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I think I’m noticing something about this generation of sermon-writers: they organize their thought as if they were using hyperlinks. When I challenged a student recently for having fifteen to twenty distinct ideas competing in a sermon, he was shocked. Each time I pointed out how he had either “moved on” to a new thought, or “engaged in circular logic” by coming back to a previously developed thought, or had “created a rabbit trail” by developing an idea with such detail as to lose track of the original thought, he said: “that’s easy to follow, isn’t it?” and “don’t you see that I come back to the main ‘page’? (notice the computer metaphor), or “that’s just a quick definition, right?” When the class was asked whether they could follow all of the nuances of logic in his sermon, remarkably, they got about 60 percent of it (not great, but significantly better than I had expected).

George Miller

In 1956, George Miller conducted what is now a famous (if modestly contested) piece of research and concluded that short-term memory could only handle 7 plus or minus 2 “chunks” of thought at a time (further research suggests that the number should be lower – probably between 3 and 5 “chunks.” The issue at stake here, however, is the status of these “chunks” – whether these chunks of thought have to be completely discrete, and how much inner development is permissible.

And, of course, there is the cognitive science question that professor Miller would have found interesting: Is it possible that computers are changing short-term memory so that “chunks within chunks” are becoming more manageable? And, to push even further into this cognitive science domain: Is it possible that logic is changing? Is linearity absolutely necessary in public speaking? Or, will it be in, say, 50 years?

Of course, I have no answers to such questions. What I do know is that one still has to have identifiable “chunks” that can, in fact, be remembered, and that digression, circularity, rabbit trails, and other forms of circumlocution have a distinct tendency to obfuscate and obscure one’s message – even for hyper-linkers. After all, how many times has each of us begun following hyperlinks and NEVER made it back to the “home page” at all – forgetting the original link in the first place?! Fess up, please.

So how do we decide how far one can “link” within a “chunk” of thought? Is there a time limit? Rhetorical space limit? My hunch is that, as with hyperlinking, the shorter, more direct, and relevant the “trail of links” the better.