One of my favorite spooky movies is a Michael Keaton movie called WHITE NOISE. It features a man who’s lost his wife, and in the midst of his grief turns to Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) to try to contact her ghost.
EVP is a real thing ghost hunters do, where they record static on a TV or radio station, and then play it back to listen for messages left by spirits.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well. Part of it is the inherent silliness of EVP itself. Our brains are meaning-making machines; we’ve evolved to find patterns. And if there aren’t patterns, we’ll make them. So when we’re listening to a bunch of static, hour after hour, we’re going to start hearing voices, messages in this otherwise random noise.
But part of it is something the movie makes into a cautionary tale: let’s assume, for the sake of the argument (or, in this case, the spooky movie), there is a message in the static. How do you know who’s sending the message?
How do you know whether they’re good or bad? How do you know whether they want to help or harm you?
This isn’t actually a big issue in the movie – it’s pretty clear that whatever is sending the messages is bad (spooky movie, remember). But it’s a fascinating problem in our world, isn’t it? After all, we’re inundated with messaging, all of it promising to make our lives better. Make us thinner, more attractive, safer, wealthier, holier.
We know that not all of those messages are actually designed with our well-being in mind. That’s true of advertising, certainly. Don Draper doesn’t care if his product actually makes you wealthier, slimmer or more attractive, as long as you buy it.
But it’s true of religious messaging, too. We live in a time when we are surrounded by spiritual leaders who have manipulated those who follow them for power, wealth or even as objects of physical pleasure.
And even if our religious leaders don’t turn out to be con-men or predators, there’s still a lot of toxic theology out there, messaging that – even though it comes from pulpits and pastors – is contrary to the liberating message of God’s love for us.
So… how do we know the difference?
Let’s revisit a time in Jesus’ ministry when he faced this very issue: he was accused of being a false teacher by religious authorities. And he gave them a clear guide to what a leader who is truly worthy of our trust looks like.