No one is sure exactly where the word hype comes from. Some think it came about by shortening the word hyperbole. Others think it has something to do with illicit drug use and the hypodermic needle—getting “hyped up.” Then there’s the thought that it simply comes from the prefix hyper. I suppose one explanation is as good as another or maybe they were all involved in the formation of the word. What we do know is that by sometime in the 1960’s, the word was being used for “excessive or misleading publicity,” (Online Etymology Dictionary).
Living in a consumer culture means that hype is all around us. There is news hype, medical hype, sports hype, celebrity hype, political hype, religious hype—it comes in every shape and size. It’s as if everyone speaks in all upper-case letters, with exclamation points after everything, and uses awesome in every other sentence. Everyone is trying to speak louder than anyone else as though the importance of what you have to say is determined by the volume at which you say it.
Television used to be at the heart of hype and it still occupies a prominent place, but social media is leaving it in the dust. Most hype is simply some form of self-promotion that sooner or later has to do with buying and selling (this is where its consumer culture roots show through). With some refreshing exceptions, commercials are hype. They say whatever it is they think they need to say to increase sales of whatever it is they’re selling. How often do we hear phrases like, studies show that, or critics are calling it, or here’s what people are saying? There’s usually very little or nothing said about what studies they were (i.e., their validity and reliability), or who the critics or people are (their credibility).
Hype is vacuous. It is froth and bubbles. It’s the item you order after seeing it advertised on television and when you receive it, it neither looks like what you saw or does what it is supposed to do. Hype creates great expectations and delivers minimally, if at all. It is why Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer prize winning writer has said in regard to the failed promises of technology, “I am constantly amazed that in many ways we find ourselves living in the future that was envisioned in the fifties . . . It’s just dingier and less effective than we thought it would be.” What is the opposite of hype? Good question. Humility. Hope. Truth. And . . . wonder. If you think about it, hype is the sorry substitute the world dredges up for wonder. It is a wonder wannabe and poseur. True wonder needs no hype and true hype has nothing to do with wonder.
We are part of a world that to a significant degree, has lost sight of wonder. We have been numbed by entertainment that never ends, dumbed by a media that does our thinking for us, and insulated by all of the technology around us. If we want a natural wonder, we purchase little machines or software that simulates the sound of surf crashing against a coastline or a storm surging. But most of all, we are out of touch with Him who is the embodiment of wonder. It should be no surprise that we wander more than we wonder.
In pointing people to God, churches should direct them to true wonder and stay away from hype. But too often they try to bring people to the God of wonder by employing hype. They wade in with an ALL CAPS, !!!’s, and AWESOME!!! approach. Groups that embrace this style typically make it sound as if God is doing so much through them that He couldn’t possibly have time to work anywhere else. And despite what Jesus said in Matthew 6:1-5, 16-18, they have no hesitancy in letting everyone know their good deeds. They market Jesus with performance oriented worship that majors in trendiness often at the expense of truth. The result of all of this is a mixed and confusing message because hype creates consumers while wonder creates worshippers and the two are definitely not compatible.
Hype doesn’t inspire, it merely inflates. Wonder inspires. We aren’t the wonder and we are not responsible for trying to churn it up (no matter what the consumer demand might be). We’re to take people to the cross and the empty tomb and invite them to see the wonder there, not be hype factories. Our task is to live as the body of Christ — serving, feeding, clothing, and teaching.
By doing these things, we point people to Him who is the wonder!