Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Digital Brains?

Is our internet usage re-wiring the way we read? That’s the question posed by an article in today’s Washington Post. The article cites a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, who is expressing a growing concern that extensive internet usage is re-wiring the way way we read to skim and pull out key bits of information rather than the sequential, linear way we read a page of text.

By Aschoeke [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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From the article at least, it appears that this concern is based on a growing body of anecdotal evidence, including Wolf’s own experience of trying to read Herman Hesse after a day of work on the internet.  Apparently, English department chairs from around the country are reporting the increasing difficulties students have reading classic texts, and particularly understanding long, compound sentences.

The big difference is the skimming, browsing behavior we use on the internet. Sentences tend to be shorter, we are more inclined to follow hyperlinks, text is much more interspersed with graphics,  and we look for keywords rather than read through a text. What has been noted, at least anecdotally, is that we carry over the same behavior when we read printed texts.

All this sounds like a great opportunity for a new area of cognitive neuroscience research. More immediately, though, is the question of what is to be done? For some, the response is to unplug and there is a movement afoot called “slow reading”, celebrating the unhurried engagement with a text.

I tend to work in both worlds, as is evident in the writing of this blog, and the books I review. And the article gives me pause. I see some of the same habits of skimming creeping into my reading of printed texts. I sometimes struggle with comprehending closely written works. And I wonder if I’m a bit like the hard of hearing who complains that everyone else is talking too softly. When I complain about “difficult to understand” writing, is it the writer, or is it me, the reader who has the problem?

The Post article speaks of becoming “bi-literate”, of training our children, or even ourselves, to read both ways. It seems that if this is to be the case, the cultivating of the pleasure of slow reading must be an intentional effort to counter the siren call of visual media, which is what we really are dealing with on a computer screen.

I am curious: have others noticed any change in their reading habits, particularly if you were a pre-internet reader (say before about 1995)? Your thoughts?

Review: The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?

The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?
The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? by Paul Socken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What will become of reading? In particular, what will become of reading and engaging what have been considered the great works of literature from various cultures (no canon arguments here!)? With the advent of digital media with writing that comes to us in blog posts, tweets, and laced with visual content, what will happen to sitting down to read a long work like Don Quixote or War and Peace? With the growing emphasis on STEM education in our highly technological economy, will reading that seems to yield no immediate job skill or tangible benefit still have a place? These are among the questions explored in this collection of essays.

One of the things I realized immediately in reading this collection was that I was among my people! These people love reading and books and consider this love to have had a profound shaping influence in their lives. I suspect that people like that will love this book, particularly if they have been engaged in literary studies in the last several decades.

Some of the essays explore the questions of physical books versus various formats of e-books. The first is titled “Why I Read War and Peace on a Kindle (and bought the Book When I Was Done)”. A later essay, “Don’t Panic: Reading Literature in the Digital Age”, covers similar ground but is more hopeful about the value of e-books versus the aesthetics and advantages of physical books. These and other essayists in the book cover the now-familiar territory of discussions about how the media shapes our engagement with the content of books. Some are more reactionary, such as Sven Birkerts, in “Why the Novel and the Internet Are Opposites, and Why the Latter Both Undermines the Former and makes it More Necessary.” Yet, even as is implicit in the title of the first essay, I suspect most readers will engage in some hybrid of the two (or three if we include online, web content), which increasingly is my own view. The medium is a tool and every tool has particular uses and advantages. I wonder if in the coming years both publishers and users will become more discriminate to connecting medium to use.

Other essays focus on the value of great literature in our lives. Perhaps the most striking to me was Leonard Rosmarin’s narrative essay on “How Moliere and Co. Helped Me Get My Students Hooked on Literature”. This essay underscored for me what seems essential to grasp for those who care about great literature: we will never get people to read because they should but rather because they catch the love for great writing and make it their own. It was fascinating to me to learn how many of the essayists loved books from childhood and grew up in contexts where books were valued or were around inspiring teachers who imparted this love and ushered their students into the world of books. Other essays that explored the value of literature were that of Drew Nelles (“Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing”) Stephen Brockman’s “Literature as Virtual Reality” and the concluding essay (“Why Read against the Grain? Confessions of an Addict”) by Gerhard van der Linde. I believe it was in one of these essays (not easy to track down in the e-galley form I read this) that I also came across the great idea that one of the things that fosters reading is having books of ones own, and not just those of parents or from the library.

One of the unique and delightful essays was Vincent Giroud’s “A World without Books” that introduces us to the work of the librarian-archivist dealing with multiple editions, translations, bindings, and preservation of these works. Digitization cannot capture all the subtleties that can be found by physically examining some of these books and often fails to provide crucial information about the provenance of digitized works.

So, if you love literature and reading, or are looking for a thoughtful exploration of reading and literature in the digital age, this is a good read.

[My review is based on an e-galley form of this book provided for review purposes from the publisher through Netgalley.]

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