I make it a habit to listen to a weekly podcast called the Whitehorse Inn. This year’s theme has been “recovering Scripture,” or to put it another way, they are systematically dealing with biases in the church and the culture that keep us from seeing the beauty and usefulness of the Bible.
A recent podcast is called “Distracting Ourselves to Death.” Host Michael Horton is interviewing college professor T. David Gordon. Dr. Gordon has written a number of books like “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” or “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns” (great books that play on the theme of the bestseller “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch). These books take the unfortunately ubiquitous church phenomena of poor preaching and poorer worship and unpack its source material.
This particular podcast regarded distractions. Specifically the same theme about which author Nicholas Carr wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 2008 in his article “Is Google Making us Stupid?” We are distracted, it seems, by more than simply our commitments to ease, comfort and the satisfaction of the senses: our thinking may be in the process of being remade in the image of our connectedness.
Years ago, I exhorted a group of young single people to fight against the temptation to live with mediated communication. In other words, that they would not be satisfied with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Instead, they’d want to be personal. In this podcast, Dr. Gordon mentions that we have “plastic neurology.” He said something like we make tools and then they make us. He has observed in his college classroom that while students bring in laptops ostensibly to take notes, they are in fact using them to surf the web, send email or chat. Nevermind, says Dr. Gordon. What really bothers him is his theory that the students would not be able to function without all of this. That if he told them to check their computers at the door, there would be a mutiny.
(Where would you be without your text plan? What about your Facebook page? How about internet connectivity?)
Plastic neurology is our God-given neurological malleability. Check this quote from Mr. Carr’s article:
The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information [i.e., the internet] are many and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired‘s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplations. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
We come close to the line of responsibility in all of this. Who exactly is responsible for our behavior? We are – we do what we want to do all the time. This is the clear conclusion of the Bible. Yet, as we engage in what we love and welcome and use in technology, that medium may be exerting an influence back on us. The effect of which makes other things harder. I think we are in trouble in two areas: thinking and relating.
First, thinking. More able writers can and have unpacked this concept of distractedness or plasticity (The Shallows, RAPT are book titles; www.roughtype.com is Nicholas Carr’s blog and there are titles that can be found there). Consider this ancedotally: do you find yourself willing and able to wade through old writers, Puritans or poetry, perhaps? In reading, do you bore quickly and find you need to get up or that you need to do something else? Can you sit down with a passage of Scripture and study it: word study, history, grammar and connections to other books? Must you always have music on?
Consider also recent political actions: health care, financial reform, or bail-outs. Did you remember hearing that those bills were 1000’s of pages long and our representatives didn’t even read them? (They should’ve; check this: Preventive Care Mandate.) What was astounding to me was that this was never an issue with the majority of people. None of us would blindly sign some document that had serious and grave implications on our family’s lives, would we? But they did. Maybe their brains are so effected that they can’t read, but did the populace give them a pass thinking, “Man, who has time to read all of that anyway?”
Biblical Christianity is a thinking religion. Of course, it is a whole-person religion, but not before it presents to us truth claims that must be considered. If we have lost our ability to think through things, then we are going to see our churches move more and more away from biblical Christianity. Our people will move away from what it means to be people of grace and truth.
Second, relating. Relationships take time and effort. Facebook and its annoying clones and predecessors are not facilitating social connectedness. That used to mean (rightly) time together. Voices heard, expressions seen and analyzed, misstatements challenged, rebukes and forgiveness exchanged. Not anymore. Now, we believe it is adequate to rail against someone slanderously via an email. Google might be making us dumber but it has certainly made us more cowardly. The medium of pop-ups, broadband, multiple-tabs, and chat has reshaped our relationships so that we want them just like those other things: exciting, fast-paced, multiples, uncommitted and surface.
Who can really solve this by turning things off, you know? That will hardly do. Instead, at some point, the church will have to recognize we have discovered a new country with new joys and new sins.