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[200] Icons

I read a stunningly insightful book recently, entitled Dinner with DiMaggio, soon to be reviewed in these pages. The book caught the essence of what it meant to be an American icon. I reflected on the concept of national icons. From the ‘40’s to the ‘90’s there were so many—DiMiaggio, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Billy Graham, and Michael Jackson, among others.

They were so big they were commonly referred to as idols.

But the era of the genuine icon is, for the most part, gone.

The reason is that we are in an electronic age. In the previous era, the media was narrow, consisting mainly of radio, newspapers (literally print on paper), popular magazines, television (limited mainly to three networks), and movies. In short, the modalities were few, such that once a celebrity became nationally marketable he or she would dominate almost all of the layers of media reaching the public. Hence, an icon went deeply into American culture—dominating every point of contact with the public with each segment of the media reinforcing the others.

Two forces have changed all this: Cable TV and the internet. We now have myriad television channels and a world wide web with infinite points of contact. No one person can dominate all these. Hence, we have moved from national icons to what we might call niche icons. In addition, because of the incredibly wide expanse of contact, we are more aware than ever that we are not a homogeneous nation. We are nation of identifiable subgroups.

This makes the spread of the gospel easier and more difficult. It is easier because there are so many more apertures—so many more windows through which we can send the gospel out. It is more difficult because we have no Billy Grahams—icons whose fame and charisma can draw millions to their televisions—all at the same primetime hour–to hear a galvanizing message.

All of this begs the question: Are national revivals a thing of the past? With things moving horizontally rather than vertically, some say it is. Time will tell. We may indeed have to shape the gospel presentation to demographic niches, much as missionaries of the past did, learning the language and the culture of the particular people to whom they were to be sent before leaving American soil. Just as Christian colleges strategize to recruit students from various demographic segments, the church needs to strategize when it comes to evangelism—going to people “where they are,” to paraphrase John Calvin. From another vantage point, there is the concept of “going viral.” We must communicate the gospel knowing it has no boundaries in terms of its appeal, and there is nothing more viral than the Holy Spirit. DC

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