Technology, Time and Sabbath

In evangelical circles, Philip Yancey is known for The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? Here, in the Washington Post, he writes about the decline of reading – yours, mine, ours:

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life…

My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (Okay, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.

The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Yancey’s lament makes use of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, which drew on neuroscience to make a similar point. Both Carr and Yancey echo the conclusions of many working on technology and society: notably MIT’s Sherry Terkle and NYU’s Clay Shirky.

There is, of course, a contradictory quality to all such techno-jeremiads. Yancey writes his on a blog, not in a book. And I too write this in the expectation that it will appear on your screen.

Yet accusations of hypocrisy miss the point. Properly understood (and I don’t think Yancey makes this very clear), it’s not technology that worries him. It’s the way we use our time.

Technology exacerbated – but did not create – the “culture of distraction.” Sociologist Frank Furedi made this point a few years ago:

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the construction of a causal connection between reading and a temporal shortening of attention was integral to a critique of adult reading habits of popular fiction. Alarmist accounts about the loss of attention and concentration sought to illustrate their concern by pointing to the reduction in the size of the British novel. The demise of the three-volume novel in 1894 was blamed on a reading public who supposedly lacked the cognitive abilities necessary for their consumption. At the turn of the 20th century, the problem of attention deficit was blamed not on the internet but on the quick-fix sensations offered by easy-to-digest publications.

Anxieties over collective inattention date back further still. For centuries, practitioners of meditation, prayer, contemplative silence,  and ecstatic dance and chant have claimed to build resistance against compulsive distraction and death-by-inattention. The word contemplative itself can exist only because we need – and have always needed – a vocabulary that acknowledges the difference between heightened awareness and the lesser consciousness fragmented in its daily encounters with the “madding crowd.”

Against the assault of the ephemeral, we have always found ways to sequester the self.

I am surprised that Yancey, a Christian, does not mention one of the oldest of sequestrations, the Sabbath. The Jewish Shabbat prohibits all work, a concept extended by rabbis to include lighting a fire, carrying one’s possessions or, more recently, traveling by car and answering a phone. Jewish law is by no means universal Jewish practice: there are many exceptions, contradictions, and interpretations. The same is true, broadly speaking, of the behavior of Christians and Muslims toward the day of rest.

Yet Muslims, Christians, and Jews have at least debated the issue. As society has become increasingly secular (and, to be clear, I am decidedly secular), we have retreated from such discussion.

It is this retreat, not technology, which explains our current predicament.

Yet there is a secular tradition that might strengthen us, if we willed ourselves to pursue it. It is to be found in the long pensive strides of John Muir and Walt Whitman as they walked through solitary landscapes. Exiles from distraction, Muir and Whitman were neither unsociable nor unused to city life. Yet, in their walking, they made their own sabbaths.

I admire the poet Wendell Berry, who for decades has often kept himself to himself, not just on Sundays, but on all days. In “Sabbaths VIII” he writes:

The question before me, now that I
am old, is not how to be dead,
which I know from enough practice,
but how to be alive, as the worn
hill still tell, and some paintings
of Paul Cezanne, and this mere
singing wren, who thinks he’s alive
forever, this instant, and may be.

Jews personify Shabbat as a Queen, Shabbat HaMalka. She embodies shekhinah, the abiding spirit of the Lord. Walking with her on a day or in an hour of our own choosing is to become like Berry’s wren, learning to be alive forever this instant.

And, perhaps, succeeding.


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