Op-Ed for Thursday, 1 January 2015
For those raised before a “www.” was more common than a Wall Street Journal, there was no confusion that going to a place was better than staying and viewing a place. The Sistine Chapel in person was more valuable than a virtual tour, even if (or perhaps partly because) the trip to get there was costly in every way and required more sensory attention. After reading the older, longer-articled National Geographic (if you didn’t know, they now offer shorter articles geared to a shorter attention span), most of us wanted to go and see, hear and feel the sights and sounds and people described. We read with eagerness each paragraph, unfolded every map and studied it with care, and joyfully opened the mailbox to see that brown paper covering knowing new adventures had arrived. However, we never confused the distant land with the magazine, or believed we had seen enough having seen the magazine. Are we confused now with the digital?
A generation raised in the fluidity, ease, and comfort of the virtual disembodied nature of communication and presence seems increasingly harder to convince they should exchange the screen for a body, especially audible speech and intentional listening. It is harder and harder to talk to, and past, the iPhone screen. Why word it this way?
Any virtual experience is, by nature, more passive than a face-to-face. We admit this instinctively when we text a break-up instead of call or, God-forbid, break-up in person! I suppose some may read aloud a website, App, etc., but that’s the rare case. And the odd case. When we speak and listen, however, we are committing to a reality deeper than when we use the “head voice” of silent reading or passive surfing and texting.
Consider Psalm 117:
Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!
Silently reading this psalm commits you to nothing per se. More likely than not, reading it silently is closer to information gathering than personal commitment. According to Speech-Act theory, however, when you speak it aloud, there is a commitment you make to what it is you are saying. If not a commitment, there is (at least) a decision forced upon the speaker and the listener in a way not present with passive (and silent) reading. Either I have to agree with what is said, or I don’t. When reading quietly and alone, this is not the case, especially in the Age of Digital when our minds have become accustomed to scanning for key points instead of reading for change.
T. David Gordon mentions that “when reading poetry, for instance, the rhythms and cadences, the music of the language, cannot be experienced at all by scanning. One must read at the pace of the tongue and the ear, not at the pace of the mind’s ability to grasp information” (Why Johnny Can’t Preach: the Media Have Shaped the Messengers, 50-51). He goes on to quote Sven Birkerts as saying, “The eye has been taught to speed across word clusters. The sound in the ear, which lags behind the eye, is usually a noise, like a garbling that comes when tape gets dragged across magnetic heads.” Perhaps this is why Paul warns Timothy,
…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture… (1 Tim 4:13).
Even the introduction—almost the encompassing thesis—of the 150 psalms says we are to be audible. Psalm 1 begins this way:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD (“Yahweh”),
and on his law he meditates day and night.
“Meditates” is translated from the Hebrew verb יֶהְגֶּ֗ה (“haggah”). This verb is used in the Hebrew Bible twenty-four times. Every time is an instance of an audible sound. In this case, it is of a blessed man reading aloud the Law for the purpose of delighting in the One who gave it.
There must be something to this….
Gordon makes the case that people are struggling to listen and hear sermons for the same reason(s) as the pastor is struggling to give them. Says he:
Culturally…we are no longer careful, close readers of texts, sacred or secular. We scan for information, but we do not appreciate literary craftsmanship. Exposition is therefore virtually a lost art. We don’t really read texts to enter the world of the author and perceive reality through his vantage point; we read texts to see how they confirm what we already believe about reality. Texts are mirrors that reflect ourselves; they are not pictures that are appreciated in themselves (49).
I wonder if you’re doing it right now—scanning for what reinforces hidden walls of predetermined certainty instead of allowing your mind to set sail on a potentially self-endangering new course.
Gordon Wenham argues for a more embodied experience in The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms:
Reciting the psalms is quite different [from reading silently]. The one who prays the psalms is taking their words on his lips and saying them to God in a personal and solemn way….When you pray a psalm [aloud, especially], you are describing the actions you will take and what you will avoid. It is more like taking an oath or making a vow (26-27).
This, of course, requires sustained attention, endurance, and patience. After all, some psalms are long. You have what it takes? If you don’t think you do, I bet you used to. After all, nobody is born with a phone in their hand. Wait…
Wenham goes on to discuss the difference between statements about facts (which are either true or false) and promises or declarations inherent in public address, much of which Scripture is. The latter, more often than not, “promise a change” in “a situation by imposing obligations on the speaker and creating expectations in the listener” (27).
“Imposing obligations and creating expectations.” That’s critical because it’s active compared to the passive lives Digitalia creates.
But when we read and exist in solitude, none of this is possible the way it is supposed to be in community. True, we can commit ourselves in private to the words of Psalm 117: I can say, “Yes, I will extol the Lord! I will praise him everywhere!” Saying so, however, isn’t necessarily doing so. Reading the psalm collectively in church is. The very act is what it proclaims. The act embodies what it says, adding flesh and life to what was only dead bone and potential.
The psalms are meant for the public worship of God’s people. Public. At their best, the words of the Psalter are supposed to be “performative,” transforming us together, performing and accomplishing what they say. Of course they can be used privately, but their purpose points us beyond this.
Consider: if 8 of every 10 hours of our waking hours are spent in isolated web browsing or surfing, how are we being influenced to think about ourselves, our neighbor, and our God, all three created or existing as beings in community? What if it’s only 2 or 3 hours—probably a safe low-ball number (and that link is from last year!)?
How does a book given by a communal God (Father, Son, and Spirit in an eternally harmonious existence) to a communal people change when read privately and individually?
How are you changed when you bring a digital mindset to a document given in print?
This is more than anachronistic argument. God could easily have brought Christ during the digital age. “In the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4-7) could have been now. Instead, he chose a time before the printing press, before Steve Jobs, and before search engines. Our time is now, and to put it provocatively, our Scripture is not. It wasn’t written to be searchable the way we might think of a Google doc. It was never meant to be read that way.
Book clubs involve meeting together to read aloud or, if reading takes place individually, the meeting was heavy on discussion and shared mutual interests. Nobody does this with CNN.com or insertfavoriteblognamehere.com. A computer screen is only so big. A phone screen much smaller. You don’t get together and stare at websites together generally. Even Youtube, Humanity’s shared Show-And-Tell, is overwhelmingly shared from one device to another, uploaded from phones—often unedited—to Youtube where other individuals, riding home on commuter trains, lying in bed alone (even if a spouse’s body heat can be felt a few inches away), sitting in solitude in a coffee house (as I am now), watch and share the post themselves where the cycle continues through hundreds of thousands and millions of “likes” and “shares”.
Some of what they capture in short clips and share is extremely worth seeing. I wept the first time I saw Susan Boyle’s introduction to the non-British world, and I wept alone. OK, I wept the first couple times. Then I shared it on Facebook.
We all have our examples of beauty and good shared around the world—ways we have benefited from the distant world and our physical world being joined in a virtual and non-corporeal cyber-sphere. It has no presence, even though it surrounds us. It is non-material even though it depends on an advanced network of global wires and cables stretching from land to distant land as well as billion-dollar satellites orbiting in measurable miles, all sending and receiving measurable codes in 1’s and 0’s.
Do not misread this post as a call away from modern invention and binary code. Rather, it is a call to priority. It is a call to a communal people over an individualized person; to flesh and blood over silicon and diodes.
Since Man’s birth in Eden, we have been a tool-based culture. Genesis 4 mentions the first tools in specifics. The digital is no more than a tool, yet too often we forget this and treat it like a god or give the tool too much credit. We believe its effect upon us and our effect upon it is mundane (at worst) or neutral (at best). Understand this clearly: no technology is neutral in its effect. Both its nature and the user collide to create or destroy.
Especially because the User is never neutral, the Net cannot claim neutrality. How we use the tool shapes us, especially when the overwhelming use of the virtual is individualized. In other words, because you (and I) spend the majority of our time on the Web doing so alone, this is changing things more than we realize. This ought to concern Christians who are, in their very essence as Christians, a community. There cannot be an individually-minded Christian. “A fool isolates himself” (Prov 18:1).
^ Not a theme song for any Christian.
Every action and thought he has, especially post-conversion, effects negatively or positively the people to whom he has been joined because he has been joined to Christ, the Head, from whom the whole Body—the Church—receives nourishment from the Word (Eph 4:15-16).
Like every tool, human beings and our relationship to one another are changed by what we do with the tool as well as what the tool does to us through our use of it. Exhibits A and B—and there are many others—showing that how we use the virtual is changing human civilization because it is changing humans in ways I believe we should resist.
Exhibit B: “How the Plastic Brain Re-Wires Itself”
What is happening?
How we process thought and communication—both audibly and visually—is being changed by how media is presented to us and how we receive it. The issue compounds with each use. Users and their tools have always had this relationship: the more I use a hammer in my right hand, the stronger that arm becomes in raw muscular ability and in coordination.
The more we accept personal, individual, isolationist habits of living, the less likely we will understand the significant thread from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 of our existence as a redeemed community.
The more we stare at our iPhones, the less likely we’ll be able to see the Christ for what he is: the source of a Body. Prioritize your worship by prioritizing your Church. To be sure, this is a revolutionary act today and, like all such acts, likely will involve pain and sacrifice. It’s hard not to check the newsfeed…. As a revolutionary act, scoffers ride the crest of the wave, shouting at the gravitational forces at work below: you and me.
This is a call away from disembodied living in a new year.
This is a plea for every Christian to learn the hard skill of a Sabbath from all screens. This is plea from one User to another—from one avatar to another—to learn the contours on a neighbor’s face instead of continuing to be a solitary courtesan in the Fiefdom of Digitalia.
As always, if you’ve appreciated what you’ve read, please share with friends.