Getting One’s Message Heard, Lessons from the “4th Umke”

Stephen Larsen tells a story of the Umke,

“In the late fifties and early sixties a strange little man used to stand with his podium and flag on the corner of 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, across the street from Columbia University. He would preach


loudly and emphatically to whoever would listen, and even sometimes when there was no one there to hear. He was unquestionably sincere and hardworking in his evangelism. He was on that corner almost every day, rain or shine, even in winter. The only problem was that the man was almost incomprehensible. Finally, from listening to him several times and reading his literature, I began to get the gist of his message: he was a messiah, at least potentially. He called himself an “Umke,” (a word with private associates no doubt) who was one of four “Umkes” abroad in the world. When the four finally got together they would rule the world. A new dynasty for mankind would ensue.

During the many years I watched this man I do not think he made many converts. People usually walked away muttering or smiling. Sometimes students came to tease, whereupon the “Umke” man would become furious and even more incoherent and would march to another corner. Perhaps it just appealed to Columbia students to have a chance to bait a messiah. But more meaningfully, I think they were testing. And they found what they wanted. A few inches below the surface of this would-be-world-transforming messiah was a snarl of personal problems: inadequacy, temper, irascibility. The Umke-man’s religion was a personal one and had no room in it for anyone else (except maybe those three other Umkes).”

-“The Shaman’s Doorway” by Stephen Larsen (Station Hill Press, 1988), pages 47-48

Larsen’s use of the story was pointing towards the issue of being TRANSPERSONAL. Does the message have value that bridges to others… especially to universal truths that relate to the great questions of our existence. In the example that Larsen gives, the “Umke” had a thin veneer of having a message for all mankind, but in fact did not. Rather, he just wanted to be heard.

Being heard is not enough. It needs to be TRANSPERSONAL. But that is not enough either. Larsen’s point here was that once the Umke was put to the test, he failed the test by yielding to his own weaknesses. Good point. But let’s suppose this did not happen. Suppose, when put to the test, the Umke responded with appropriate concern and thoughtfulness, personal vulnerability, and differentiation. Is that enough?

Well, of course not. One can be fully comfortable in one’s own skin, and yet still be wrong. Truth matters. Certainty of truth, however, is beyond our reach. A message may “make sense” to us, but it is hard to go beyond that point. The scientific process doesn’t really work for the most important questions (sometimes called the “existential questions” of life like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” What is my purpose in life?” “Is this all there is?” “What matters most?” and so forth).

Therefore, in the search for truth, we in practice place things through the filter of CULTURE RESONANCE.

“Cultural Resonance is achieved when your audience uses what you’ve created to talk to each other about something meaningful that they’ve been observing in their culture.”

-Mike Arauz. “Difference Between Relevance and Resonance.” Internet

I talk more about this thing of cultural resonance in my book Theo-storying, Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.

The main idea is that cultural relevance is simply to have things to say that include cultural ideas that people are well aware of within the culture. The Umke apparently was culturally relevant. The idea of a messiah and of a new age (NWO) certainly peeked the interest of the students at Columbia. They liked novelty and the man was indeed novel. They apparently wanted to hear his message and see where that message goes.

But relevance is not enough. In the end, the message was incoherent. That is, it did not make sense to the hearers. He got their curiosity but did not get their hearts.

We all have messages that we want to share. We want to have an influence on some level. Most messages are pretty incoherent to those who do not already believe them… and that makes sharing messages harder. That is part of the reason that Evangelists (religious or otherwise) tend to share their message with those already within a similar worldview. So a Christian Evangelist will almost invariably reach out to cultural Christians or to Christians from a different, but somewhat similar, sect. It is a short-cut. The recipients of the message already are believed to have a similar culture so that it would already be culturally resonant. And if the hearer already thinks it is culturally resonant, then one may not have to prove it is transpersonal. Most people outside of one’s own social echo chamber do NOT share enough commonality to ignore these concerns.

I will “cut to the chase here. If your message is really so important and so valuable, take the time to understand its relevance to all (Transpersonally Valuable), and put it in a format that is comprehensible and resonant to the target audience (Culturally Resonant).

The 4th Umke did not do this. Was that good or bad? We will never know.

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