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.