Our Culture of Reading and the End of Dialogue: An Essay

Christians are a people of the book, a people whose lives are formed and shaped by their encounters and interactions with a God whose works have been manifested in the words that bear witness to them. The early Christians understood this, which is partly why they paired the transmission of the Scriptures with their evangelistic zeal. The number of manuscripts we have of the Bible from that era far exceeds any other books, in part because Christians cared so deeply about getting the Word out that they eagerly got the words that bear witness to Jesus out as well.

We live in the paradoxical world, though, where the volume of books is matched only by that of the handwringing about whether anyone is reading them. The explosion in books may actually have little to do with the internet. Richard Nash points out that between the 1980s and 2010 the number of books published annually jumped from 80,000 to 328,259 (a surprisingly precise figure). And while worries about reading are not a recent phenomenon—Rudolph Flesch’s influential Why Johnny Can’t Read was published back in 1955—things haven’t much improved since then. The average reading level for students in high school is just barely above the fifth grade. Students may be reading as much, but they’re obviously not reading as well as they used to. The same study found that between 1907 and 2012 the complexity level of books assigned in high school plummeted.1 Even if we read more as a culture we do not read as well.

But a people whose curriculums are shot through with Shakespeare will have more tools to deeply understand the world than those who are assigned The Hunger Games, however enjoyable they might be or well they might be written. The plays can be tough reading and the pleasures and joys deferred until a re-reading (or, in some cases, a re-re-reading). And the work required to understand them is considerably greater than that which contemporary fiction demands of us, if only because of the gap between Shakespeare’s time and ours. We should struggle through books like Shakespeare because the sort of understanding about the world that we need often doesn’t come on a first read of it, but on a third or fourth. Confronting a text whose meaning is initially obscure to us and being impelled to press onward, to work and think and wrestle, gives us the sort of discipline and training that genuine wisdom demands.

As we move into a world where people can no longer read deeply or well, Christians will be in a territory we have charted once before but have long forgotten. We may be a people of the book, but we are not a people who thinks that book’s meaning is easily or quickly grasped. The perspicuity of Scripture, or the idea that Scripture’s meaning would be clear to anyone, never entailed that it could be grasped on a first reading. And we even have a Bible verse to prove the case. 2 Peter 3:16 notes that “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” In a world that struggles to understand Shakespeare, we have Biblical reasons to think we will do no better with the Apostle.

Yet it is not simply reading that is imperiled. A culture where reading is in decline will be a culture where inquiry and learning struggle as well, and the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with those who we disagree will erode too. There is a fundamental connection between how we take in the world around us and sort through it internally and how we participate in conversations with those around us. As our culture reads more poorly, it will speak more poorly and respond more impatiently and less charitably.

——

Perhaps no part of Scripture is as insistent on the value of words to the Christian life as the Gospel According to John. The book opens with the magisterial identification of Jesus and the logos, the “Word,” a term that is as difficult to understand as any in Scripture. Yet throughout the Gospel, John highlights the value of the words that Jesus says and implicitly underscores the unique importance of the words he is writing that communicate them. In John 6, a controversial passage in recent church history, Jesus points out that the Spirit is the one who gives life, and that “the words that I have spoken to [the disciples] are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). Jesus qualified his famous line that “the truth will set you free” with the condition that it will happen “If you abide in [his] word” (John 8:31). In John 15, the symmetry of Christ abiding in us and us abiding in him is disrupted by the asymmetry of us abiding in Christ and Christ’s words abiding in us as the premise for power in prayer. Those words, interestingly, conspicuously stand in the very spot in the story where every other Gospel records Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. And in closing the Gospel, John himself point toward the truthfulness of his written testimony and its limitedness: “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (John 21:24-25).

There are two metaphors for what happens in reading a text like Scripture: on the one hand, we take it into ourselves and make it a part of us. The words abide in us, make their home in us, rearranging our thoughts and reframing how we see things. On the other hand, we enter into a world that the words create. There is a certain self-forgetfulness that happens in reading, particularly when we read fiction or read books that we struggle to understand. This is true of reading Scripture, too: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is not a sentence that has anything to do with us, at least not immediately. Only by entering the universe John points to with his words can we properly come to understand them.

On both metaphors, though, how we read a text significantly affects how it changes us. There is no substitute for slow, unhurried lingering over the words of a book—abiding, we might say—to come to grips with its subtleties, its nuances, and its depth. When we marinate ourselves in a text, we begin to think thoughts after the author—for good or ill. James Gray, an evangelical theologian whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, once commended reading the same book of the Bible over and over again to master it (or rather, to have it master us) instead of simply reading through the whole thing.5 When Fred Sanders reminded us of the passage, one writer–my brother– humorously decided to test out the thesis by doing the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spent his time thinking Emersonly about the world. Emerson isn’t the writer I’d commend starting with, but he makes the point well: words will change us, but only if we give them the time and space to do their work within us.

Abiding in a text, though, and allowing words to abide in us demands an attentiveness and care that we seem to increasingly struggle with. When we return again and again to a text, we may eventually get bored with it—but in doing so, we place ourselves in a situation where we can notice what we have not noticed before. By exhausting what we have to say about a text, we reach the point where we can open ourselves to something it might have to say to us. Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: Liturgy

Most of the usual crew join this conversation on liturgical forms of worship. They’re talking about a two part series by Alastair Roberts (part one is here, part two will be added when it is published). Interestingly, this isn’t the first time these folks have talked about liturgy; check out this post that details a Twitter conversation between Alastair and Derek.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow Derek, and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work. Matt is on Twitter too, believe it or not.

Why Toleration is Not Enough

Bryan McGraw is Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College and lover of all things smoked BBQ.

Two groups lately have found themselves on the defensive politically and socially, and seem deeply befuddled as to why—and why it seems to have come out of nowhere.  Consider first our moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized.  They’ve have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism.  But consider also free-speech liberals, who also increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—talk more about psychological safety and comfort than how the rough and tumble of opposing ideas benefits us all.

What gives?  Why can’t we just come to some reasonable disagreement about the many matters that divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences?  Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone?  What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible?  Whatever happened to our traditions of principled toleration, both ask? Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: Perichoresis

The usual suspects gather to consider how God interacts with the world. They discuss this article from Peter Leithart. You may also find this article from Alastair helpful.

 

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

Special Feature: Why I am Opposed to Gay Marriage

b&wHands

Preface

“I will always love you.”

Many of us don’t remember the first time we felt such a sentiment; some of us may have never felt it at all. If we first encountered it in our youth, as most do, we were probably advised not to consider it very closely. The first word the sixteen-year-old in love hears is that the emotions will not last, that love is a choice, that the heart is untrustworthy, that he really should give the whole business some time. It is the responsibility of adults to help the young direct their erotic impulses, but it is easier and safer to destroy them altogether. Love is intoxicating. And it should be, for it moves us to willingly take on obligations and commitments that help make us adults. Only the one thing the young lovers want in the midst of their rapture—for it to go on, always—is the one thing our society tells him will never happen.

The torrents of passion the sexual revolution released are now receding, leaving behind the ruins and rubble of broken lives and homes. We once thought we might have all the feelings of love without any of the boundaries; but by trying to set eros free, we instead shattered it. Once eros became a god, he laughingly absconded. It is in his nature to do so. Eros awakens us to mystery, and now that we have broken all the taboos, there is nothing left to enchant.

Except perhaps glittery vampires. The Greeks worshipped the deathless gods; Stephenie Meyer made teenagers love the benevolent undead. The intense longing and passions of eros depends upon the presence of an always and of boundaries, a combination that Twilight amplified and exploited.

Because there is nothing sacred left to profane, at least in matters of sex, amplifying love’s rules and costs is the only way to keep meaning alive. Unfettered sex might sound “fun,” but sexual pyrotechnics without sharp boundaries eventually lose their luster. We don’t have romantic comedies any more because there is no romance to lampoon. It is the absence of erotic desire that is now our grave social crisis, not its presence.

In our response to the great crisis of marriage, social conservatives have frequently objected to how emotional construals of love and romance have overwhelmed the institutional, covenantal, or procreative aspects of marriage. We have chastened against grounding the commitment of marriage in our feelings, have objected to ‘merely emotional’ unions, and have argued our society is besotted by ‘companionate models of marriage.’

Such critiques are aimed at showing how our changing intuitions around love and romance have stripped the power from the traditional view of marriage. They are meant to counterbalance and reframe the emotions of love, not to undermine them.

But it is with eros that I want to begin, with all the sentiments and the yearnings and the hopes and dreams that make it easy to roll our eyes at googly-eyed teenagers.

For it is in marriage—and marriage alone—that eros finds its consummation and discovers resources for its ongoing renewal. Eros can destabilize us and make us go topsy, but it also helps us see why marriage matters. There is only an adventure if we accept its dangers. And marriage is a good great enough to justify its demands. Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: Pentecost and the Prophetic Gift of the Spirit

Having just celebrated Pentecost, we consider the role that the frequently overlooked ‘prophetic’ gift of the Spirit plays in the life of the church.

Articles to consider include Peter Leithart’s essay on the seven spirits, and the “Alastair Roberts corpus.

Don Draper is an Ad, Man

Mad Men, one of the best television shows in history, will always be known as “more than just a show about advertising,” in the same way Friday Night Lights is “more than just a show about football.” And yet Mad Men is, in an important sense, about advertising. Its characters, relationships, themes and mood should all be viewed through the lens of advertising.

I’ve done some work in advertising. I’ve written ads, developed slogans, pitched concepts. I know that advertising is about positioning something in the most attractive light, selling the idealized version of it, convincing people that their lives would be improved by purchasing it. Though some advertising is flat-out deceptive, in most cases there is at least some connection between “how it’s sold” and “what it is.” But the reality is that “what it is” rarely lives up to its advertised billing.

But isn’t this how humans live? Particularly today, with the aid of social media posturing and Photoshop touchups, our existential inclination to “sell” an idealized version of our self is easier than ever. Mad Men is set in a pre-Instagram world, but the disconnect between true identity and projected ideal is central to most of the story arcs of its characters, none more than Don Draper (Jon Hamm) himself.

Don Draper isn’t real; he’s an advertisement. He’s an ad man who is also an ad, man. He is a story Dick Whitman is telling about America and self-made men. He is a Gatsby-esque myth of building an identity from scratch, becoming very rich and attractive, a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken ad man who women want and men want to be. But as we see so vividly throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman) is a broken, messy, vulnerable man. In the same way that he sells some toxic things (cigarettes, the eventual undoing of his ex-wife Betty) in attractive packaging through his Lucky Strike ads in the pilot episode, Don is from the very beginning selling himself in the same way: A cool, confident, necessary, powerful man. Yet he’s empty inside, severely broken and far less composed than he lets on. To his wives, his kids, his many mistresses and colleagues, Don frequently falls short of the “as advertised” ideal.

But there is another way Don Draper is a metaphor for advertising. Advertising is about commodification. It’s about leveraging real emotion to drive transactions. In the transitional era of advertising which Mad Men depicts, advertising begins to blur the lines between real human feelings and financial transactions.

It’s fitting, then, that Don Draper’s experience of life, emotion and relationships is largely transactional. It’s about earning and payment, giving and getting. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Don’s skewed sense of romance is deeply informed by literal transactions: “love” for a price. This manifests itself throughout the show as he struggles to view women beyond this “transactional” sense, viewing them (and himself) as simply commodities being exchanged. In both love and advertising, Don is painfully aware that what is bought is never satisfying, yet he can’t seem to live in any other way. Is there something else to life beyond the give-and-take transaction?

The show’s final episodes [spoilers from here on] end with Don on a last-ditch search for that “something else.” His cross-country roadtrip — reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or any of a number of 1970s road movies (e.g. Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop) — leads him to a hippie commune on the California coast. It is here, in the series finale, aptly titled “Person-to-Person,” that Don comes to an epiphany: Relationships needn’t be transactional; love needn’t be bought. Connection can be free, a grace given and received between two people, so long as they are willing to set aside pride, be vulnerable and accept love.

This epiphany may or may not inspire in Don the idea for the relationally altruistic Coke commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) that is the show’s final scene; regardless, the lesson is learned. Up until the final moments of the series, Don is still stuck in the transactional framework. He sleeps with a girl early in the final episode and pays her. He phones Betty with hopes of offering her something (“I’m coming home”) only to be denied. He hands a wad of cash to the woman who shows him to his room at the commune (“You are so generous!”). He needs to be needed. (See his $1 million check to ex-wife Megan in episode 708, “Severance”).

Don’s armor begins to break when he makes an operator-assisted, “person-to-person” call to Peggy, the woman on the show who knows him most truly. As he lays himself bare to Peggy ( “I broke all my vows. I scandalized by child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”), she responds with grace. And yet Don is not yet in a place to accept it. He hangs up before she can talk him off the proverbial ledge.

This is but one of many “person-to-person” phone calls in the episode, “connections” that come with a cost to the caller (literally) in the transactional sense. Don also calls his daughter Sally and wife Betty. Joan calls Peggy. Peggy calls Stan. Notably, many of these conversations are followed up later with in-person, “free” connections: Joan meets Peggy at a restaurant. Stan leaves his phone-call with Peggy mid-stream and runs to see her in person. The episode is pushing us to see the true, non-transactional magic of in-person, vulnerable connection.

Indeed, Don fully cracks only in the physical presence of a stranger, Leonard, whose monologue at the retreat causes Don to break down and embrace a man he doesn’t know but deeply understands. Leonard’s monologue resonates with Don: feeling unnecessary, unable to receive love unless he is giving as much as he gets. “No one cares that I’m gone,” says Leonard, who describes a dream where he is a product in a refrigerator that no one ever reaches for. Something clicks for Don, who has heretofore struggled to receive love freely given, when Leonard describes his own inability to understand and accept love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”

When Don gets up and wraps his arms around Leonard — two broken men in awkward, ugly-cry embrace — it is as beautiful a picture of grace as has ever been seen on the show, reminiscent perhaps of the tender embrace of Don and Peggy in episode 706 (“The Strategy”). It is an embrace that signals release, freedom, the willingness to let the “real self” be known and to lay aside the “advertised self.” It is an embrace that allows Don to receive grace, to go back to New York (if that is indeed what he does) debt-free.Don and Leonard

Similar moments in “Person-to-Person” happen with other characters who, in the midst of the messiness of the past, forgive one another and accept grace, person-to-person: Former lovers Joan and Roger share a laugh and wish each other well (though note how this also has a “transactional” layer as Roger leaves part of his fortune to Joan and her son). Pete and Trudy reconcile and start afresh. Roger and Marie choose each other in marriage, amidst their bickering and flaws. Peggy allows herself to accept Stan’s love.

As the series ends with what will become one of television’s all time most iconic shots (“Smiling Zen Don Draper”), Don appears to have found redemption. Yet it doesn’t come from within, as the guru’s transcendental meditation suggests (“New day. New ideas. New you. Ommmmm.”) It comes from Don’s moment of weakness and vulnerability in allowing himself to be accepted: not as a product that needs a slick advertisement in order to be chosen, but as a sinner who knows he needs grace.

Evangelicals and the Search for Credibility

There’s a sort of American Christian (almost always white and middle-to-upper class) who seems to think that the American church’s biggest problem at the moment is the previous generation of the American church.

There are various sub-groups within this broader camp. The radicals, of whom Matt has written in the past, want to critique the suburban comfort of the previous generation and replace it with a Christianity focused on doing hard things and rejecting the supposedly easy life of material affluence embraced by the previous generation.

Continue reading