A High pH

Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)
Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)

Once upon a time a ring from the wall telephone signified a crisis of some sort if it occurred outside of certain times. We just never thought to call anyone early in the morning, during dinner, or late at night. We stayed outside the boundaries of each other’s private spaces until such time as it was polite to knock. Not that stuff didn’t spill over from time to time – that couple fighting in the courtyard of the apartment complex was hard to ignore. But the boundaries were clear and the spillage said things about the emotional health of the couple that went beyond the obscenities they were shouting at each other.

Something has happened to the boundaries. We’re in each other’s private spaces in a way most of us would have found intolerable a couple of decades ago. Cell phones were involved somehow but it is difficult to say whether they are a cause or a marker.

My first cell phone stayed in my car. It was a foot-long “bag phone” that needed frequent charging from the cigarette lighter plug. I acquired it second-hand but it was expensive to operate and was used only for work. Even the original hand-held phones didn’t intrude much into our personal spaces. That obnoxious businessman at the next table with the original Motorola brick was an aberration.

This changed when the device shrank to it fit in my pocket.  Now cell phones showed up everywhere, like the movie theater, the car in front of you in the traffic jam, and pretty much every public space you can think of, as well as a fair number of formerly private spaces.  Messaging was added and then email.  Then we graduated to having the Internet in the palm of our hands and the relative cost has fallen so much that keeping the old residential telephone is a waste of money. In a post at Rough Type , Nicholas Carr observes that the smartphone is cooking all of our media down into a “singularity.” It is dissolving the boundaries between our music, books, news, and pretty much everything else and condensing it all into one space that fixates our attention in the palm of our hand.

The smartphone seems to be dissolving more than just differentiations between media. Somewhere in its development this little device acquired a very high social pH. Corrosive substances can be extremely useful in the proper place, such as the sulfuric acid in your car battery. But they are a problem on your clothes and hands.

We have spilled the smartphone on our bare skin. It is an extremely useful device, but one which we seem to have no sense of how to use.  It seems to be obliterating the separations between our personal, work, and social spaces. Couples are messaging other people when out at dinner together.  Employers and employees are emailing during non-work hours and days.  Acquaintances are messaging each other at times we used to consider phone calls rude. And a failure to respond causes anxiety in the recipient and sometimes consequences from the sender.

We are losing our sense of what is appropriate to say to whom, and when it is appropriate to say it. And we have lost some ready reference points for where you end and I begin.

Enough for Troubled Guests

My problem has never been believing that God is. It's been believing that he gives a flying chimpanzee turd about humanity in general and me in particular.

Last night I went to a local church to see "We Are Not Troubled Guests." This is a one-man play by artist Scott Erickson in which he describes an eclectic personal stew of doubt, despair and faith. Anyone who knows me will tell you it's not the way I normally interact with the world. But the relational (and often raw) way in which he presents got me engaged with the play.

Erickson sets up his doubt with in-your-face video clips of prominent atheists who view faith as believing in God without good evidence. The clips caricature faith as wishful thinking. Unfortunately much of the Church is guilty as charged with our simplistic attempts to explain "…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1)." In my opinion there IS good evidence. Poke around the hard, rocky strata of first and second century documents in their cultural and historical context in the classical world and you will find it. The problem is not the evidence. It's the stuff with which the evidence is entangled.

Erickson cites his "least favorite story" in the New Testament in which Jesus is sleeping the stern of a storm-tossed boat which he shares with experienced but terrified fishermen (Mark 4:35ff). Scott weaves this into his very personal navigation of doubt.

I will call Erickson's story and raise him one. Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick (John 11:1-44). From my point of view, he fiddle farts around for two days before going to Bethany to see his friend who dies during the delay. The disciples by this time have seen a bit of the people who want to kill their teacher. Thomas, in particular, has gotten a little fatalistic about the whole thing. I completely get Mary and Martha's distress on his arrival. Where have you been?

Most of us don't like to engage at an honest level with this question. We smear God's sovereignty and Romans 8:28 around on hurting people like some topical anesthetic. Let me provide clarity by scaling the problem up for you. Lord, if you had been here, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin would not have killed all those people.

Jesus' response to Martha and Mary was not to intervene in the inevitable progression of what was going on with their brother. He was clearly capable of intervening and everyone knew it. His response was rather to do something entirely different, something that was to be recast and scaled up to answer infinitely greater evil and suffering.

As a Christian I really do believe something quite foolish. That Jesus entered space and time, lived among us, allowed us to torture and kill him, and then cast aside death. He didn't do this to fix our bad stuff, but to meet us in the midst of that bad stuff with a promise to ultimately transform us.

The question of faith is really the question of is this enough?

Writing Without Spaces

I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.

The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:

“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”

But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.

Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.

The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.

*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.