Freakonomics and Theology

A busy day up in Hay on Wye today at the Festival.

Kevin Moss | 21:15, 28th May 2014

On the walkways at the Festival site, it was like last-minute shopping in town on Christmas Eve, before the advent of Amazon. Still, we were pleased to be there, especially as we had tickets to hear Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in conversation about their new book, Think Like a Freak.

Steven Levitt and Stephen DubnerThese are entertaining guys.  Their previous two collaborations, Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics have been runaway best-sellers, and it’s not hard to see why.  On stage, the two spark off each other, and regale the audience with an apparently inexhaustible flow of anecdotes to support their quirky take on 21st century life.  Levitt’s academic Economics and Dubner's creative imagination woo an audience ready to be entertained, but there’s a serious side to it all too – emphasising the importance of asking the right kinds of questions, knowing when it’s right to quit, purging ourselves of our preconceptions  and – controversially – learning to put aside moral considerations when problem-solving.

What's not to like?  As I reflected on the experience, I couldn't help but draw comparisons with the evangelical Christian alternative, the Sunday Sermon.  Here, at Hay on Wye, some 2,000 of us queued at some length, and then were compacted into a large tent only slightly larger than the volume of humanity forming the audience.  Each of us paid £7 for the privilege, and we were perfectly happy to engage with the chosen subject-matter for a little over an hour.  Some of us even took notes – and then there was a rush for the book-tent afterwards.

One wonders how many of this enthusiastic and appreciative bunch would take themselves off to a place of worship on a Sunday – and even if they did, whether an hour-long equivalent would result in similar applause.  Indeed, for many Western Christians, a sermon which outlasts that magic 20-minute benchmark would be regarded as an imposition too far.  Yet, we don't end up forking out £7 for the privilege, arguably the experience is conducted in a far more comfortable environment and – here's the thing – I don't think that the material or content that we would benefit from, certainly at my church, would be any less robust, intellectually-credible and potentially transforming than what Levitt and Dubner had to deliver today.

Indeed, as I review my own notes, taken over the last month or so during sermons at Highfields Church, I'd state the case in stronger terms.  The ministry team have dealt with such topics as the destructive force of religious hypocrisy, Christ's focus on the marginalised within society, the practical ways in which a Christian community achieves unity, the contrast between personal transformation and 'self-help', the only source of lasting joy, and the present and future dangers when people refuse to change.

Interestingly, Stephen Dubner's closing comment in the Hay presentation, was the pertinent and poignant observation about the profound decline in human happiness, in a Western culture where we actually have more than enough to get by.  He stated that this is one problem that he'd like to solve through their research, but admitted that they (currently) had no answers.  These guys are certainly quirky, insightful and entertaining, but Jesus Christ got there way ahead of them, some 2,000 years ago.

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