There is this scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Jack Sparrow tells Will Turner his father was a pirate.
Will experiences a bit of cognitive dissonance with the revelation. This is not what he thought his father to be. He reacts by drawing his sword and Jack responds by knocking Will off his feet with an adroit flip of a sail boom. Will finds himself dangling over water with Jack now holding Will’s sword. Jack proceeds to educate him: “…the only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.”
Jack expands his meaning to include will and won’t when he asks his captive audience, “…can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?” The idea being that squaring with the world as it exists is a matter of intent.
Unfortunately this is usually not easy in real life. We come equipped with robust facilities for self-deception to avoid engaging with unpleasant discoveries. Most of what we believe we either absorb from those around us, or develop as a result of intuitions or exposure to events with emotional content. And when confronted with contrary ideas we tend to back-fill our beliefs with information and reasoning to support holding them.
In “I told me so” Gregg A. Ten Elshof identifies this as rationalization and describes it as “…the most recognizable of our strategies for self-deception.” Elshof defines the process as constructing “…a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way.”* It doesn’t follow that a belief is wrong if arrived at through gut intuitions. But as Elshof comments we’re very reluctant to admit that as a basis and feel compelled to come up with reinforcing justifications.
Which is a problem if the belief actually is wrong — rationalization packages a powerful urge to create a false context to support the false belief. Such as a father being a law-abiding merchant sailor instead of a pirate, contrary facts notwithstanding. In Will’s case the contrary facts included a gold medallion with a skull on one side. A major theme in the movie is Will’s struggle to engage with those contrary facts.
Jack’s speech is a good personal reminder. I’ve worked for a couple of large organizations – on more than one occasion in my career history I’ve been yanked out of one project and dropped in another. The process is uncomfortable, particularly when there is a gut-level sense of personal investment. It’s hard not to back-fill that with reasons as to why what I’m suddenly not doing is still relevant to the broader organization.
But adapting to the changes comes far more quickly if I am properly engaged with practical realities rather than avoiding them.
*Elshof, Gregg. (2009). I told me so: Self-deception and the Christian life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. (p. 54. Kindle Edition).
There is this difficult story in Matthew’s Gospel about a slave who owed a staggering sum of money – something probably in the neighborhood of sixteen years wages for a worker of the time. The king to whom the debt was owed put the ledger into the shredder and forgave the account. But the slave then promptly imprisoned a fellow who owed him about three month’s pay – a much shorter ledger. The king’s reaction to this was to turn the slave over to torturers to (literally) take the forgiven debt out of the man’s hide.
This notion of trapping myself with the debts I insist on collecting turns up elsewhere. It’s in the Lord’s prayer and is not some aberration in Jesus’ teaching. I am unable to avail myself of the grace of God because I cannot extend grace to others. The death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be good enough to reconcile God and man. But for some reason it’s not good enough for reconciliation between me and other brothers and sisters.
There is no way for that fellow slave to ever pay back the three months wages. And the fact that I had to hunt him down is what was really galling. He did not come to me. My suspicion is that the debt would never have even been acknowledged until the debtor was cornered and begging. But now that I’ve somehow gotten the upper hand I am not inclined to show mercy until all the debt on the list is accounted for.
Shredding a list does not mean that there are no boundaries set to fence off someone else’s dangerous or destructive behavior. Spouses are not obligated to live with abusers and addicts.
Rather, destroying a list is about forgoing the desire that the other person to “pay up” in some fashion. If not to make it right, to at least acknowledge the debt, particularly the real injury that may have been done. Letting go of the record of debt is essential to reconciliation. But keeping such records is lethally poisonous to personal relationships.
Except that the list is only toxic enough to mostly kill them. There are people we know and may have once been friends with that we would rather never see again. Unfortunately the relationships are still twitching and mobile because the memories and chance encounters still hurt. Those personal connections have become animated corpses and it doesn’t matter how many times we hit the zombies with the shovel. They just keep coming. Such walking dead things cannot be “healed.” We’ve successfully trapped them on the wrong side of the resurrection.
Jesus gave outsiders the right to judge the credibility of Christian witness by how we treat each other. Unfortunately the broader culture doesn’t find anything particularly attractive about some of our rotting relationships. The resurrection is about transformation. Those decayed things need transformation into something new.
But this won’t happen until we let go of what’s owed us, and the lists we keep go into the shredder.
This past summer my wife and I were camping by ourselves – our grown children had visited and left so we had a couple of nights alone. We like to sit by a campfire but unusually dry weather dictated a burn ban, which relegated us to sitting and reading by a pair of lanterns on a picnic table. Then a dragonfly appeared from the darkness and started to clatter between the lanterns. It didn’t actually make contact with the glass like fluttering moths often do. It buzzed back and forth, sporadically landing on mugs and pans, and other bits of camp clutter.
I happen to like dragonflies. Their ability to hover motionless except for the nearly invisible whir of their wings has always fascinated me. I am told they can bite but that’s never been my experience. I attempted to capture the insect with a pair of cupped hands and take it out in the brush, away from the light. As my children will tell you I lack the hand-eye coordination to actually pull that off.
My wife retreated to our tent trailer, away from the ruckus. She was not a fan of the large bug. I gave up on the rescue attempt and returned to my book.
Then the dragonfly landed on the end of my nose. It didn’t hurt, but their legs have a claw at the end and there was a definite sensation of being grappled. And they appear quite large when viewed from so close.
I was startled. I sat up abruptly and the insect zipped back to darting between the lanterns. I finally trapped the beastie under a plastic bowl and successfully escorted it out of our camp. If it survived the night it could resume hunting other insects in the daylight.
Some months ago we were dislodged from our moorings in a faith community that we had been committed to for nearly thirty years. Since that point I feel like I have been rattling back and forth between various churches – a bit like the dragonfly I rescued.
Somewhere during the last couple decades the bartenders in the mainstream entertainment business slipped over a line. Sexual themes once seemed to be served up to be sipped in glasses of art (admittedly often in poor taste). Now they come straight up as shots of one hundred and fifty-one proof exploitation. A recent Time Magazine post describes criticism of HBO for a contract that requires extras in the “Westworld” series to consent to sexual contact on camera, including “genital-to-genital” touching.
Once upon a time we had to sneak off to imbibe this in seedy windowless “gentlemen’s clubs” in shabby districts of big cities. Now subscription TV and the Internet will provide the swill on tap right in our homes – and garner critical awards in the process.
As I said when I commented on Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey this is not about art. It is about our insistence that in the name of art we expect the participants in a production to violate boundaries, ones that should only be crossed in private, within healthy adult relationships.
So we can pay to watch those boundary violations.
We want to teach young adults to appropriately navigate issues of consent regarding their personal boundaries. But the machinery of the entertainment industry just seems to ride right up and over top of that.
Protestants have been dividing from one another pretty much continuously since Luther’s excommunication. Before your next disagreement with another Christian I would like to suggest trying an experiment:
Pick an issue over which Christians divide. It doesn’t matter which one.
Pick a book of the New Testament that contains verses addressing your view of the controversy.
Find a public domain version of the Bible online and copy the book into a word processor, or better yet a plain text editor.
Use “find and replace” to remove all the punctuation, numbers (chapter and verse marks), and all the spaces between the words.
For good measure remove the paragraphs.
Now try to read it.
This is an approximation of scriptio continua, the normal mode of writing used in classical Greek and late classical Roman texts. It is also found in early manuscripts of the New Testament.
The original form of these texts may have implication for how we read them today. Some time ago I was introduced to the idea that our communications media affects the physical structure of how our brains work. There is a very good chance that our brains function a bit differently from the writers and readers of ancient texts.
We are awash in print. Books emails, text messages, tweets, news pages, magazines, captions – we see it everywhere but we really don’t see it. Reading happens below our level of conscious thought. This flood of text that started with the printing press has completely saturated us with the advent of electronic media.
It wasn’t always so. The mechanics and logistics of reading and writing in the ancient world presented a far different environment. There was far less of it. The composition format in the ancient world would make writing laborious and persistent media (parchment and papyrus) was labor-intensive and costly to produce.
And the process reading/writing was hard work. If you doubt that just try the experiment I described above. Or follow this link.
If you were literate, which wasn’t likely, you probably didn’t do that much reading and writing unless your occupation demanded it. And you probably read aloud. Silent reading is extremely difficult without spaces between words. And if you had sufficient means, there is a good chance that a literate slave did a fair bit of your reading for you. After all, slaves did most of your other menial stuff.
Occupational literacy did demand some personal reading and writing and utilitarian texts appear predominate in archeological finds. Literary texts comprise only about 10% of the papyri excavated from the ancient garbage dumps at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, following their discovery at the end of the 19th century. The rest are government and private records and correspondence. They include “…codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters.”
Reading and writing seems to have been tools of practical communication in a primarily oral culture, rather than mechanisms of the information saturation we experience in the present day. What was spoken seems dominate what was what was written.
This orality appears also to extend to those who would be considered literate in a modern sense. Pliny the Younger described (his uncle) Pliny the Elder’s study habits as including the use of a reader. His uncle would listen while taking notes (Letters 3.5). The passage describes the reading as out loud, so presumably some silent reading was known. But that was clearly not his uncle’s preferred way of interacting with the text.
Some years ago in an attempt to step outside of my own thinking on the matter of origins I read (most of) The Literal Meaning of Genesis, by Augustine of Hippo. It took weeks to read – the struggle was something of a surprise, having read much longer books by 19th century authors. I also started but never finished City of God – I mostly just nibbled around the edges and never really digested the book.
Now I may know why. In the seventh century Irish scribes started inserting spaces between words and also started adding punctuation. Latin was a foreign language and this made it easier to read. Our ability to speak is innate. Reading and writing, however, are learned. The idea I was introduced to last fall is that the learning process creates new neural pathways in the brain. Which means that a brain that does not read will have not have the same pathways as one that has learned the skill. It is different. And spaces between words make that skill easier to master.
By making reading easier, spaces and punctuation made reading more efficient and possible to do far more of. More reading, more neural pathways. Spaces between words facilitated the development of a brain that is saturated in text, the way mine is. It has different neural pathways from one that is not.
To be clear I am not equating this difference with intelligence. I doubt very many of us could master extemporaneous oral composition in the way that was expected in ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient orators did not have teleprompters. What I am suggesting is that maybe the thinking processes of those ancient orators was a bit different from ours.
There is a frequently cited passage in Confessions where Augustine describes silent reading by Ambrose of Milan in ways that make it clear it was highly unusual (Confessions 6.3). Augustine probably read out loud – which means there is a good chance his primary mode of thinking and composition was oral, and his writing consequently anchored in an oral mode of thought. This orality might help to explain why I struggled to track with his writing. If this is true it also ought to affect the conclusions I draw from what he was communicating.
I have been working my way through quite a number of ancient texts since that point – some have been easier to read than others. I thoroughly enjoyed Xenophon’s Anabasis – his account of a mercenary army’s misadventures in Persia and subsequent escape. It was probably more readable because it is very linear, something which is imposed by the sequence of events. But other ancient writing seems somehow disjointed compared to writing of later millennia. It seems far less linear.
Which brings me back to the subjects of our disagreements.
Ancient writing is just different enough that we ought to have some caution about the conclusions we draw from what we read. If strong and incompatible arguments can be made for several very different interpretations of the same ancient text, it is entirely possible that none of them were ever in the mind of the author. In ignoring the inherent orality of the original writing risk reading our own ways of thinking back into an ancient text. First-century Palestine was an oral culture. Nobody had a leather-bound Torah resting on a coffee table in their house.
Modern scholarship is beginning to engage this inherent orality. Richard Bauckham notes that the way Mark structures “…his narrative are mostly characteristic of oral composition.” Other books of the New Testament have identifiable oral underpinnings as well. Transmission of Paul’s letters may have involved more of an oral performance than the sterile textual “reading” to which we are accustomed.
I’m not suggesting we return to the reading aloud of continuous text with no punctuation. But given the oral underpinnings of ancient writing, in order to engage with biblical texts on a personal level (and on their own terms) we might be better off hearing more of it than just simply reading it.
I have been attempting to do exactly that. I am currently playing the New Testament on CD in my truck on the way to work in the mornings. It’s not a perfect approach. The particular version to which I am listening has soothing music in the background – this does nothing to contribute to my engagement with the performance. But I am hearing (and engaging) things I used to gloss over while simply reading.
In the middle third century a Church council assembled at Antioch and deposed the local bishop, Paul of Samosata. Paul appears to have taught that Christ was a mere man infused with the divine, a view at odds with the dominant consensus about Jesus’ pre-existence. Unfortunately for the council Paul held a government position and also had the backing of the queen of Palmyra. The other bishops were consequently unable to actually dislodge him until after the Roman emperor Aurelian defeated the queen and reasserted control over the eastern empire. The bishops applied to Aurelian to pry Paul loose and the emperor deferred to the bishops of Italy and Rome.
Discussion of this incident seems to focus on the theology as well as accusations of abuse of position and self-enrichment recorded by Eusebius . But the ties to civil government clearly made the problem more difficult for the early church to address — they provided Paul with resources to resist the other bishops. An underlying issue is summed up in a comment in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. The behavior of Paul “offers significant evidence that urban churches were seeking men of power and culture for their bishops.” This points to a similarity in functional usage between the activity of civil government and the office of bishop. The latter had become compatible with the exercise of autocratic authority.
The office of bishop seems to have originally been anchored in a plurality of leadership and by this time it was clearly losing that character. One cause put forth as an impetus was a need for strong leadership in the second-century theological controversies. Other contributors have been suggested. I recently found an argument by Joanna Dewey that posits writing and literacy as a mechanism of control which facilitated “…the shift to manuscript-based authority and to the hegemony and control of Christian churches by a small, educated male elite.”
I am fairly new to academic writings on the early church but so far most of what I’ve read seems to look right past issues of process and structure. For example Dewey has some very interesting things to say about orality in the first-century church but also appears to overstate the usefulness of writing in the exercise of control. In the context of ancient Rome she writes that the “…administrative letter was the essential tool for regulating the empire’s business…”
Which appears to simply ignore practical realities of time and distance communications in the ancient world. I would suggest instead that the essential tool for regulating the business of empire was loyal and reasonably competent local administration. Given this there is a better candidate driving the development of monoepiscopacy and its subsequent dysfunctional compatibility with autocratic Roman power. These are rooted in general observations on organization that seems to apply to the church as well.
Once any group of people expands beyond a certain point in numbers and scope of activity some degree of organization becomes necessary. It allows for specialization and cooperation, increasing the reach of the group beyond what individuals are capable of. This can grow up organically at small scales as individuals are found to have aptitudes for particular roles. Such organic development seems to characterize the apostles’ call to recruit people to administrate the distribution of support to widows. But in the centuries following this nascent bit of organizing something clearly went off the rails.
The activities of large numbers of people are not well administrated by informal methods. Whatever the actual initial impetus for monoepiscopacy, the efficiency of the expedient would rapidly lead to consolidation of function as an organizational form. It’s not difficult to see where this would come from. Monarchy was a familiar form in the ancient world. And administration of Roman provinces was carried out by governors who combined supreme civil and military authority.
In all fairness the early church didn’t have much in the way of alternative examples. But an inherent conflict exists between the tendencies of autocratic forms and what Jesus had in mind when he called leaders to be servants. Autocratic leadership forms (and styles) work best when the leader is both highly directive and able to cultivate initiative on the part of subordinates who are both loyal and competent. This is an organizational thought process which does not seem inherently conducive to either pastoral ministry or the cultivation of community. With the right leaders it might be theoretically possible to navigate.
But salt in the inevitable bits of sloth, hubris, and avarice, along with assorted other vices and things come apart. Sloth is perhaps the most insidious as it is common, easy to camouflage, and locks other problems in place. As all organizations grow and roles differentiate, individuals and groups with specialized tasks rapidly become used to doing things in particular ways. There are a limited number of things anyone can attend to and sloth provides a powerful incentive to attend to as few things as possible. Which means most people and groups will cease to look beyond their specialized roles and become highly resistant to changing those roles.
When change inevitably becomes necessary this puts specialized roles in the larger group out of sync with each other, spawning conflict. This in turn, creates an incentive for competition within an organization as individuals and groups seek to reinforce their specialized roles. In hierarchical structures some will seek to improve their position within the hierarchy at the expense of others — the more energetic and adaptable among them will be the most successful at this. This competition puts individuals and groups at cross-purposes with each other, and with whatever the original goals of the larger group may have been.
Autocratic structures are inherently dependent on capable and energetic top leadership to counter sloth and reign in competition in order to stay on mission. This dependency increases as the structure grows in size and in the scope of activity. The dependency also builds in a high vulnerability to the avarice of such leadership, as well as a high vulnerability to the avarice of energetic subordinates, if such a leader is lacking. The vulnerability can be mitigated by reliance on rigid codes of behavior, such as in military organizations, but this brings problems of its own. Autocratic systems can rapidly come to be all about giving and following directives, and competition over who is giving directives to whom.
The only remedy for the misbehavior of an entrenched autocrat such as Paul of Samosata is the application of raw power. The bishops were obliged to find a more powerful autocrat and they called in the Romans.
The foregoing ought to be a cautionary tale for modern churches and para-church ministries, particularly large ones. We have had a couple of millennia to come up with better ways to do administration but we’re really no different. All modern administrative structures have at least some autocratic aspects. And all have the tendency noted above to reinforce specialized roles at the expense of the overall group. This causes an organization to drift toward stagnation and this drift increases with size.
Large organizations are likely impossible to run any other way. And attempts to counter this in modern corporations, such as by using oversight by an independent board, bring additional baggage. Most churches in the US likely borrow such corporate forms from the culture without giving them a second thought.
Churches call their governance various things (such as elder or deacon boards) but most of them are likely a functional and legal board of directors of a state-charted non-profit corporation. This governing board is bound to legal and ethical obligations that are independent of the organization’s defined structure. And some of these obligations encompass further imperatives that can potentially operate at cross purposes with a church’s ministry.
One example (among others) might illustrate this. Board members have ethical obligations to donors which drives a duty to investigate allegations of mishandling of the funds and assets of the corporation. Board members consequently have an obligation to hear the allegations of good faith whistle-blowers and protect them. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios where this might conflict with what Paul the apostle says about handling accusations against elders.
Most churches probably just muddle on through issues of organization and do just fine at small scales. But a failure to engage the inherent characteristics of organizational forms at larger scales is apt to result in one of two dysfunctional outcomes.
In the first, the church (or para-church ministry) becomes “an institution” and solidifies in harmful ways. Modern practices have mitigated the nastier effects of competition for control and position once characteristic of autocratic administration. But individual and group tendencies to settle into the familiar can freeze specialized roles in place like a glacier in an alpine valley. Those roles might still be in motion. But don’t wait around for them to produce anything.
In the second, actual requirements of the forms are ignored and chaos ensues. In the US this might involve blurring of the obligations inherent in a non-profit entity. Corners get cut, particularly when conflicts of interests are involved. Sometimes liberties are taken. If enough of this happens some injured party files a lawsuit, which is a modern US version of calling in the Romans. After all, the government created the tax-exempt entity in the first place, along with the obligations that go with it.
These outcomes are not mutually exclusive and a crisis precipitated by the first can initiate the second. Neither of them are conducive to building community.
I am not suggesting we can dispense with organization. But unfortunately organization aggregates human frailty, and different organizational forms aggregate frailty in different ways. What I am suggesting is caution about the baggage that comes with organizational forms, and asking questions about the limitations in our approaches to issues of numerical growth and growth in the scale of our activities.
So someone doesn’t have to call in the Romans.
 The Church History of Eusebius. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers). Editor Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2009 Kindle Edition.
(Kindle Locations 21771-21790).
 Frederick W. Norris. Paul of Samosata. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Editor Everett Ferguson. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1999. Print. Kindle Edition 2013 (Kindle Locations 34343-34344).
 Joanna Dewey. Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Eugene: Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2013. Kindle Edition, p. 4.
 Dewey, (p. 6.).
[5 ] Round-trip messaging durations in ancient Rome were measured in weeks and months. This constrains the practical utility of letters to narrow uses such as broad policy guidance, or to address specific and non-urgent problems raised about the scope or authority of specific local officials. The broader use of an administrative letter, particularly in the case of the emperor and a distant governor, is as an a not too subtle reminder of who is actually in control. The obsequious tone in some of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is highly suggestive.
Granted, written material is more reliable than oral messages and probably did facilitate the sprawl of the Roman power. But writing itself is not inherently necessary to run an empire. The Inca may have got on just fine without it. They used knotted and colored string Quipus for administrative recording. These may have also served as a form of writing media but the mechanical nature would be very limiting, and probably not that useful beyond administrative record-keeping.
Anyone thrashing about over the origins of New Testament texts and how we read them ought to pick up a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. The book provides an analysis of oral tradition, first century personal names, and literary evidence relevant to the Gospel accounts. The analysis is used to support an argument that the accounts are directly anchored in the eyewitness testimony of close associates of Jesus.
The argument is a counter to the view that they are wholly the product of oral community traditions, and as such, changing over time to conform to how the community views itself. Proponents of this seem to want to decouple early Christianity from any connection to actual participants in historical events. I am part way through the book and am finding it very helpful in framing how I think about the Gospel texts.
Early in the book Bauckham cites a study of Palestinian Jewish names to support his thesis. The study is based on the work of Israeli scholar Tal Ilan. Ilan compiled Jewish names used in Palestine between 330 BCE and 200 CE. A large amount of the data comes from the first century and the beginning of the second century CE (to 135) reflecting the relative abundance of sources in this period compared to the full span of five centuries. The sources include the New Testament, as well as others such as ossuaries, inscriptions, the works of Josephus, and other Judean texts.
Bauckham describes a correspondence in the study between the relative frequencies of personal names in the Gospels and the relative frequencies of these names in the total study. For example, Simon and Joseph are identified as the two most popular male names and comprise similar percentages of the names counted in the Gospels and Acts, as compared to the rest of the data.
Bauckham argues that this is unlikely to have arisen from the later addition of names in oral traditions. Bauckham observes that, “… that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora was not at all the same as in Palestine…the fact that the practices of naming were very different…” He further comments that the name correspondence, “…would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine.”
But what Bauckham says would seem to rest within a broader point. The name correspondence provides an independent anchor in time for possible dates of authorship of the written Gospel accounts, as well as an anchor in geography for possible sources.
Bauckham notes, “…that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period.” But he doesn’t flesh out the significance of the identified date.
135 CE was the year Roman legions suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. After the revolt the Romans depopulated Judean Jewish communities and Jews became a minority in Palestine. The Romans also suppressed Jewish religious expression; this eased only with the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138. The center of the religion subsequently shifted east to the Babylonian Jewish community.
The incidence of Palestinian Jewish names is lower after 135 because the Romans had removed (most of) the Palestinian Jews. What this means is that the writers of the Gospel accounts either 1) lived in Jewish Palestine before the revolt or 2) were relaying material directly from pre-revolt residents. The combination of Roman military activity and the subsequent deportations likely eliminated any further avenue for oral transmission from Palestinian Jewish communities.
Which means the name correspondence firmly anchors the Gospel accounts within the living memories of pre-revolt residents of Jewish Palestine. This does not definitively say when, where, and by whom the Gospel accounts were written — but the Bar Kokhba revolt imposes absolute bounds on the range of possible answers. These bounds backstop existing scholarship answering those questions, and apply whether or not Bauckham’s thesis is correct.
 Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, ISBN: 0802863906. 2013 Kindle Edition p. 73.
 Baukham, p. 84.
 Bauckham, p. 68.
A comment highlighting this appeared in an April segment on TED Talks, broadcast on CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. During the segment interviewer Charlie Rose queried TED curator Chris Anderson about the eighteen-minute time limit imposed on the talks. Anderson responded that, “..it’s a coffee break…you can listen to something serious that long without getting bored or exhausted.”
It seems like we used to be better able to attend to complex information. I’ve spent most of the last 30 years working inside of large organizations. Written office communication once consisted of memoranda containing fully developed paragraphs often in documents running to multiple pages. Formal reports were a big deal — they were complex written analytic documents and seldom contained much in the way of graphics. Now communications seem to be predominately short and often bulleted emails. Reports are heavy on graphics which are used to communicate what used to be contained in paragraphs. In extreme cases the graphics take over altogether, such as in PowerPoint slites, where the images sometimes overwhelm the content and convey nothing substantive.
Lengthy or complex documents without graphics require more effort to digest. They require deeper thought of more duration.
Once upon a time our attention spans were much, much longer than eighteen minutes. 19th century Americans were accustomed to hours of oratory from speakers at county and state fairs, and from speakers “taking the stump” at a felled tree or other suitable open space.
This bit of our history is long gone, along with the literary mindset that supported it. And the communications environments spawned by the literary mindset have become casualties. Philip Yancey commented last July on the changes in the publishing industry brought by reading on portable/mobile devices. Traditional Christian publishing (along with the broader industry) is collapsing as the ability of the industry to make money erodes, along with the ability of authors to make a living from what they write.
For anyone looking to communicate in modern culture it is past time to think about how to adapt. TED is one example of an adaptive strategy. TED successfully spreads significant and serious ideas by establishing personal connections with audiences. Rose set up the segment with the observation that “…what sets TED apart is that the big ideas are wrapped up in personal stories…and it is those stories that have captured the imaginations of tens of millions of viewers around the world.”
In addition, high value is placed on the attraction that the speaker and topic might have. During the interview Rose asked Anderson how TED speakers are selected. Anderson replied, “There’s no formula or algorithm that says what is right, it’s basically, it’s a judgment call as to what is interesting, what is interesting now.”
TED also has extremely high production values. Rose noted this, commenting that “Anderson and his team spend much of their time auditioning and looking for the next great story. A great TED talk demands careful planning. Most speakers get months of preparation and coaching.”
Very few of us have the resources to hit these kind of targets. Nor should “what is interesting now” be the major criteria driving what we communicate about. And not everything significant can be cooked down into tidy packages — there is a very real risk of simplifying an idea to the point where it means nothing.
But TED’s approach does provides a way to think about the problem, and to try to make the most of the limited attention of the audience. In whatever medium you use, make the most of that eighteen minutes.