The Church must be a compelling community of Scripture engagement
For many people daily life has become an exercise in media distraction. Wake up. Check your phone. Stream a podcast as you drive to work. Receive a text. (Try to ignore it until you park!) Skim your email. Like a Facebook post. Follow a link to YouTube. Forward a blog. Update your LinkedIn profile. Scan your Twitter feed. Glance at an app notification. Retweet an animated gif. Return to emails.
As communication pathologist Caroline Leaf remarks, “This is not stimulation – it is bombardment” (Switch on Your Brain, Baker Books, 2013).
“We’re digital junkies,” agrees journalist Erin Anderssen, “exponentially creating our own pit of distraction while despairing that we are so distracted” (The Globe and Mail, 2014).
What effect are these behaviours having on us? A search on Google (ironically) reveals numerous support groups available to help social media addicts. It turns out researchers have been discussing Facebook as an addiction since at least 2012, just eight years after it was launched.
Author Nicholas Carr observes how a diet of electronic media has affected his own thinking. While trying to read, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . . Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it – in a swiftly moving stream of particles” (The Shallows, Norton, 2010).
Carr writes that we don’t just feel distracted by technology – electronic media is neurologically rewiring our brains.
Technology and the brain
Neuroscience now confirms our brains are not genetically fixed at birth, but are massively plastic, reorganizing throughout our lifetime in response to both genetic programming and external stimuli.
Our brains grow and reorganize most dramatically in our first eight years of life, consuming 34 per cent of the body’s total energy though accounting for only three per cent of the body’s total mass, according to Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang (Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, Bloomsbury, 2011).
By late childhood the brain reaches 95 per cent of its adult volume, and during adolescence significant synaptic pruning and reorganization are what drive stereotypical adolescent behaviours. "Even puberty itself is ultimately driven by the brain," write Aamodt and Wang.
Although brain reorganization slows later in life, our brains remain plastic and capable of change throughout our lifetime.
The brain’s plasticity makes it particularly vulnerable to electronic media. Our brains are predisposed to distraction, wired for fight or flight in response to external stimuli. Electronic media’s relentless barrage of cursory information captivates our attention mercilessly without hope of release.
If "you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet," writes Carr.
Some laud the possible gains to emerge inevitably from our brain’s interaction with electronic media. Toronto academic Mark Federman embraces the internet’s nonlinearity as a more inclusive means of knowledge gathering (in a presentation he’s given many times since 2005).
And youth pastor Adam McLane dismisses concerns youth are not learning skills needed to succeed in the workplace. “They’re preparing to thrive in a workplace that will be dominated by their peers, who send an average of 3,300 text messages per month and speak the shared language of emoji” (Group, 2015).
Carr cautions such gains will come at a cost – losses of long-term memory, empathy, reflective and linear thought, and the capacity for deep, sustained reading.
Among Christians, the fear most frequently expressed is losing our ability to meaningfully read Scripture.
THE BRAIN AND READING
There’s some irony to the fear technology will disrupt the brain’s ability to read, for reading is itself the consequence of earlier technology having massively rewired our brains. Linguist Noam Chomsky has long proclaimed the human brain is genetically preprogrammed for the impossible complexity of language.
But whereas the brain is naturally hardwired for sound, the visual processes necessary to read require the brain to remap itself radically. From recognizing simple marks on clay tablets, to systems of hieroglyphics, to the individual letters of the phonetic alphabet, the technology of writing led to humans complexly connecting multiple previously unassociated regions of the brain.
Today, neuroscientists can observe how the brain rewires itself in response to meaning less and meaningful symbols and words, so helping us retrace our neurological path to literacy. Significantly, "Although it took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in roughly 2,000 days" (Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid, Harper, 2007).
Like all new technologies, writing had its detractors. In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates objects to the Greek alphabet, cautioning that reliance on external letters will deplete the mind’s capacity for memory and will produce only the semblance of wisdom. Instead, Socrates favoursoral dis course as the means to imprint wisdom on the souls of learners. Plato did not share his mentor’s aversion to print, and the Western tradition that followed embraced and has improved written language to this day.
The preference for print also made possible the preservation and wide publication of the Bible, advancing the technology of literacy significantly through Christianity’s reading of Scripture.
READING AND SCRIPTURE
Contrary to the experience of most of us today, few Christians throughout history ever read the Bible, and fewer still read it privately. In Jesus’ day, only 10 per cent of the population were sufficiently literate to read formal texts and only five per cent were capable of writing them – a condition that would not change substantially for another 1,400 years.
Consequently, reading Scripture has meant some thing different for most of Christian history than it means for us today. To read Scripture in early Christianity meant to read it publicly for the benefit of those assembled (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; 1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3).
Such reading required some one with the technical skill to decipher and orate the all-capitalized, unpunctuated scriptum continuum of the day. ITMEANTREADINGLINE UPONLINEOFTEXT LIKETHIS. Additionally, public reading assumed the presence of teachers to inter pret the text (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28–29; Acts 8:31).
Not surprisingly, Christians developed multiple techniques to facilitate easier public reading and teaching. Within the first four centuries, some of these include:
- preference for the codex (book) over the scroll
- sense units marking clauses, sentences or paragraphs
- margins, including corrections and notes
- punctuation, vowel signs, breathing marks
- rudimentary chapter divisions.
Many of these techniques became standard features of published texts. "But in their time the earliest Christian manuscripts represented the leading edge of such development in book practices," as scholar Larry Hurtado explains (The Earliest Christian Artifacts, Eerdmans, 2006).
Later, scribes introduced small letters, spaces between words, accents and more complex punctuation. By 1551 Stephanus had constructed the often seemingly random system of chapter and verse divisions we use today. But the most impactful change in the history of reading the Bible is its 1454 printing on Gutenberg’s newly invented press.
The printing press distributed the technology of literacy, rewiring the brains of the masses and ushering in the Age of Reason. It also dramatically altered how we read the Bible. Instead of encountering Scripture within a community of teachers, fellow believers and interpreters, we now primarily read our Bibles in our quiet times alone.
Such readings have produced such wildly autonomous interpretations of Scripture as to suggest we finally epitomize the semblance of wisdom Socrates so long ago feared. Therefore, theologian Stanley Hauerwas provocatively pleads, "No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America" (Unleashing the Scripture, Abingdon, 1993).
SCRIPTURE AND DISTRACTION
Mass literacy prevents the Church from ever acting on Hauerwas’ appeal, which likely emboldens him to make it. History teaches repeatedly that restricting technological power to only the elite does not usually safeguard against the semblance of wisdom.
In some ways electronic media reverses literacy’s wild autonomy. Never alone, we now process information through the ever-expanding Googleverse, interpreting Scripture through social media, skimming blog posts and podcasts, and following whatever random particle that entices us.
The purists among us long for the good old days of the book until we remember the book is every bit the technological invader as the internet. Both technologies bring perversion. We’ve traded autonomy for distraction.
So, how do we engage Scripture in an age of distraction?
Theologian Kevin DeYoung is right that "The Luddite impulse is strong among Christians, and it’s easy to think the best answer for technology overload is to rage against the machines" (Crazy Busy, Crossway, 2013).
It is possible to embrace Wendell Berry’s pastoral life style or separate entirely, as have many Anabaptists. But for most Christians to reject technology really means to retreat to technologies more familiar to them, such as the book. Instead of retreating, however, engaging Scripture today requires a return to the Church.
The Church has always been the place to properly engage Scripture, which was Hauerwas’ real point. Therefore, the answer to how we are to engage Scripture today is the same answer to how we are to engage Scripture in any age – the Church must be a compelling community of Scripture engagement.
In this age of distraction, our problem is therefore not how to get individuals to read the Bible relevantly in their private devotional lives, but how to make our churches relevant communities of teachers, fellow believers and interpreters of Scripture proclaimed.
Framing the problem as a challenge for the Church helps focus the question, leading us to ask, How can the Church be a compelling community of Scripture engagement in an age of distraction? Here are three suggestions to get us started:
- Through its preaching, Bible studies, educational curricula and worship, the Church deliberately models and instructs habits of mind that engage Scripture without reinforcing the perversions of either autonomy or distraction.
- The Church provides an occasional countercultural pause – a Sabbath – from the constant bombardment of media distraction, structuring meditative services that allow Scripture to penetrate the soul.
- Fundamentally – and perhaps, to some, most controversially – the Church becomes the central place for proclaiming Scripture, elevating careful, expositional preaching over topical or issues-based sermons as pastor-teachers trust Scripture to make itself relevant to the needs of the congregation.
Jeromey Martini is president and professor of New Testament at Horizon College & Seminary in Saskatoon, Sask. This article is adapted with permission from the Spring 2015 issue of Enrich, the leadership magazine of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.