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The power of story: Why great sermons aren't just for the religious

A great sermon doesn’t mean setting props on fire—but it sure doesn’t hurt, says Rob Bell.

Rob Bell: Yeah, that’s how it all started for me, is I was in a band and the band broke up—like college bands do, because everybody had to get jobs—and I was teaching water skiing at this camp and they said there’s going to be a religious service and who wants to give the sermon? And I said, "I will." And all of a sudden, you know, you say something and the words come out of your mouth and then you’re like, "Wait, what? Give a sermon?" I had heard a few sermons growing up and I always thought that the sermon raised that existential question, 'What’s for lunch?', you know, it was just boring. But I came out of band world where you engaged an audience, where there was something happening in the room from the back row to the front; let’s all go somewhere together. And so I remember doing my first sermon and thinking this is why I’m here. I’m going to reclaim the sermon as this lost art form. For many people in our culture, the sermon is just a belief-affirmation device. Just tell people what they already think so you all can feel smug in your rightness. For other people, the sermon is how you convince people to give money so you can build bigger buildings. For some people, the sermon is just how you get people to vote a certain way.

But you think about Martin Luther King—"I have a dream". Now that’s a sermon. Nobody heard that sermon and then thought, 'I don’t know, he’s usually funnier.' Do you know what I mean? You were either there or you weren't. It was dangerous and comforting and healing and provocative and you learned something and it gave you a new vision for what might be possible—that the sermon is an art form. And in many ways, in our culture, it’s been lost and some of us are trying to reclaim it as this art form that’s somewhere between performance art and guerrilla theater and a TED talk and a recovery meeting and a revival.

And that a sermon is for everyone. The sermon isn’t for a particular people who have already agreed that they all believe a particular, narrow set of things. A sermon is about what it means to be human. And so a sermon is poetry. A sermon is science. A sermon is visual. A sermon is experiential; I’ve set stuff on fire, I’ve had actors planted in the audience, I’ve built solar systems out of exercise balls that we hung from the roof, I’ve used live animals. I’ve done the sermon backward and then forward to make a larger point about time. Everything you can think of I’ve probably tried in relation to a sermon. And right now I do a residency at a club in West Hollywood near where I live, a comedy club called Largo, and I do these hour-and-15-minute, hour-and-30-minute sermons—I guess you call it a sermon, a one-man show, and I want to take you somewhere. And it’s history and it’s anthropology and it’s theology and sometimes it’s funny, and it’s pop culture and it’s data about all kinds of things, and it all mashes together. But we want to be inspired. We want new insight into who we are and who "we" are—we as human beings. Meaning is like oxygen for the soul; we want to know what it means. We want to know where it’s headed. We want to make sense of our past. We want to know how to forgive. We’re looking to make connections because, otherwise, the world is fragmented and fractured. It just comes at you with no narrative thread. And one of the things a sermon does is it connects this to this to this and you walk out of there with a little more sense of centered grounding, like, 'Oh, yeah, that is who we are. That is who I am. That is what we’re doing here.' And that’s, to me, a sermon.

I always begin with the depth of the common. So, you are going about your life and you’re getting coffee in the kitchen at work and somebody says, "Man, I had a rough weekend." You can go: 'Oh my word, Joan is so annoying. Oh Bill, another one of his weekend stories." You can sort of do that—or that can be a door and you can open it and you can say, "Tell me why your weekend was so rough." Because, the person, when they say my weekend was so rough they’re basically saying: could you please ask me about my weekend? And you have no idea. They may be splitting from their partner. Their kid may be sick. They may be in serious financial trouble. They may have a relative who just got a cancer diagnosis. So I begin with the idea that there’s more going on here and there’s always depth in the common, everyday, mundane, average moments of life. But you have to be moving a half step slower. 

So I begin with most of us are missing all of these fascinating stories, all of these insights. It’s like the whole universe is a megaphone and it’s speaking to us. It’s reminding us what matters. But generally we have our head down and we’re checking our texts.

And secondly there is the universal and there is the particular. So there are the particulars of a story. What she was wearing. He was driving a Ford. She was in the front seat in a green sweater. It was a Thursday. It was raining. You saw them in a parking lot. You saw them arguing. You realized it was some ugly fight between these two lovers and they happened to be having it in the parking lot of the drugstore, and you describe the details and the particulars of that moment. The universal is: love can break your heart. And it takes a while, it takes a lot of work to keep a relationship together.

So there’s the particular and then there’s the universal, which is true for all of us. And so a sermon is moving back and forth between the particulars and the universals. And it knows the power of a good story and it knows how that story is true at some level for all of us. And then thirdly, a sermon is about good news. What good news do you have to bring us? Oftentimes the good news needs bad news for it to be good news. So we’re doing some horrible things to our environment. We’re polluting rivers. We’re filling landfills. We’ve got issues with the ozone layer. We’ve got climate change. That’s the bad news. The good news is: we can do something about it. We can all take little steps in our day-to-day lives to actually change the way we think about the soil and our relationship to the environment. So, a sermon, if it doesn’t have good news at some level then it’s missing sort of the key thing. But for it to be real, solid, actual, authentic good news it’s going to have to be honest about just what a mess we’ve made of this place.

A great sermon doesn’t mean setting props on fire—but it sure doesn’t hurt, says Rob Bell. Having gone into preaching after being in a band, Bell's methods are unorthodox—and the world is a better place for it. Rather than use the sermon as a belief-affirmation device, or to sway votes and donations, Bell uses his sermons to connect dots of meaning into a universal narrative. "A sermon is for everyone. The sermon isn’t for a particular people who have already agreed that they all believe a particular, narrow set of things. A sermon is about what it means to be human... You think about Martin Luther King—"I have a dream". Now that’s a sermon... It was dangerous and comforting and healing and provocative and you learned something and it gave you a new vision for what might be possible—that the sermon is an art form." Here, Bell shares his three-step process for how to tell a powerful story. Rob Bell is the author of How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.