Nassim Nicholas Taleb is bending my mind. I’ve just started reading his New York Times bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. So far I’ve read the prologue and the first six pages of Chapter One and I’ve already come across a dozen or so concepts that have made me stop and think, knowing that it will take a serious investment of my time and energy to process this man’s continuously surprising perspectives.
A Disclaimer: Before going any further, this book has nothing to do with the Natalie Portman movie, Black Swan, so please don’t go there.
I have a feeling that reading and processing The Black Swan is going to be a many-months project and I have no intention of trying to distill Taleb’s thinking down into simplistic, dot-connecting nuggets. Maybe this will be the only time I mention Taleb, or maybe his unconventional view of life and how things work will inspire dozens of entries. Who knows? For now, one concept has caught my attention with such force that I’m now writing my first blog in months.
Consider this quote from page 6: “It is one thing to be cosmetically defiant of authority by wearing unconventional clothes – what social scientists and economists call ‘cheap signaling’ – and another to prove willingness to translate belief into action.” This is my first encounter with the phrase, “cheap signaling,” but it brought so many things to mind.
Two typical teenaged suburban girls walk into a trendy coffee shop. One is wearing a Harley-Davidson tee-shirt and you know she’s never been near an authentic biker or his two-wheeled power ride. The other sports an iconic Rolling Stones big-lipped mouth with protruding tongue tee-shirt and you know that Mick Jagger is older than her grandfather and that she probably couldn’t name two Stones’ hits. What are they doing? Cheap Signaling.
An unaccompanied man boards a steamboat in New Orleans for a 2 1/2-hour tour of the Mississippi River. He carries an iPhone attached to a long selfie-stick. Throughout the tour he takes photo after photo, holding the iPhone-on-a-stick as far out as possible and always taking shots of himself in profile, as if they are candid shots of him in the middle of some festive activity. What is he doing? Cheap Signaling.
So what has this got to do with church vitality or ministry at large? It occurs to me, or at least I wonder, that much that happens in the name of church or faith might truly be cheap signaling. Do we really take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan, or do we just talk about it in our Bible studies? Do we truly honor Jesus as the priority in our lives or do we simply nod in agreement with the biblical principle? Do we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to supporting God’s work in the world? Do we follow through with commitments to share our faith with those around us?
I’m not looking for a guilt trip here but, rather, a reality check. Could cheap signaling be the new hypocrisy? I’ve often said that the church is not full of hypocrites, it’s full of weak people who don’t quite live up to what they believe, myself included. But maybe that’s too easy an alibi. I’m searching for the cheap signaling in my life and hoping, praying, for better.