Combining blogs

I’ve decided to combine this blog with my professional blog at New posts will be up there only.

If you’re interested in conferences, check out our online sessions: Well-Trained Mind Online Conference, 2015.

Thanks for visiting, and please come on over!

Posted in Conferences, Guest posts, High school students at home, Home schooling and the mainstream, Home schooling in the news, Preparing for college, Reflections on education, Resource roundup, Susan's Blog, Susan's Video Question and Answer Sessions, Testing, Writing | Comments Off on Combining blogs

February seminar…make your plans now!

The Complete Writer Weekend Workshop
A seminar for parents and students
Peace Hill
18021 The Glebe Lane
Charles City, Virginia

Friday, Feb. 10, 4 PM – Saturday, Feb. 11, 5:30 PM
Registration opens 11AM, Monday, December 5th.

Sponsored by Peace Hill Press
Registration fee: $35 per family

These sessions are intended for both parents and students. If you’d like us to consider including your student in one of the hands-on sessions taught by Susan, please contact us with the student’s name, age, overall grade level (more or less), and a brief explanation of the student’s writing ability, including any particular challenges.

Sessions will be taped for inclusion in a DVD lecture series. Attendees will be asked to sign a release form allowing them to appear on the DVD. If you register, we ask that you be willing to sign this form.

Local lodging options and information here. Williamsburg lodging options and information here(25-40 minutes away)

A list of local restaurants can be found here (Charles City) and here (Providence Forge). (The options are few. This is farm country.)

Picnic dinners for Friday and box lunches for Saturday are available for an additional fee; please contact us for details.




4-5:30 PM Overview: Why Writing Programs Fail

An overall plan for producing good writers at home.  We will cover how to teach the skills of writing  sequentially, by guiding your student through a simple progression (copying, dictation, narration, summarizing, outlining, short critical essays, long critical essays, research paper) that develops both writing and thinking skills in a systematic manner.  Includes suggestions on how to use these writing and thinking skills in every area of the curriculum.

5:30-7 Dinner break

7-8:30 Writing With Ease: The First Stage

Elementary Writing

This workshop focuses on the most foundational skills of writing: putting ideas into words, putting words on the page, and how to bring those two skills together.  Includes a specific plan for developing these skills through copywork, dictation, and narration across the curriculum, as well as step-by-step guidance in how to dictate/narrate. Common (and not so common) difficulties are also addressed.  Recommended for those teaching all K-6 students, as well as for those teaching older students who are reluctant writers.


9-9:45 AM Dictation and Narration: A Demonstration

Susan will demonstrate dictatation and narration with elementary students. If you’d like your student to participate, please contact us.

9:45-10 AM Coffee Break

10-11:30 Writing With Skill: The Second Stage

Logic-Stage Writing

Expanding on the principles presented in “A Plan for Teaching Writing,” this workshop offers very specific guidance in how to teach middle grade (logic-stage) students the skills of constructing an argument, outlining and writing from an outline.  Includes training in outlining, writing from an outline, basic  Socratic dialogue, and evaluation and grading.  Essential for those teaching all 5th to 8th grade students; since written argumentation is the basis of high school writing, this seminar is also highly recommended for those teaching high school students.  Students in grades 5-12 are encouraged to attend.

11:30-11:45 Break

11:45-12:45 Middle Grade Master Class

Susan will walk middle-grade students through the process of organizing, writing, and proofreading a brief composition.  If you’d like your student to participate, please contact us.  Students must be willing to prepare ahead of time.

12:45-2 Lunch Break

2-3:30 Writing With Style: The Third Stage

High School Writing

Expanding on the principles presented in “A Plan for Teaching Writing,” this seminar covers all of the types of writing that high school students should learn before entering the freshman year of college: response papers, summaries, and critical essays across the curriculum.  Attendance at “Focus on the Middle Grades” seminar is highly recommended.  Students in grades 8-12 are encouraged to attend.

3:30-4 Tea Break

4-5:30 High School Master Class

Susan will teach a selected topic to high school students and help them to form a response paper.  If you’d like your student to participate, please contact us.  Students must be willing to prepare ahead of time.

5:30 Closing Thoughts (And Coffee for the Road)

Posted in Conferences | Comments Off on February seminar…make your plans now!

Taking a creativity break.

Gentle Readers, if there is ever going to be a finished History of the Renaissance World, I need to concentrate on history and nothing else…at least long enough to get a feel for the sweep of the whole thing. Thirty days might not be quite enough, but it will help. So I’m taking a blog/Twitter/Facebook/Google+ break until October 12.

I’ve had a hard time keeping up with this blog in any case (you might have noticed) so will also be using that time to strategize how to provide you with stuff worth reading.

Check back in on October 12…and see how far I’ve gotten!

Posted in Susan's Blog | 4 Comments

The Canterbury Tales: a new translation by Sheila Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, I received a review copy of Sheila Fisher’s new translation of the Canterbury Tales. It’s published by Norton, and I had noticed it on my last visit to the Norton offices because it has the coolest jacket art ever.

I expect I’ll be recommending this translation in future editions of >The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind. You can, of course, read the Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s own Middle English, and more or less figure out what’s going on. In fact, if you had an introductory British lit survey class in college, you probably read the Prologue–maybe even out loud. (If you’re curious, or want to review, you can listen to readings of the Middle English on the Chaucer Metapage.)

However, as Sheila Fisher notes in her introduction, not everyone has the time or inclination to plow through the Middle English–and if you intend to assign the Tales (or the cleaner portions therein) to a high school student, I’d recommend not torturing them with the Middle English unless they happen to be fascinated by the idea.

Here are some of the best-known lines from the Prologue:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour…
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye–
So priketh hem Natur in hir corages–
Then longen folk to go on on pilgrimages…

Compare this to Sheila Fisher’s translation:

When April comes and with its showers sweet
Has, to the root, pierced March’s drought complete,
And then bathed every vein in such elixir
That, by its strength, engendered is the flower…
And when small birds begin to harmonize
That sleep throughout the night with open eyes
(So nature, stirring them, pricks up their courage),
Then folks, too, long to go on pilgrimage…

And now compare an older translation by J. U. Nicolson, which you’ll get if you go cheap and buy the Dover edition of the Tales:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower…
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)–
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage…

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Nicolson translation, except that it was written for readers who spoke nineteenth-century English. (It was actually first published in 1934, but Nicolson’s language clearly harks back to an even earlier era; it was often part of translation strategy, early in the twentieth century, to make classic works sound “classic” by using widely-understood but archaic vocabulary.) If you’re going to read a translation, read one that speaks your language–and that’s particularly important when you’re introducing teenaged readers to great literature. The literature is already complex; you shouldn’t add an extra level of unnecessary difficulty by mixing in archaic words and constructions. (“To generate therein and sire the flower”?)

The Fisher translation, generally, also stays a little closer to Chaucer. Notice, in the very first line, that “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote” becomes “When April with his showers sweet with fruit” in the Nicolson translation, introducing a whole new phrase (where did the fruit come from?) in order to keep the rhyme. In the third line, Nicolson renders “licour” as “liquor”–which you’d think would be a close match, but in fact isn’t because the word liquor has shifted meaning considerably away from licour. The Middle English word primarily meant “a liquid found in, or derived from, plants or animals” (thanks, University of Michigan MED), and the context makes it clear that this licour is a transforming, creative liquid; it produces something brand new–spring flowers! Elixir, Fisher’s choice, is a word derived from the Middle English term for an alchemical potion that could produce life as well as turn base metal to gold. So the connotations of the word fit the context perfectly. (The Fisher translation also has the Middle English text side by side with the modern translation, which makes comparison easy.)

I could go off into geeky analysis of other lines too, but you get the idea.

The Fisher translation also keeps much of the syntax of the Middle English, which can be viewed as either an advantage or a problem, as this School Library Journal review points out. (I don’t actually agree with the reviewer that the Fisher rendition is harder to read.) Check out the Norton book page here, the page here, and the Barnes & Noble page here.

Posted in Resource roundup | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Khan Academy: I’m a fan

At the beginning of May, the William & Mary student who’s been tutoring the boys in algebra graduated and moved on. (The nerve. I can’t imagine why he doesn’t want to stay and teach my children instead of having a life.) In any case, since I won’t be able to recruit another math major until the fall semester starts, we decided to give the Khan Academy a try over the summer.

As a humanities person, I’m always very aware that I’m not doing math justice. We can do math competently enough with the standard texts. But even I know that the field of maths is much bigger, and much more fascinating, than mastery of a set of exercises and concepts. So I’m constantly searching for ways to help the kids think mathematically, rather than just “doing math.”

I think I first read about the Khan Academy in the Wall Street Journal. Salman Khan has undergrad and master’s degrees from MIT and a Harvard MBA; in 2006, he started posting math teaching videos on YouTube to help out a cousin. Now, the Khan Academy provides lectures, demonstrations, and practice in topics from simple sums through calculus (plus science lectures–we haven’t yet tried those.

I can’t evaluate the quality of the math instruction (although I find it interesting that Bill Gates is a fan), but I do recognize good teaching when I see it. The lessons at Khan Academy are clear, concept-focused, and just plain fun. My fourteen-year-old scientist will spend hours working through lessons and problems, absolutely absorbed in a math-world he’s never really visited before.

This is my favorite quote from the site’s FAQs:

What curricula are you following?

The simple answer is none. I believe that someone who truly understands the core concepts will thrive academically regardless of the curricular context. To take it a step further, I believe that someone who experiences the joy and satisfaction of true understanding will never again be satisfied with the superficial type of learning that most students have grown accustomed to. The Khan Academy is about placing deep understanding above anything else.

I like that. So check it out.

Posted in Resource roundup | 9 Comments

Writing With Skill: The full table of contents and first seven weeks

Along with our new four-year grammar program, we’ve also been working on a new writing program, Writing With Skill.

This too will be a four-year series, designed to develop–above all–organizational skills. The first task for the beginning writer is simply to learn how to get words down on paper–a skill taught in our elementary writing series Writing With Ease. But once that ability is developed, the next challenge for the writing student is to figure out how to get those words into the right order. The right order is one that makes sense, that reads easily, that provides clarity.

(The philosophy is outlined with more detail in this brief essay, “Why Writing Programs Fail.”)

How do you teach this?

For years I’ve been suggesting that parents make use of outlining as a tool for teaching organization–asking the young student to regularly outline a page or so from a history or science book, and eventually to practice rewriting the original text from the outline. (If this sounds familiar, it’s the method Benjamin Franklin used to teach himself to write–see the excerpt from his Autobiography at the end of this blog entry.)

Writing With Skill takes these suggestions and fleshes them out in weekly lessons that specifically teach outlining as well as basic forms of writing (descriptions, biographical sketches, chronological narratives, and so on) that can be assembled to make longer compositions. The program also teaches beginning style by asking students to rewrite sentences using different grammatical constructions, and also includes a primer on writing about stories and poems (basic literary criticism).

The sample of the instructor text, below, begins with an overview of the course’s goals and methods.

Writing With Skill is designed to start at any time from fifth grade on; these are basic skills that should be in place before a student begins to study rhetoric, so any student who is not quite ready for a rhetoric course can benefit from starting with the first book and moving forward.

The course gives the primary responsibility for learning to the student, so the student text is central. The student text below includes a complete, detailed table of contents, showing what is taught in each week.

The instructor text contains specific guidance in teaching skills that the student may struggle with, as well as rubrics and sample compositions to help with evaluation.

Not sure when the physical texts will be ready, but PDFs should be available by fall. (The folks at the Peace Hill Press office would like me to clarify–I hope to have the full downloadable PDF available for purchase in the fall, but if we’re still proofreading/making final changes, we will make the first weeks available for free so that you can get started.)

Enjoy the preview!

WWS Student SmallSampleToPage95



And now for a word from Benjamin Franklin…

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.

With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me
under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have
tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it.
Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and,
after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them
back again.

I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into
confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

Posted in Resource roundup, Writing | 8 Comments

Disappearing Words, Part IV: What do we do about it?

Read Part I, Part II, and Part III first.

So are there reasons to worry about the rise of right-brain culture?
Should we continue to fight for the primacy of words?

There are two separate answers to these questions: the answer that we might give as Westerners, children of the Enlightenment, heirs of a print culture; and the answer that we should give as Christians.

Let’s start with the second answer (the specifically theological one).

If we are not a print-centered society, if reading fades, if the book loses its place, we might see destructive changes in society. It is possible that a left-brained culture is, in some way, healthier than a right-brained culture. Perhaps the victory of the right brain over the left will indeed, as Postman and others seem to think, lead us into a totalitarian state. Maybe a right-brain culture will give up linear reasoning and propositional logic. Maybe our attention spans will shorten and our memories alter.

(I’m not convinced that this is going to happen, by the way.)

But what if it did? What if all the worst-case scenarios are true and we’re facing a digital apocalypse? What does that mean for our faith?

If a digital apocalypse weakens the Christian faith, it means that our hope is not in fact in God, and his power to work in the world; but rather our hope is in the book.

I think that this is where many of the Christians writing on this issue have gone; without noticing it, without realizing it. They’ve found another savior: Our faith will survive and triumph as long as we can keep people reading.

Actually, western culture as we know it will triumph as long as we can keep people reading. To conclude the same about Christianity means that, after all these years during which we should have learned better, we’re still equating the spread of the kingdom of God with the flourishing of western European culture.

Listen to this conclusion from Arthur Hunt:

The Middle Ages demonstrate that when a society lapses from the written word, the vultures of incivility and irrationality begin to circle overhead. It was true then, and it is true now. Likewise, New Testament Christianity faded, in part, because the word faded. If the spirit of the apostles were to revive, it would have to revive under a return to the word.

Do you see the parallels?

Middle Ages: no one reads; incivility and irrationality; Christianity fades.

Renaissance; people start reading, civility and reason spread; Christianity returns.

This is nonsense.

To start with, it equates New Testament Christianity with Reformation Christianity, which I think we should not do. But more seriously, it takes the “improving health” of a society, its absence of superstition and its rules of decorum, as proof that Christianity is gaining power.

That’s historically insupportable; it requires us, among other things, to conclude that people–humanity–were further away from God during the Middle Ages than during the Renaissance. That is a very weak argument, particularly since the rise of print was one of the primary engines that drove the secularization of modern nations.

But even more than that, this assertion that Christianity revived after the Middle Ages thanks to the printing press suggests that God had less power to communicate with man during times of widespread illiteracy.

Literacy’s a great thing. There was a tremendous amount of destructive superstition in the Middle Ages. There was magical thinking that led to massacres, burnings, pogroms. Widespread literacy put a big dent in those destructive superstitions (although it also brought us the French Revolution, where it was simply another class of people who got massacred).

Widespread literacy didn’t actually bring us closer to God; compare the preoccupations of the twelfth century with those of the eighteenth.

But that is what a “Christian exhortation” to hold on to print, to treasure it because that’s how God communicates with us, suggests. That literacy bridges that gap between us and God. We call this “another salvation.” A visible one, a tangible one. One we can do something to help out with.

Our creed says, “In the beginning is the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” But God is not word. To make him so ties his power to the extent of public literacy. It limits his ability to communicate with us, to work in human history; it limits his servants to those who have well-developed left brains.

I earlier quoted one of my cultural commentators as saying that “bulging left-brain muscles are an essential tool for understanding the Bible.” Maybe that’s true, although I wonder why God would reveal himself to all peoples, before the age of the printed book, in a manner that requires a print-inflated hyped-up left brain to understand the message. But I suspect that what that sentence really means is: bulging left-brain muscles are an essential tool for understanding God.

That is a conclusion we have too often come to.

In a debate with Camille Paglia over print verses television, Neil Postman made an assertion that many evangelical writers have echoed: that writing was the way God revealed himself because only writing could do him justice, because

unlike pictures or the oral tradition, the written word is a symbol system of a symbol, twice removed from reality and perfect for describing a God who is also far removed from reality: a nonphysical, abstract divinity.

I have enormous respect for Neil Postman and am a big a fan of his writings, even when I disagree with him, which is often. But there’s a certain theological tone-deafness in this assertion; I find it disturbing that a number of Christian thinkers have picked up on and used this as explanation for why words are better than images. God can best reveal himself in symbols which are twice removed from reality because he is an abstract divinity? No, actually; Christians worship a God who is thoroughly engaged in reality and who made himself flesh. Words are an important way in which he reveals himself, but to place his presence only in words is to remove him again, far, far from us.

The digital age has made us aware of something which perhaps we were not aware before. And this danger is not the disappearance of words. This danger is the idolatry of words.

On the flip side of imagophobia is grammatolatry: the giving over to the medium the power that rests in the message. Worshipping the words rather than the Word-giver, the creation rather than the created; there is also something about that in the Ten Commandments.

So am I saying we should stop complaining about the rising influence of digital culture and devaluation of the written word? Stop fighting for the book? Stop reading difficult books and teaching our children to do so?

Not at all. That brings us back to the first answer to my initial questions. As concerned members of society, should we continue to fight for the primacy of the word? Should we join Nicholas Carr and Maggie Jackson and Arthur Hunt and Ed Veith and Neil Postman in the “we’re going to hell-in-a-handbasket” chorus?

Sure, if you want to. Jump on the bandwagon. Knock yourself out.

I’m not convinced that our culture is heading for a totalitarian dark age, but I love books. I make my living with books; my entire professional career is dependent on people reading. I publish curricula to help people read and write better. It’s part of my calling. I don’t want it to become obsolete.

But I don’t think that if my calling becomes obsolete, God’s kingdom is in trouble.

What I have been trying to get across in this series is that there is no solid theological underpinning for resisting image-based culture–that, in the words of Ken Myers, the decline of reading, what he calls the “epidemic of aliteracy,” should be “deliberately and unapologetically resisted by Christians,” not because they are academics, or writers, or cultural conservatives, but primarily because they are Christians.

An image-based culture would be different than a print-based culture. Those of us who love print may fight the death of the book, because we love print, because we love books, because we see our livelihoods disappearing, because we miss grammatical sentences, because we get hives when our students keep mixing up its and it’s.

What we can never do is fight because we are Christians. The preservation of the book cannot be the banner we wave as we march into yet another holy war against our corrupt culture.

Those never end well.

Working passionately to avoid print, or working passionately to develop new image-based media are both legitimate passions for Christians–just as Christians in the U.S. can feel strongly that if Republicans get hold of Congress, our country is in real social trouble, or that a Democratic leadership is going to be truly terrible for personal freedoms. Those are both convictions which our Christian faith must inform; and I think that one of the ways God works in this world is to give opposing social and cultural passions to different members of his flock.

But those passions are not at the center of our identities as Christians. At the center of our identity as Christians is the cross.

To the best of my knowledge, you can be a Christian Democrat or a Christian Republican. You can be a Christian and devoted to books. You can be a Christian and never read; before the printing press, when, contrary what many historians will tell you, God was alive and work in the world, many Christians were unable to read and yet were drawn to God, nurtured by a faithful Christian community and a priest.

And of course they were also nurtured by the Word of God, read aloud in the parish church. I repeat again: I am not saying that the Bible is unimportant, or that God’s choice to give us words is incidental, or that we should give up reading the Bible.

I am saying that a culture that does not choose to read as its primary method of getting information and exchanging ideas cannot be argued, on theological grounds (or really, on historical ones) to be less open to God’s power than one that does. Once again: Your average peasant, in the Middle Ages, did not have a clear doctrinal understanding of the Bible, because he didn’t have one. But neither did your average tradesman in the Age of Reason; he’d been reliably informed that it wasn’t necessary; he had his brain instead.

So what as Christians do we do, if we shouldn’t campaign for the preservation of the book? And what as Christians do we do if the gloomiest of predictions comes true and our culture spirals into some sort of social chaos?

We remind ourselves, to start with, that every culture dies. The death of any institution always seems like the end of the world to those who are heavily invested in it. But cultures, and nations, have risen and fallen again, and again, and again. Things have been bad before; they will be bad again; and when we ask ourselves, not: “What will God do if people stop reading?” but rather, “What do we do if it all falls apart?” it becomes much easier to find an answer. There’s one in 1 Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. that day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

That is what we do as the book dies.

We have, in the Scriptures (which, remember, I’m not suggesting that we stop reading) and also in our church communities, some very direct guidance about what it means to be holy and godly. We are directly exhorted to love each other, to put the needs of others above our own, to be faithful to each other, to be honest, truthful, peacemakers, patient, self-controlled.

We are also told to work out what else being godly means, in our own time and place, diligently and carefully and seriously.

There are aspects of digital culture that we should fight against, not because they are “not print” but because they are not godly:

The anonymity which allows us to lie and deceive each other;

The easy access to pornography which allows us to take part in the degredation, the use, the exploitation, of those with less power, and which poisons our own relationships;

The overwhelming encouragement to spend and spend and spend. (Nobody ever talks about the demonic aspects of that “one click” button.)

None of these temptations, in their essences, are new: deception, lust, greed. Our call is to respond, in whatever culture we find ourselves, as a people of God. And as much as I love to read and write, I do not see liking books as making it into the list of what it means to be godly. Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets when challenged, like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the secnd is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Interestingly, the second commandment doesn’t make it onto that list; nor does “Knowing how to understand and handle the written word.”

I think many of us have fallen into a trap: we have identified the evil of our culture not as sin (which is also inside us), but as digitalization (which is conveniently external), and now we can begin to fix it. We can campaign for the preservation of the Book.

This is reliance on a savior which is not Christ.

As people of God, in an age of speedy instanteous communication and overwhelming information, how do we think about images and words? As creations which need to be redeemed.

This series has been trying to do something which may be impossible: to encourage you to loosen your fingers on the idea that good Christians read without also saying that the primary thing we read–the Scripture–is unimportant.

But I think when we recognize that salvation is not found in words, there is also a certain relief that always accompanies the letting go of an idol. Idols are tiring. We expect them to solve our problems and then we set about making that happen, and it’s grim and hard and frustrating.

In The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy writes,

The American Christian novelist faces a peculiar dilemma today….His dilemma is that though he professes a belief which he holds saves himself and the world and nourishes his art besides, it is also true that Christendom seems in some sense to have failed. Its vocabulary is worn out. This twin failure raises problems for a man who is a Christian and whose trade is with words. The old words of grace are smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in…

If our salvation is in words, we have a hard road in front of us. Words, like all created things, wear out, change meaning, and lose their efficacy. It is only Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever; only the living Word who actually causes us to hear and to understand, and to follow.

Posted in Reflections on education | 14 Comments

III. Wrong assumptions

Be sure to read Part I and Part II.

So is the medium the message?
And is image inferior to word?

Let’s start with “The medium is the message.”

It ought to be impossible for a Christian, I think, to look back at the history of the Scriptures and still hold to this. Today, we have multiple Bibles and an enormous print culture that supports and surrounds these printed Bibles. This is the medium we’re protecting: the printed book. This is the culture we’re protecting: the one in which reading has been normative, the ready accessibility of cheap books a given.

When we plead for its preservation, we’re pleading for a culture that was born in 1456, when Gutenberg’s first Bible came off the press.

For some reason, this is largely ignored in many of the arguments based on McLuhan’s assertion that the medium is the message. The medium in which we now experience the “Word of God” is not the medium in which it was originally given–by any reckoning. In fact, we’re at least three media stages away from anything that could be identified as a medium that God chose in the revelation of his word; and each change in medium has significantly shifted the way that we think.

Let’s start with that 1456 shift. There were at least three major cultural innovations brought about by the printing press (and for this I’m indebted to Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print).

Gutenberg’s printing press, write Sawday and Rhodes brought into existence “a new world–a paperworld…This paperworld was a world of the imagination and the intellect rather than a geography of curious beasts, peoples, and plants.” In this new paperworld, first:

The book “was now a commodity, rather than (as in the manuscript world which the printing press helped to supplant) an exclusive, crafted object.” Before the press, purchasing a book was an individual negotiation over form, binding, quality and kind with a book-maker. The book was a devotional object, or a symbol of wealth; something designed, planned for, saved for. The press made it possible to “produce almost flawless replicas of a given text over and over again.” The result: the book became an intellectual tool, the almost invisible carrier of an argument, an abstraction. “The book.”


Humanity was given a brand-new occupation: reading. An extremely specialized and uncommon skill now became a pastime. For the first time in history, reading for instruction, for information, for devotion, for pleasure, became a possibility. For the first time.


The availability of multiple affordable books destroyed the human connection between reader and bookmaker; books were no longer the result of personal transaction between two people. Books were produced for a new class of beings: “the readers.” This I find particularly interesting: This new class of beings, “the readers,” made possible a whole new social structure: a place of impersonal debate, of ideas entirely disconnected from their originators, of a reading public receiving those ideas with no sense of the personalities, the human matrix, from which those ideas came.

The best possible illustration of this change is, of course, Martin Luther’s Theses, which he first put into a private letter to his local archbishop, and which were then, in handwritten form, circulated for academic debate among the members of the faculty at the University of Wittenberg–his community, his colleagues. Let me quote now directly, although in slightly condensed form, from The Renaissance Computer: “Luther had…initiated a public debate, but one that would be conducted according to the customary rites of scholastic disputation, in which an oral mode of address predominated. But the very existence of the printing presses was to transform the debate in ways that Luther could never have anticipated….copies of the Theses …were soon being issued from Leipzig, Magdeburg, Nuremberg, and Basle….which prompted Luther, in March 1518, to write to a friend…‘I did not wish to have them…widely circulated. I only intended submitting them to a few learned men for examination, and if they disapproved of them, to suppress them….But now they are being spread abroad and translated everywhere, which I never could have credited, so that I regret having given birth to them…’”

This printworld was drastically different from what came before. It would be very easy to make an argument that the shift of 1456 was as extreme as the shift which is now facing us.

And yet the word of God, which predated the shift, survived. Despite the obsolescence of the medium into which it was originally given.

I won’t take the time to trace similar changes in detail all the way back to writing of the New Testament books, let alone the books of the Hebrew Bible. But here’s a partial timeline.

The medium changed drastically in 1456, when the Bible was printed on the printing press and the printed book replaced the codex.

The medium changed drastically between the first and fourth centuries, when the codex replaced the scroll, thus allowing the reader to open a text at any point, rather than being forced to begin at the beginning; thus allowing the reader to pick his own starting point and fragmenting the unity of the written word.

The medium changed drastically between the third and first millennia BC, when parchment and papyrus scrolls replaced tablets of clay and stone, allowing writers to rattle on at much greater length, abandoning the concision forced by the difficulty of carving each letter into a resistance surface.

And I haven’t even addressed the issue of translation.

The history of the written word tell us that we cannot uncritically accept McLuhan’s pronouncement that the medium is the message. The ways in which words have been written and then transmitted have changed again, and again, and again, significantly.

If the medium is the message, the message of the Word of God is inaccessible to us already. Long before the Internet, the medium had already drastically changed from its original form–so drastically that the message of the Word was lost.

What’s my conclusion?

We cannot, thinking as Christians, conclude that the medium is the message. We can certainly say that the medium affects the message. But if we believe in a divinely inspired message, we have to turn the pronouncement around on McLuhan. We have to insist that the message also changes the medium.

Think about the Incarnation. The Word became flesh, which you’d think would be much more destructive to the message than the Word going digital (talk about a powerful medium). And yes, the medium of the flesh did shape the message of the Word. Yet at the same time, the message transformed the medium; the divine Word brought to the flesh the possibility of resurrection. It made it possible for the body, not just that of Christ but all of us, to become, in time, immortal. It transformed the entire medium, forever.

So the first assumption, I think, must be challenged: The message is not the medium.

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but despite all those changes in medium, we were still dealing with writing. Maybe digital culture won’t distort the message too much as long as it’s still transmitting words.

But although there are words on web pages and in instant messages and even, lo, on Facebook, the words are secondary and are increasingly supplanted by images. And images cannot convey truth in the same way that words do. Images are inferior.

Shouldn’t we go on worrying about that?

The theological argument about the inferiority of images is most often grounded in the Old Testament, and usually in the giving of the Ten Commandments. Both Jacques Ellul (in The Humiliation of the Word) and Neil Postman (in Amusing Ourselves to Death and elsewhere) see the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below,” as expressing the inadequacy of the visual to represent truth. Ellul writes that that images can never give truth about God because they are too closely tied to fallen reality; that only words can express truth about a divinity who is invisible and free of the created order. Postman makes a more general conclusion: that the command shows “a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture,” and that God’s intent was that his people form a word-centered culture which would be better, ethically better, because it was word-focused.

Ellul’s argument is considerably more theologically informed than Postman’s, and insofar as he is talking about the ways in which we use images of God in particular, I’ve got no quarrel with him.

The problem comes when we take this as a general condemnation of all image-centered culture–and as an implication that an image-centered culture is, by its nature, incapable of understanding who God is.

This possibility, that images will draw us away from being able to understand God, fuels much contemporary Christian fear of images. Philip Ryken, in Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, quotes Postman and concludes that God “does not want us to look, but to listen…What the image always wants to do in worship is to distract us from hearing the Word.” Gene Edward Veith tells us that paganism is always image-centered, but that Christianity always prioritizes words. Arthur Hunt warns that “the “image always humiliates the word, always tries to exalt itself above the other, must have the attention.”

This is a fear not only of images, but of what might happen to any culture that delights in them.

My colleague Ted Turnau calls this “imagaphobia” and points out that it gives all the power to the media, ascribing to it an almost demonic ability to change us every time we encounter it. Imagaphobia pays no attention to the ways in which the images are used, their historical and social contexts, the choices and intentions of the consumers, and many other factors.

And that’s the central problem with using the Ten Commandments to conclude that God likes words and dislikes images: you have to ignore a good bit of the historical and social context of the commands. The Israelites were not to make images of God because that’s what they’d always done before. Those images would encourage them to think of God as a bigger and more useful version of the gods they already knew. And God was something else entirely. They had to learn to think of him in an entirely new way.

But that doesn’t mean that images are somehow intrinsically more corrupt than words.

In fact there is an equally strong prohibition in the Ten Commandments against using words about God incorrectly, in the way that they’d always used words about the gods before: Do not use the most important words about God–his name–in vain, as you would the name of any other god. This too would have allowed the Israelites to go on thinking about God as a supersized version of the local deities.

God is different. Thus both words and images revealing truth about him must be treated with enormous care.

Now there is, of course, a vastly old and complicated argument still going on about visual depictions of God; I am not here entering into that argument. Nor am I saying that the word of God is not important, that the Scriptures would be the same if it were a book of pictures.

What I am rejecting is the claim, made on theological grounds, that a culture which is primarily visual in its other communications will be rendered incapable of understanding the Word of God.

To take the Second Commandment as a general assertion about the corruptness of the visual is to yank it out of its historical context completely and thus to empty it of its real meaning in the time and place in which it was given. And I am not the first person to point out that this interpretation of the Second Commandment makes nonsense of the the immense visuality of the Tabernacle–of the images of sacrifice, redemption, mercy, grace, punishment placed into that Tabernacle without accompanying explanation in words.

Both of these underlying assumptions–about images, and about the power of the medium–have been more or less uncritically accepted by too many Christian commentators writing on these issues.

Both have supported the Christian tendency to say that we must be a print-centered society in order for God’s word to be effective. That when reading fades, Christianity fades. That when the book loses its premier place in our culture, the truths of Christianity will become obscure and little known.

Both deserve serious rethinking. Both of them have been taken as obviously true.

Neither one is.

So are there reasons to worry about the rise of right-brain culture? Should we continue to fight for the primacy of words?

Stay tuned for the conclusion…

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Disappearing Words, Part II: What exactly are we worried about?

Be sure to read Part I first!

Let’s tackle the first question first: What, exactly, are we worried about?

I can sum it up in five words: the rise of digital culture.

(It always helps to define our terms: A digital culture is one in which the primary means of communication has shifted from the physical–meaning printed books and, to some extent, face to face communication–to the electronic.)

Critics of digital culture see all sorts of negative implications in this shift, for the future of human interaction as well as for the health of our brains. I’m not going to tackle the future of human interaction in this particular essay (although I’ll deal with it in a later one). Instead, I want to focus in on this shift from the printed to the electronic word. Why are so many people worried about the possible disappearance of the printed word?

Or, to put it another way: What do we think is going to happen, should the book become obsolete?

This is harder to pinpoint than you might think. Extensive trolling among all of the books I’m mentioned and quite a few more, not to mention blogs, print articles, online articles, and a poll of my university colleagues produces the following laundry list.

Should the printed word disappear, replaced by electronic transmission of our thoughts and ideas:

We will not be able to concentrate for long periods of time because our attention spans will adapt to screen-sized bits of information.

We will not be able to think logically and sequentially because we’ll be so accustomed to processing multiple bits of information simultaneously in all directions.

We will be unable to think deeply because we’ll be so swamped by the sheer amount of information poured down on us; we’ll have to think in a shallow but broad manner just to stay afloat in it.

The flood of images, as opposed to words, will make our minds passive receptors rather than energetic producers of information and creativity.

We will no longer be able to discuss ideas in a linear and logical fashion.

We will be ruled by emotion and sensation rather than by reason and intellect.

We will find stimulation only in entertainment and in pleasure, rather than in the exchange of thoughts.

Rational discourse will disappear.

Now, if you do history–and particularly if you do world history, which is what I’ve been doing for the past six years–you’ve seen lists like this before, predicting the end of everything that is good about civilization, and blaming the approaching disaster on everything from sunspots to the Persians.

On the other hand, let’s not dismiss this as simply one more prediction of disaster. Because on close examination of these fears, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a laundry list. Taken together, these point to a real phenomenon: The culture that’s emerging isn’t simply digital. It is a right-brain culture. In other words, it’s not just the printed word that’s in danger of being supplanted, but an entire way of thinking.

This endangered way of thinking is summed up by a recent book by Daniel Pink called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink points out that (as you probably know) the left hemisphere of the brain tends to process information in a way that is “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytical,” while the right hemisphere tends to work in way that is “simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic.”

Our list of worries reveals that we are worried about losing logical, sequential, linear, rational thought; we are worried about it being supplanted by simultaneous, nonconsecutive, intuitive ways of thinking.

We are worried about the left brain of the West shriveling up while the right brain expands.

This, of course, is a metaphor. As Pink also points out, we use both sides of our brain, often simultaneously–which is how the brain was designed to work. We use both sides of our brain to read; we use both sides of our brain to watch TV or surf Websites. But when we read, particularly when we read print which is organized in book form, the left hemisphere is dominant; when we watch TV or surf, the right side is dominant.

A culture seems to be emerging in which the right brain, rather than the left, is in charge.

Is this a bad thing? Well, plenty of cultural critics think so. Their worries can be boiled down into two broad concerns, which might be paraphrased like this:

1. If the right brain takes over, we’ll lose everything that’s been developed over the past five hundred years.

As a western society, we tend to have a deep suspicion of the right brain and a deep love and respect for logic and sequential thinking.

We fear the devaluation of linear argument because we are afraid it will bring an end to cultural institutions that we treasure; libraries and university classrooms, as Maggie Jackson suggests in Distracted; democracy itself (and, by extension, capitalism) as Neil Postman suggests in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

We fear that without the left brain in charge, our very idea of what it means to be human will be lost. We will no longer have an independent sense of self, because we will become “ungrounded and fragmented,” as Doug Groothius puts it.

We fear that if reason and logic are devalued, we will be too stupified by the pleasure of right-brain existence to stir ourselves to social action, to empathy, to compassion.

The source of this worry is simple: Much of what we hold as valuable about western society–the democratic process, our sense of individual self, the ways in which we pursue science, our conception of ourselves as nations, our mode of education–could not have developed without the existence of the printed word.

The constant consumption of the printed word produced in us a certain kind of thinking. Neil Postman calls the mind which has been trained in this way of thinking the “typographic mind.” It is a a mind which can concentrate for long periods, and can sort through and analyze ideas which are expressed in complex sentences. The typographic mind was developed through constant reading. The typographic mind is rational, analytical, critical. “It is no accident,” Postman writes, “that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture.”

So if the printed word and print culture goes away, what happens to rationality, analysis, critical thinking?

They fade. We will essentially leave the age of reason. And the institutions developed by the typographic mind during the Age of Reason may well crumble.

This why the projected “world without print,” the possible future without books, is so often referred to as a “coming dark age” or “second dark age.” The world before printing was in a “dark age”; without print, we’ll return to that world and to that mind.

That dire prediction has been made by any number of cultural critics, both with and without faith commitments; you don’t have to belong to a “people of the book” to worry about what will happen when the right brain takes over.

But there’s a second reason why Christians, particularly Protestant Christians, perhaps, particularly, North American Protestant Christians worry.

2. Our faith is anchored in the written word, so…

In my last post, I quoted author Shane Hipps, who wrote, “Protestant Christianity is a by-product of…the printed Bible….How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.” Not long afterwards, he adds:

“The Bible is an extraordinarily demanding library of books….The books were born in civilizations and cultures alien to us, and the assumptions and attitudes of the original authors often escape us entirely. In many cases, excavating meaning requires the fortitude, patience, and discipline of an archaeological dig. In other words, bulging left-brain muscles are an essential tool for understanding the Bible.”

That is a perfect encapsulation of the argument that so many Christian critics of contemporary culture take. The argument sounds like this:

Our faith is grounded in the written word of God.

We are losing the ability to comprehend the written word as well as we used to.

If we cannot comprehend the written word, we will not be able to comprehend God’s word.

Our faith will have no grounding.

Therefore, we must protect the book and resist the rise of digital culture. To do so is to protect the truth of Christianity itself. As Doug Groothius puts it: “When, in any culture, written language is marginalized…biblical truth begins to lose its vibrancy. Christians must restore the primacy and power of the Word as an antidote to truth decay…”

In my next post but one, I’ll address that first worry–the one about losing five hundred years of western civilization and entering into a new dark age. But before I do, I want to examine this second worry, which is peculiar to so many contemporary Christians: that if the printed book loses its priority in our culture, the word of God will lose its power; that if people stop reading, truth will decay.

That worry is based on two underlying assumptions.

The first assumption: Marshall McLuhan was right. “The medium is the message,” and therefore if the medium changes, from print to digital, the message will be distorted and irretrievably lost. God chose writing as the medium for his message; therefore, that medium cannot change, and we must protect it.

The second assumption: that words are intrinsically superior to images; that God chose writing over images to give truth to his people because while words are capable of carrying truth, visual stimulation is seductive and ultimately deceptive.

Both of those assumptions are wrong.

Read Part III now.

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Disappearing Words, Part I: The Bad News

Apparently the book is dying. Again.

This should not surprise anyone who’s paid even the slightest bit of attention to…books. In the last ten years, and at an increasing pace, book after book has come out, predicting the death of the printed word and predicting that cultural collapse will follow.

This is, clearly, bad news for those of us who make our living with books.

The bad news follows, for the most part, a trajectory mapped out by Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media, Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, published the same year and Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. The points on the trajectory go something like this:

All content–every message–is not only affected but changed by the way in which it is delivered–by the medium (so that a message delivered in speech is a different message than one delivered in print, and a message delivered in print is different than one delivered electronically.)

The medium has its own agenda, and that agenda comes through, no matter what other message the medium is supposed to be conveying. In other words: the medium is the message, words originally written by Marshall McLuhan and repeated by everyone who’s written about the death of the book in the last ten years.

Media (being messages themselves) change the way we think. As we use new media, our entire thought processes shift. We begin to think differently. When we read books we think one way. When we browse websites or send instant messages, we think another way. Even though we’re still using words, the medium in which those words are transmitted has changed–and therefore, so has the message.

When we begin to think differently, we begin to act differently. Cultural norms shift. Cultural practices shift. The media changes who we are.

The first great shift in media was from an oral culture to a print culture. Print was once the new technology. When we shifted from an oral culture to a print culture, we changed.

In this change, some good things were lost–because every advance in technology brings both benefits and disadvantages. But on the whole, the good outweighed the bad.

Now we are facing a new great shift in media–from a print culture to a digital culture. This too will change us.

And (say the critics) that is a very, very, bad thing indeed, because it will make us a violent, distracted, ignorant people, easily manipulated, drowning in trivialities and susceptible to totalitarianism.

You can actually see this conclusion without even reading the books, should your attention span already have been destroyed. All you have to do is scan the titles. How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society; Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age; The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young American and Jeopardizes our Future; The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, that last being a book-length version of an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The alarmist tone of these books is, partly, a rhetorical device. Neil Postman articulates this strategy most clearly: he says that the technophiles, the enthusiasts who see the digital culture as purely good and the technologies that support it as completely benign, are so loudly enthusiastic that those who want to point out the disadvantages–those things which are being lost– “must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch” simply in order to be heard.

This has certainly been achieved; not only by the titles I mention but by others written by Christian thinkers, from a self-consciously Christian perspective, who are attempting to understand how these changes will affect the Christian church. Among them: The Electronic Golden Calf; Truth Decay; The Vanishing Word.

But the tone of pending apocalypse (and I am not kidding when I say “apocalypse”–to just pick one quote out of many that I could offer you, try this one from The Vanishing Word: “We are all in danger of becoming pagans. Not just pagans, but mindless and defenseless pagans who would prefer to have someone tell us how to think and behave”)–the tone of pending apocalypse is not just rhetorical. There is real fear here. And not just from those whose rhetoric the most extreme, but also in the arguments of Christian thinkers who have consciously tried to take a more balanced route; I think of Flickering Pixels, by Shane Hipps, or Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart, both of which take the stance, “There are some good things in digital culture, some not-so-good, let’s sort them out.” Even in such approaches there is an unmistakable whiff of apprehension, an undercurrent of: We’re in real trouble here.

And an even stronger whiff of: Christians, and particularly Protestant Christians, are in more trouble than anyone else. As Shane Hipps writes: “Protestant Christianity is a by-product of a single medium–the printed Bible….How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.”

I’m not here actually going to grapple with whether or not the book, in its present form, will become obsolete. For one thing, that involves predicting the future; I am a historian. For another, plenty of trees have already died in that cause. For a third, I’m not sure that, should the book be dying, anything we do will change that–any more than the resistance of the weavers in Jacobean England prevented the arrival of mechanized looms. More on the topic of “what do we do about it” later.

What I want to address now is the point of view expressed in that quote: “How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.”

Christians, particularly Protestant Christians, are Bible-centered. We put our faith in a creed that begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

So what does it mean for us that “words” are going through a major shift? What does it mean to us that the written word is going digital? What happens to the word of God if people stop reading books? What does it mean for our faith? How do we react? What do we do?

It is clearly impossible for me to explore every important facet of this issue. But here, I want to try answer three questions about the possible death of the book.

First: What, exactly, are we worried about?

Second: Why are we worried about it?

And then, third:

What should we do?

Read Part II now

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