Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest single uses the word ‘really’ 67 times. 67. While I struggle with her adverb choice I don’t doubt how she feels. She likes this person. She really, really, really, really, really, really likes them.
In “Shake It Off,” Taylor Swift uses the word ‘shake’ 70 times and the full phrase ‘shake it off’ 36 times. Methinks I’d better shake it off. John Mayer says ‘say what you need to say’ 41 times in “Say,” and so, I better say it.
The power-pop song formula is well-tested and alarmingly effective. There’s a certain construction that prioritizes repetition; no matter what, I will remember what you say, even in all you have to say is ‘baby’ 55 times (thanks for nothing, Justin Bieber). But, the fact remains: repetition is powerful. Perhaps even dangerous. If I hear something enough, I may start to believe it.
When I think of hate, I often think of the Westboro Baptist Church. They don’t hide their hatred in subtle ways. They don’t wear masks. They just say it: God hates fags. And they repeat it. As of this writing, they have picketed 54,972 times under a banner bearing their message, and to them, it’s true.
There are subtler, equally dangerous repetitions everywhere. Our visual culture bombards me with a particular image of black men in America. And, because I am different (white), I must work through a racism deeply embedded within me. It’s there. It’s undeniable. It makes me feel sick, and the images from Baltimore over the past few weeks are yet another reminder of how powerful that repetition can be. The messages that dominate my Christian life are different, but they get lost amid the dribble of pop-nonsense and the perpetual fire I see on screen.
Repetition is a hallmark of Jesuit education and Ignatian spirituality. In the early Society, the repetitio was a common strategy used to ensure that information was ingrained in the minds of pupils. Even today, practitioners of Jesuit education will engage this strategy, both because of its historical roots in Jesuit schools and because, well, it works. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks us to make repetitions of various contemplations and meditations for the purpose of greater depth and detail in God’s active presence.
The Bible is repetitive, too. Two creation stories, two versions of the 10 commandments. I’m told that ‘do not be afraid’ is the most common exhortation in scripture, repeated in some form 350-ish times. There are other messages that get repeated: be in awe of God, rejoice, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be brave. I read all of these messages repeatedly, and I wonder–if Taylor Swift can say the same thing 36 times in three minutes, perhaps I need to up my game in sharing the message of Gospel love. If WBC can protest in favor of hatred 54,972 times, maybe I can hit the streets and proclaim what I believe.
There’s a pithy phrase in the news: if it bleeds, it leads. Well, my God bleeds too. And what my God has to say is true: that God is here with me, that God labors for me, and that because I am loved, I must love. That’s worth repeating.
As for the messages of hate that we hear repeated over and over, I suggest perhaps that we shake them off–or, more strongly, that we flat out reject them. Then, we dig really, really, really, really, really deep, and say what we need to say.