E-mail is a wonderful tool and provides a means of personal communication, business dealings, information sharing about weather or even critical needs like looking for relatives after a disaster like the earthquake in Chile.
But e-mail can also the most irritating invention known to man, especially when it comes to forwarding stories and articles. Does anybody else get the sort of stuff I get? I get links to You-tube videos of dancing cats, spiritual chain letters/ blackmail (“if you want a blessing, forward this to 10 people today”), apocalyptic /anti-Christ revelations or political statements (which are often the same), etc. Oh, and don’t forget the “the FCC is going to take religious broadcasters / Touched by an Angel, etc off the air, so write a letter today.” (Please stop it already; it’s not true and makes Christians look like idiots!)
It would seem that most forwards are trivial and silly. But that’s not true, according to a recent scientific study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. They wanted to know what sorts of things people tended to forward or shre from their e-mail or social networking sites: good news or bad news? Things that scandalize of that enlighten people? Or is it only things that have to do with sex and the latest story about Tiger or Michael or the starlet of the week?
How do you study something like that? For more than six months, they studied the New York Times’ record of most-e-mailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes. The results were, to say the least, surprising.
People tended to send positive articles, even “long articles on intellectually challenging topics.” But even more specifically, readers sent articles that “inspired awe”. They noticed that when they saw how many articles on science were forwarded. It is fascinating to note how they defined that particular emotion:
“Surprising articles, like one about free-range chickens on the streets of New York, were also more likely to be e-mailed — which was a hardly a surprising discovery, of course. But the researchers also kept finding popular articles with a quality that went beyond surprise.
“If I went into my classroom dressed up like a pirate, that would be surprising, but it wouldn’t be awe-inspiring,” Dr. Berger said. “An article about square watermelons is surprising, but it doesn’t inspire that awed feeling that the world is a broad place and I’m so small.”
Building on prior research, the Penn researchers defined the quality as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.”
They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires “mental accommodation” by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.
“It involves the opening and broadening of the mind,” write Dr. Berger and Dr. Milkman, who is a behavioral economist at Wharton.
“Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.” (emphasis added)
Why is this so? All human beings are created with a longing to relate to something larger than ourselves. The Bible says, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart.” (Eccles 3:11) There is an echo of Eden here. It’s like we have never gotten over the reality that we are created beings of dust, into whom God breathed the breath of life. That kiss of heaven lingers, and every time we encounter something large, it’s a reminder that we are made small to know Someone big. That knowing is essential to our life; even more, it’s essential to life.
And that longing opens the heart to profound conversations. Listen again:
“people who share this kind of article seem to have loftier motives than trying to impress their friends. They’re seeking emotional communion….Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion…. If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.” (emphasis added)
There are important implications for our mission here. We share the gospel of Jesus with spiritually lost or seeking people. Our tendency has been to talk about laws or rules or a road that really have no emotional impact for our lost friends. We have to get to the will through the mind and the heart.
So, talking about the gospel with far-from-God people may not begin with a question about heaven; it may begin best with an observation about the world we share, and particularly something large and overwhelming and beautiful. It is a short step from talking about a big and beautiful world to talking about a big and beautiful God. It’s just much, much, much easier to get into that conversation from the starting point of shared awe.
Listen for the awe in your friend’s voice at a sunrise or a starry night or fireflies blinking in a meadow or….And then gently take them by the hand and lead them to the Source of that awe. Lead them to Jesus. In His redeeming grace, He is overwhelmingly beautiful and is the satisfaction for the awe-full longings of their heart.
And ultimately, that reality is the only thing worth passing on to every person we know.