A Tool for Engaging Media

One of my all-time favorite tools was originally developed by InterVarsity as a method for Inductive Bible Study. Denis Haack (formerly of Ransom Fellowship and visiting instructor at Covenant Theological Seminary during my student days) improved upon the method, renaming it “S.O.A.R.” (Survey, Observe, Analyze, Respond) a critical thinking tool which may be easily tuned towards engagement of culture: film, art, music, and other mediaincluding news media.  I have used it in college and high school classrooms, in small groups and Sunday school classes, at home with my children…I honestly use it on a weekly basis.

“S.O.A.R” is intended to slow down the conversation, to ground analysis and responses in observations, and to encourage reflection instead of knee-jerk opinion such as “I like…” or “I don’t like…” These are the questions that help us get to the heart of a story and provide greater opportunity for growth.


Method:

Survey

      What was your initial or immediate reaction to the media? Why do you think you reacted that way? What was it in the media that prompted that reaction?

      What is the message(s) or story of the media, or view of life and the world that is presented in the story as it unfolds?

Observe

      What is being made attractive? How is it being made attractive?

      In what ways were the techniques of this particular genre used to get the its particular message(s) across, or to make the message plausible or compelling? In what ways were they ineffective or misused?

      Consider how the media addresses themes such as: the nature of reality or what is really real; what’s wrong with the world, and what’s the solution; the fragmentation of life in our busy, pluralistic world; the significance and meaning of relationships and love; the significance and meaning of being human; whether there is right and wrong, and how we determine it; the meaning of life and history; and what happens at death.

      How does the media answer the questions, How did we get here, where are we from? / What’s wrong? / How do things get fixed? / What does ‘things getting fixed’ look like? (see also: Creation / Fall / Redemption / Restoration)

Analyze

      Why did the artist make the choices they did? How do they contribute to the story telling?

      Most stories actually are improvisations on a few basic motifs or story-lines common to literature. What other pieces of art or media come to mind as you reflect on this piece? What novels or short stories? What Scriptures?

      What are the essential or foundational issues? What are the secondary or less important issues? It’s vital to distinguish between the two, so we don’t get distracted by things that may have significance, but are not of primary importance.

      Based on Scriptural evidence or theological reflection, what can you affirm?

      Based on Scriptural evidence or theological reflection, What should you challenge?

      What difference does it make in your life? How does this conviction or value change how you live or affect your choices?

      Why do we believe the Christian position? What reasons would we give?

Respond

      How can we communicate and live out this response in the world?

      Since most of our friends and neighbors see things differently, how can we make sure we are being understood?

      What questions do you ask?

      What hope do you offer?

      How do you pray?

      How do you seek increased understanding and growth?


Application:

The “nuts & bolts” of the process – a conversation structured by the “S.O.A.R.” method could look a little bit like this:

Media Piece: Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)”recently popularized by critically-acclaimed Netflix original series Stranger Things (Please note: this post is not a recommendation for the t.v. series nor for Bush’s single. However, as a currently trending hit in the context of popular media, putting “Running Up That Hill” put under the analytical lens gives us insight into the thoughts, emotions, and actions of a generation).

Steps:

First, we read the lyrics and listened to the song 2-3 times for familiarity and to allow ourselves to make clear observations. [You may read and listen along with us here ].

Next, we “SOAR”: 

Surveythe “big picture” understanding of the piece:

  • Initial reaction: first heard the song during an “epic scene” in the show – we found the melody compelling and the singer’s voice had an interesting quality that you don’t get tired of – you can listen to it again and again (just like the character in the show!). 
  • View of life: the artist (and by extension the character in the show) feels her life would be improved if she could exchange places with another person – it would solve the felt struggle of the moment.
 
Observethe little details (take your time and describe all the elements you possibly can) 
  • 80s synthesizers in a minor tone, tension created with drums (consistent, repetitive drum pattern), haunting melody with large intervals between notes, dramatic, stylized vocals, diverse vocal range, interesting choices of enunciation and vowel sounds. Dissonance in the backup vocals – increased tension with gritty texture in the overlapped vocals.
  • “running up that hill” 
  • “make a deal with God” instead of “make a deal with the devil”
  • “I’d get him to swap our places”
  •  This was like a treasure hunt for us – we found so many diverse details, including how the music and the t.v. program interfaced.
 
Analyzeinterpretation should be grounded in your observations and framed through scripture:
  • The choices in the music create tension, the melody is haunting, the lyrics frank/blunt almost in your face. The vocals are attractive/intriguing rather than off-putting and it draws in the listener. I’m inclined to be empathetic. The lyrical “hooks” play over in my mind and make me reflect on what is being said and why.
  • “running up that hill” —a challenge to overcome
  • “make a deal with God” instead of “make a deal with the devil”—appealing to a higher power
  • “there is thunder in our hearts”—the challenge and emotional tension of misunderstanding
  • “see how deep the bullet lies”— underlying trauma that is hard to see, hard to relate to or fathom
  • “unaware, I’m tearing you asunder”—one’s actions can hurt another person, particularly when focused on oneself
  •  Kate Bush’s original intention for the piece: telling the story of two people who want to “make a deal with God” to swap places in order to understand one another better“walk a mile in another person’s shoes”
  • In context of Stranger Things, this piece is tied to character “Max” who has lost her stepbrother (“Billy” sacrificed himself to save her and her friends from a horrible death). One might interpret her connection to the song as survivor’s guilt, a desire to “trade places.”
  • “Max” has struggled with complex feelings since the death of her stepbrother. She feels alone, feels the need for intercession to climb out of the despair into which she has plummeted.
  • The impact on culture, both through the original piece and its current usage as well as their synthesis, is huge: one of the biggest moments in tv in 2022, sent the song straight to the top of the charts, profoundly shaping pop/teen culture.
  • These teen characters from Stranger Things are their heroes. They follow the actors through social media (many of them are in bands/are songwriters). They are both fictional and real-life “heroes.” 
  • The song provides a connection to a previous generation’s culture and mindset
  • The artist’s appeal to “God” to make a deal with her reminds me of Jephthah’s rash vow (resulting in the sacrifice of his daughter). God doesn’t “make deals”; He makes covenants (a great moment to talk about the nature of a covenant). We talked about usage of/being bearers of God’s name. We also thought about Job questioning and Jacob wrestling with God (“I won’t let you go until you bless me”).
  • We affirm Bush’s appeal to God as ultimate authority, reflecting in her choice at least a subconscious understanding that the devil holds no power to “make a deal.”
  • We affirm Bush’s desire to understand the man across from herto “trade places” in order to have insight how to love better. This corresponds well with a believer’s desire to love neighbor as selfthe idea of walking/standing in someone else’s shoes
  • We should challenge the idea that two people would be able to fully love and perfectly understand one another without divine equipment. Bush, of course, hints at the need for divine intervention. However, restored relationship with one another requires reconciliation which can only be had in Christ by the power of His Spirit.
 
***Much more can be added to the above, particularly when evaluated through scripturethe richest piece of the process.

 

Respond:

  • We can learn to love our neighbor by listening to and watching the stories that our neighbor finds compelling.
  • We can speak the truth, beauty, and goodness of a sacrificial love which traded places with us. We can speak of the Lord Jesus’ incarnation: he truly walked in our shoes. He loved/loves us that much!
  • This cultural artifact provides a beautiful bridge for speaking the gospel into our children’s lives and helps us equip them to speak the gospel into their friend’s lives as well. We might ask of others: “why do you find this song so compelling? What do you resonate about it? Why do you find the story of Stranger Things so compelling? What attracts you to “Max”?
  • We pray, asking the Father for opportunity to speak the hope of the gospel into “Strange” places.
 
 
Kelsey Reed

Kelsey Reed