared that evening, in fact there is quite a bit that I think it has to offer, but you would be hard pressed to tell that from the presentation.

Now, I don't mean to overly criticize the presenters, for they were quite good when they were speaking from their hearts, but the prepared stuff reminded me a bit too much of a shopping list.  And to be honest, most presenters do this when put in the position they were in.  They had been asked to speak about their faith before a group of people who, for most part, knew nothing of their traditions.

So what did they do that got my hackles up?  They gave a list of their beliefs.  Like I said, a shopping list.

A few years ago, I happened to catch a radio show called "The Age of Persuasion", on CBC, and it really caught my attention.  He said something in there that made so much sense I haven't forgotten it.  The show, in case you are not aware of it, is about advertising.  Yes, you read it correctly: advertising.  A show about commercials.

To summarize that episode, he spoke about the beginning of advertising as we know it.  According to the host, it all began with the one-sheets, single sheet newspapers that were printed to convey the news, and when there was space left over, they ran a few ads.  Those ads usually read something like "John's Stationers.  Paper, envelopes and pens."  Pretty catchy, no?  No.

After unsuccessfully running these ads for a few decades, the people writing the copy for them made an amazing discovery: verbs.  Soon afterwards, these literary gems would read something like "Come to John's Stationers.  See our paper, envelopes and pens."

As you can imagine, the response was somewhat underwhelming.

It wasn't until much later that these geniuses of the market discovered what people around campfires have known since ancient times: we remember stories.

Soon, the marketers were turning out stories like there was no tomorrow, each of which showcased their product saving the day.  And were they successful? Well, how many of us can picture Santa Claus, that iconic spokesman of Coca-Cola?  Or did you think the red and white was coincidental?  Well, ok, the colours were coincidental at first, but not for long.

And that is only a single example of many.  Most of the commercials we recall today are, in their essence, a short story.

Needless to say, we have come a long way in our understanding of how to capture people's attention since the early 1900s.

So why is it that when someone asks the average Baha'i what the Faith is all about, we rattle off some list of "basic principals"?  All right, maybe that's not quite the case any more, what with the brilliant presentation in Ruhi Book 6, but it is still common enough for me to comment on it.  Especially after the presentation the other night.

Yes, we believe in one God, but who doesn't?  Sure we recognize the equality of women and men, but you have to go to the fringes of society to find people who don't believe that these days (at least in most countries).  Racial equality?  It's been planted in the hearts of the young for more than a generation now.  Yes we have a long way to go, but everyone would agree with the basic idea.

No, if we want to convey the dramatic importance of the Faith, we have to convey the stories, as well as the Word of God.  In fact, I would venture to guess that for most of us, the stories are what will capture the attention.  It is the Word of God that will maintain the interest.

But for now, we should really revise the way we introduce the Faith.  To say that we believe in "the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity and the oneness of religion" does not even begin to convey the majesty and beauty of these ideas.

When we say "God, throughout history, has sent down different Messengers to help guide humanity", then we begin to throw off a spark that may ignite within their heart.  When we combine this with the uplifting and dramatic poetry we find within the Writings, then we are tossing some fuel onto that fire.

When asked if we believe in life after death, why should we even think of answering 'yes' or 'no'?  It is not a yes or no question.  It is a question of vision, and how we perceive this world and the next.  We can speak about death being made "a messenger of joy" to us, and proceed to talk about the uplifting vision that Baha'u'llah has bestowed upon us of the next world, a world wholly unlike anything we have seen here, as different from this world as this one is from the womb we left behind.

We are the followers of a faith that is mystical at its core, uplifting in its effect, world-embracing, transforming, sacred and completely practical in its application.  This is not something that can be conveyed in just a few lines, a few points, or a simple yes or no.

Behind every Book that was penned by the Blessed Beauty, behind every line in each one of those Books, and hidden within each word of those precious lines lies a story that will move us to tears of joy and feats of heroism.

Prior to the advent of the Primal Point, the Bab, it is said that all the Prophets had only revealed two of the twenty-seven letters of knowledge.  The Bab revelaed the remaining twenty-five letters.  So what did that leave for Baha'u'llah?  Perhaps He used those letters to reveal Words.

And now we can use His words to tell a story.

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