The following text was originally delivered as a Wheaton College chapel talk on March 4th, 2009. A video of the talk may be viewed here.
When the college chaplain invited me to speak on the theme of “Embracing God’s Will”, I immediately accepted — in fact, I embraced it as God’s will. And my next thought was, ‘Wow, that’s a really short message’ – but these are accelerated times we’re living in, so you are dismissed.
But before you go, I’d like to also talk about the weird habit you have of preemptively leaving the building before you’ve even entered it. I’m talking about mentally checking out just as you physically settle in. I’m talking about being pre-emptively distracted before you’ve focused in on what might be boring. About why it’s so much fun to talk to your pseudo-friends while texting your real friends to make plans for lunch, but not so much fun to just sit there and like, watch your real friends chew their food, which usually results in texting your pseudo-friends to make plans for dinner. I’m talking about being overmediated and consequently disembodied. I wish to speak to you about the incompatibility between the incarnate church and discarnate man.
In fact, since you’re already dismissed, I’d like you to actually be free to sit down, get comfortable and really pay attention, since we now have all this extra time. In other words, instead of being physically present but mentally absent, I want you to consider yourself physically absent so that you can be mentally present. In public speaking, this is called an attention-grabber. But here’s the problem: when everything competes for your attention, nothing actually has the power to grab it.
When everything grabs your attention, it grabs it in, by my rough estimate, 15-20 second bursts of attention minimum, and at maximum it lasts 3 minutes, roughly the length of a music video.
Cui bono? Who benefits from this shortened attention span? Your banker benefits, because you’re not paying attention closely enough to your electronic deposits and withdrawals. Your politicians benefit, because a people easily distracted are easily dissuaded from their own opinions, and perhaps their own convictions. Your media entertainment consumer complex benefits, because it’s so easy for advertisers to create desires you didn’t have to make you buy products you don’t need with money you haven’t earned to impress people you can’t stand. Your churches churn and turnover members and leaders like a laundromat, because with 23,000 Protestant denominations to choose from, the primary reason for switching churches is musical worship style, or in other words, how you feel about the 3-minute song you’ve just heard.
So really, everyone benefits except you. At the Exxon-Mobil gas station, a poster for their SpeedPass payment system actually advertised the product with the headline, “No attention span needed.”
In David Pogue’s New York Times video blog about Twitter, he explains what it is, and what it’s finer points are. He summarizes by asking, “Is it a time drain? Yes. Trendy? Yes. Is it another ego thing like How Many Friends do I have? Yes. Is it a fad? Yes.” These seem to be his critiques. Then his positive accolades: “But is it also addictive, powerful, and very entertaining? Yes.” Now my question is: since when did “addictive, powerful, and very entertaining” become the measure of goodness, truth, or beauty? Think of what else falls into this exact category, like cocaine, pornography, and romance novels.
Now how about the word of God: is it addictive, powerful, and very entertaining? It is, in truth, only one of these three things. And it is powerful only to the degree to which you approach it without the need, desire, or expectation that you will be very addictively entertained. In other words, what matters are the conditions of attendance, and the form of transmission. If you are, like the average American is, spending 12 hours of your 16-hour waking day engaged in some form of electronic mass media, then you are habituating your psyche to have certain needs. You might identify with Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, when he says,
“I think life should be more like TV. I think all of life’s problems ought to be solved in 30 minutes with simple homilies, don’t you? I think weight and oral hygiene ought to be our biggest concerns. I think we should all have powerful, high-paying jobs, and everyone should drive fancy sports cars. All our desires should be instantly gratified. Women should always wear tight clothes, and men should carry powerful handguns. Life overall should be more glamorous, thrill-packed, and filled with applause, don’t you think?”
Under conditions of 12-hours a day of mass media, we’ve literally fulfilled the letter of the law of Deuteronomy 11:18-19, but with the wrong medium:
Fix these images of media in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them as logos on all your clothing. Show them to your children, texting about them when you sit at home and when you multitask along the road, when you lie down with a sleeping pill and when you get up with a double espresso. Never turn them off.
Two weeks ago the British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield warned in the Daily Mail that “social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification, and make young people more self-centered.” My first thought upon reading this, of course, was: “Bebo. Cool. That’s a new one I haven’t heard of! I’ll have to check it out.” Trust me, it’s way lame – lamer than Facebook. But my second thought, upon completing the article was, “It took a neuroscientist to point this out?” Attention deficits, instant gratification, and narcissism are the measurable and most obvious effects of almost all electronic media these days. You might even say that is the history of mass media, from the printed book forward.
Look at the evolution of attention span and its twin instant gratification: a book takes about 10 hours to read; a movie takes about two hours to watch; a TV show takes about one hour; a video game takes about half an hour; a Facebook update only takes a few minutes; and a Twitter tweet can be measured in seconds. Whether producer or consumer, the average time needed for consumption and completion is getting shorter and shorter. And look at the state of production and consumption of the old medium, the book, under digital conditions: a prolific writer of the old world was someone like Isaac Asimov, who using only a typewriter, produced 480 books and died in 1992. A really prolific writer was South African writer Mary Faulkner who wrote 904 books, she died in 1973. Now under digital conditions, when the means of production are incredibly efficient, when the keyboard offers less resistance, the spellchecker and grammar checker are built in, and you can download software to generate your own Harlequin romance novels just by choosing the names of the characters and the locations of their trysts, the most prolific authors are people like Stephen King, who have produced just over 50 novels – the quality of which is described by King himself as, “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” That’s production. Consumption of books for the average American drops to one book per year after graduating college. So while the tools of production are better, faster, more productive than ever, actual production and output per author is declining, and the definition of prolific is getting less and less.
Now narcissism. With a book, you are the reader, reading about the adventures of the protagonist, which you have to imagine in your mind’s eye. In the movie, you get to see and hear and identify with the protagonist and feel much closer to knowing who he really is. In the video game, you get to actually be the protagonist and incarnate his virtual body, wear his armor, and use his weapons to kill the bad guys. And unlike the novel that influenced the other media forms, in the video game you can choose the setting that says “Unlimited Ammunition” and “Undefeatable” so you never have to lose. Thus, as the media evolve, you naturally come to the conclusion that the world, does in fact, revolve around you and your every whim and emotion from minute to minute.
But this problem has not always been with us. Listen to Postman describe the attendees at the Lincoln Douglas debates: “Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?” In 1985, before many of you were born, Postman asked, “Is there any audience today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” By 2009, I stopped assigning this book to my students; instead I assign the essay from which it originated. Perhaps in the future I’ll only be able to assign these key quotes. Under conditions of multitasking and perpetual electronic distraction, reading itself becomes a form of mono-tasking, and people perceive it to be a form of solitary confinement, the worst kind of psychological torture, and so they cope with it the only way they know how – by falling asleep at precisely the moment that their electronic media attention span ears out. Audio books are on the rise, because they allow you to multitask while “reading,” but these conditions also retrieve infancy and childhood, of mommy or daddy reading you a bedtime story.
I believe these overmediated conditions are a primary causal factor for how it becomes harder and harder for people to actually discern, let alone confirm, God’s will for their lives, and as a result they are constantly on edge about embracing it. In a 2003 lecture the late Michael Crichton said that,
“The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.”
Crichton was referring, of course, to the media, and to how one could know whether to trust what you saw, read, or heard. Under conditions of global capital, technology, and democracy, where every party has vested interests, its easier to become suspicious about motive. And so it’s easier to take all news as opinion, and all opinions as equally valuable, which is the same as taking them all as worthless. No wonder your generation gets its news primarily from The Onion or Jon Stewart’s Daily Show – those outlets deliver the illusion of trustworthiness by presenting the mainstream media as fundamentally untrustworthy. And of course, the more successful satirical news shows become, the more they get purchased and/or distributed by the mainstream media.
So if we care about what we take into our mouths, we should also care about our media diets, about what we take into our minds, which makes a remix of 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 potentially useful. Instead of food, consider media:
Now concerning media offered to gods other than Jesus Christ: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This knowledge from Google puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something from Wikipedia, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the watching of movies and staring at the screen of the TV and computer for 12 hours per day, we know that a visual medium has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. For although Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas may be so-called gods – as indeed there are many who now have achieved celebrity status in film or simulated celebrity status on Facebook – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge, because it cannot be found in a 10-second search on Google or Wikipedia. But some, through former association with media, devote their time and energy to media as though it were a worthy sacrifice, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Media will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not watch, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours, yea even this high-bandwidth digital cornucopia of yours, does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge consuming media in a celebrity hot-spot, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to also consume the media of American Idol? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if media makes my brother stumble into pornography and masturbation, or makes my sister stumble into body image anxiety, cutting, and depression, I will never consume media, lest I make my brother or sister stumble.
All media are permissible, but not all media are beneficial.
Wheaton College banned movies for 72 years after they were invented until they began to allow them in 1967. Just 40 years later they put a large screen projector into chapel. What was once a mistrusted medium of communication – images, and especially moving, talking images – suddenly became a requirement for worship. So while it’s a nice thing to not have to squint to see the speaker when you’re sitting in the audience, and while the songs lyrics onscreen are much more legible than on the old overhead projector system, it does also bring up the question of what kind of challenge this poses to religious practice: as Neil Postman put it, the second commandment, the one forbidding images, is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. I’m told that students in the balcony especially appreciate this because it helps them pay attention, helps them because they can see the facial movements of the speaker. And this may indeed be a social good. But if chapel is a place of worship, one question is whether it helps us to hear God?
Listening requires the practice of listening, just as music requires the practice of music. Video screens may condition us to be willing to listen only if we can tolerate looking, which is an effect that has already completely transformed the music industry. Listening to the word does not have the same effect as looking at the word. The word speaker implies speech; the word audience has the same root as the word audio and auditorium, and implies listeners. God communicates via his word, and through the living word spoken by the mouth and received by the ear. God is not visible. Yet when he does speak, action results, something happens – the world comes into being. The incarnate God, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, was visible to his followers, but is no longer visible to us. When he spoke, the old world was made new again. Jesus may even suggest that hearing was above seeing when he says to doubting Thomas, in John 20:29, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
We live in an age now that says a picture never lies, and that seeing is believing. This is the opposite of faith. This is proof. Faith, you recall, is the evidence of things not seen, and that means they are things that are heard. You remember that God speaks in the still small voice, but the old Testament’s meteorological descriptions may not work on you, because weather no longer makes an impression on us when it has its own TV channel; it merely entertains us. So if I may, let’s consider that while God works in mysterious ways, and does speak through the tongues of men and women, he has never, so far in recorded history, spoken directly through an electronic medium. People throughout history have heard God’s voice, and sometimes they have heard it audibly. But they have never, to my knowledge, received an e-mail, a text, or an apparition of his visage on their television. God does not post to YouTube. If he did, then 1 Kings 19:11-12 would read much differently:
The LORD said, “Go out and stand in a Wi-Fi Hotspot in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful electronic media revolution tore down all previous pre-electronic media forms and shattered their business models, but the LORD was not in the media revolution. After the Internet there was the cell phone, but the LORD was not in the cell phone. After the cell phone came the Blackberry, but the LORD was not in the Blackberry. And after the Blackberry’s battery died and the recharger was lost, there came a gentle whisper. And the whisper said, “Can you hear me now?”
Or consider that all our presence is now based on technologies of absence: the Greek word for distance is tele:
Telegraph means distant writing.
Telephone means distant speaking.
Television means distant seeing.
Telefusion, which is what I call the Internet, is distant togetherness. There you are, all alone on Facebook, with 243 friends, alone at your computer. In all these communications, you are in your body and yet you are also out of your body, somewhere in between sender and sent. The only comparison is to schizophrenia, or to the idea of bilocation, of being in two places at once, which the Catholic church claims was possible for many of its saints. In U2’s 2004 song, “Fast Cars” from the album How To Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, Bono sings a line towards the end, “I’m not used to talking to somebody in a body.”
If all your communication is based on distance, then consider why the word communicate implies presence: to make as one, the same root as the words commune, community, and communion. Real communication means being there. Modern communication requires us to be absent.
The obvious next step is mystical: telepathy. But telepathy may be incompatible with sanity – can you imagine how hard it would be to focus if you could actually know the thoughts of your 243 friends without having to speak or see them? Marshall McLuhan said that schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy, and in the 60’s the British rock band The Who worried about Quadrophenia. Now, multiple personality disorder is about to metastasize into omniphenia. In 1844, when the telegraph was invented, there was one mental disorder – insanity. In 2012, the DSM-V will be published and there will be over 300 mental disorders, including one called “texting addiction,” which is what Mr. Sanchez had while engineering the Los Angeles train that crashed just after his 43rd text message, a crash that killed 25 people. It might also have been what California teenager Reina Hardesty was afflicted with, who texted over 14,000 messages in one month. Now I know what you’re thinking – like the products whose warning label claims that “this product contains a chemical that is known to be carcinogenic in the state of California,” well shoot, all you really need to do is stay out of California. It’s not that easy.
Now telepathy is a word coined in 1882, the same year that Edison electrified lower Manhattan and the same year that Nietzsche claimed that God had died. And yet telepathy, the idea of knowing the mind of someone who is absent is relevant to knowing the mind of God. And here is the great challenge and opportunity for the Christian as we enter into greater digital disincarnation and distraction – Christians will be very well suited to addressing the real needs, neuroses, and mental disorders of the future if they can learn to practice what they preach: presence, speech, and action. Those were the three conditions of attendance under which Christ and his followers performed their miracles, under which St. Paul preached, and under which the saints operated throughout history. You have to be there, you have to speak in as unmediated a manner as possible, and you have to do the work of the gospel. This is, I believe, God’s great calling for us to embrace. You can send a friend an e-mail when a loved one dies. You can send a check to a foreign country that’s been hit by a tsunami. You can twitter about your moral concern over the loss of morality in media. All these things are good.
But we are called to love, and love has one synonym only: sacrifice. Primarily, our call is to sacrifice the efficiency, convenience and distance that our technology affords us, and to show up in person and feed the hungry, clothe the poor, comfort the orphans and widows in their distress, and not be corrupted by the care of our iPhones. Real presence is a prerequisite for real love. But Christians won’t be able to do this if they too have been corrupted by the media of this world. We won’t be able to offer much help if our primary problems are the same as the overmediated world’s primary problems. We cannot offer what we do not have. But such were some of you, and if Christ saves you from this, then there is great hope because then you can embrace your thorn in the flesh as a gift from the paradoxical God whose strength is manifest in weakness, and to the world your struggle will be your credibility. Your weakness will be the strength they need. So be of good cheer, for in the world you will be overmediated and overwhelmed, but Christ has overcome the world.
In my own life, I have tried to minimize the electronic noise so that I can better hear the unplugged God. It also helps me to hear the voices of my wife and children. To my media students I may seem like a Luddite, or a technophobe, but there is a great difference between a lifestyle, which is what I thought I wanted when I was your age – and a life. And Christ wants to offer us life, and life more fully.
It is a great testament to your spiritual maturity—a maturity that I did not have at your age—that you are wondering about God’s specific will for your lives, asking real questions: Should I pursue this relationship? Should I go to graduate school? Should I get married? Should I get married tomorrow? Should I be complementarian, egalitarian, or vegetarian? And these are things that I believe God actually cares about. But the problem is that we want the specifics tailor made to our immediate situation, without really understanding the general principles that are true for all humanity. The universal truth is that God has made known his will to us: He wants us to be human, he wants us to be incarnate, he wants us to be temporal echoes of his eternal Word, he wants us to be His creatures. He wants us to imitate him, giving the gift of real presence, real words in real time and real actions—small acts of service done with great love—to an increasingly discarnate age. Only in the context of a deeply embodied life can we begin to hear the spirit speak to us about the specifics of our lives. You must do this daily, quietly, with fear and trembling and great hope, and you must do it in person.