Deep Sea Diving in a Jet Ski Age

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

Psychiatrist Keith Ablow joins the chorus of colleagues, as well as sociologists and historians, in a recent online article. The gist: "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists." He refers to new surveys collected by Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor. Today's college students "are more likely than ever to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, even though their test scores and time spent studying are decreasing." In short, she calls it "a narcissism epidemic" and many of her colleagues, like Ablow, agree.

These data are not unexpected. I have been writing a great deal over the past few years about the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children, adolescents and young adults, particularly as it regards turning them into faux celebrities’the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.

On Facebook, young people can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of "friends." They can delete unflattering comments. They can block anyone who disagrees with them or pokes holes in their inflated self-esteem. They can choose to show the world only flattering, sexy or funny photographs of themselves (dozens of albums full, by the way), "speak" in pithy short posts and publicly connect to movie stars and professional athletes and musicians they "like."…These are the psychological drugs of the 21st century and they are getting our sons and daughters very sick, indeed. (1)

Tragically, narcissism typically turns to self-loathing. "False pride can never be sustained." Young people are looking for more highs to define and distinguish themselves. "They're doing anything to distract themselves from the fact that they feel empty inside and unworthy." However, the bubble will burst. Ablow says, "Watch for an epidemic of depression and suicidality, not to mention homicidality, as the real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface."

I had the privilege of growing up with aged grandparents in our home. Born in the 1880s in Texas and Oklahoma (when it wasn't Oklahoma but "Indian Territory"), they were full of stories I badgered them to tell over and over again. I felt like I was part of something larger than myself: a family story that was itself part of a larger story you can crawl inside by having it told to you, over and over again. And the storytelling just happened, during those lulls in the daily rhythm, because we were actually there’in each other's presence’with time to spare.

One day, I can't recall exactly when, our children discovered our iPad and nothing's been the same. It's like a moth to a flame. My wife and I allow them to use it only in limited blocks of time for playing games, but if we're distracted it could go on for hours. You'll never be able to eradicate the natural childhood wonder at stories of the old West, but there are fewer opportunities to tell them. It's not just the kids. I find myself navigating more than thinking and meditating; and even while I'm reading and writing, I'll be checking my e-mail or texting like a crazy person.

Most of us have to stretch our historical imagination to understand a world that was normal not that long ago. With our automobile-driven culture of climate-controlled suburbia, anonymous individualism deposits us in our garage without having to bother with others. Add to that now the isolation of having the world at your fingertips in front of a screen’TV, Internet, and phone’and it's easy to see why we've become quite different people in barely a generation. In a recent story on NPR, an older woman was talking about how train passengers used to bring baskets of food on the trip from Madrid to Paris, exchanging cheese, meats, and fruit among themselves. Now, she said, there are no baskets; everyone sits alone, glued to his or her gadgets.

Don't worry: this isn't a Luddite (technology-hating) screed. Medieval mining transformed civilization in good and bad ways, giving us many of the social habits that came to full flower in modernity. The invention of maps changed our relation to space just as clocks changed the way we live in time. As Jesuit priest and media scholar John Culkin points out, "We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us." (2) It can't be all bad, but then it can't be all good, either. That's where wisdom comes in. Wisdom discerns not just between good and bad, but between better and best.

Orality to Writing

It's one thing to lose that socializing force of grandparents weaving us into the tapestry of a larger story. Even more critical are the ways in which the narcissistic bent of our hearts is actually nurtured in the church by exchanging the patient wisdom of a common gospel, confession, catechesis, prayer, praise, and discipline for the instant gratification of self-esteem and self-expression. A group formed exclusively by private Bible reading will be fundamentally different from the body of Christ that the Spirit is building by his publicly proclaimed Word and Sacraments. Communal identities are mediated by stories proclaimed and sung in church. In our churches today, singing is less a social act of "making the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16) than an individual expression of one's own feelings. Worshiping alone, together. Meanwhile genuine public worship’specifically, the preached Word’creates a community that contrasts sharply with the private spirituality that more easily fits with the Internet age.

It is no surprise that in Scripture the Word of God is something that is first and foremost spoken. The world itself came into being and is sustained by speech. "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host" (Ps. 33:6). The God of the Bible is not Plato's impersonal "One" silently emanating divinity, but the Father speaking in his Son and by his Spirit. Jesus himself said, "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). The apostles taught that "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17) and that we are born again through the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; Eph. 1:13-14; 1 Thess. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:23; James 1:18).

Scholars have often observed that the New Testament "happened" to emerge right at the transition from an oral to a writing culture. So we get the best of both worlds: a preached Word that creates faith, and a written Word that is normative for what is preached. Yet the biblical writers were clearly convinced that the preached Word is especially God's ordained means of grace.

Augustine defined the essence of sin as being "turned in on ourselves." By addressing us in command and promise, God makes us his kind of extroverts: looking up in faith to God and out to our brothers and sisters’as well as our non-Christian neighbors’in love. The Reformers also emphasized the point that faith is created and sustained by the gospel promise we hear rather than by the things we can see. "For Calvin as for Luther," John Leith observes, "the ears alone are the organ of the Christian," and Luther said that "the church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house"’this from the first figure to transform history through the relatively new invention of the printing press! The Second Helvetic Confession declares, "The preached Word is the Word of God." The Westminster Larger Catechism explains that God blesses the reading, "but especially the preaching of the Word as a means of grace…driving them out of themselves and drawing them unto Christ." This public and community-generating Word is not only found in the sermon, but also runs through the whole liturgy. Especially in the Psalms, God gives us our lines in the script for common praise, lament, confession, and thanksgiving.

There are crucial theological convictions that ground our practices. If we forget them, assuming that the media are indifferent and change from culture to culture, then even the best doctrinal statement becomes little more than a piece of paper we file away.

On balance, surely writing has turned out to be a net gain. Yet it has also tended to make us as Christians more forgetful of basic things, such as that "faith comes by hearing the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Just as the early Christians and the Reformers were able to take advantage of the written word without surrendering the preached Word, we need to avoid the radical tendency of our day either to lionize or demonize new technologies. In other words, we need wisdom.

Reading to Skimming

Yet wisdom’that fruit of patient meditation on what really matters’is precisely what is becoming more difficult in the Internet Age. In this issue, we mention on several occasions the considerable discussion provoked by Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. While enthusiasts and critics debate the content, Carr points out that both are missing the deeper issue, namely, the ways in which our tools themselves’in this case the Internet’actually change us. It's not just how we use tools but how they use us that matters.

Carr spent his life reading and writing. "Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle….Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." We're becoming "chronic scatterbrains." (3)

It is not just that our habits are changing, Carr argues’it's our brains, our very selves. He appeals to recent studies showing how our brains are rewiring themselves in the Internet Age. This is nothing new, of course. Social historians have explored the ways in which our tools have changed us, individually and socially, in myriad ways. Yet, unlike these gradual transformations in the past, the Internet revolution has been a tsunami. Technical know-how has marginalized other ways of knowing, like art and, above all, wisdom.

If the library replaced the campfire as the archive of communal wisdom, the library itself is under threat today. Carr observes, "The library's layout provides, as well, a powerful symbol of our new media landscape: at the center stands the screen of the Internet connected computer; the printed word has been pushed to the margins." He points to the way our interpersonal communication has changed, evident for example in the differences between a personal letter and an e-mail message. It's not just a question of different technologies, but the different people we become and communities that emerge as a result. In the past, quiet and contemplation were essential habits of reading; now, we are mostly comfortable surrounded by noise and distraction’the sounds of other technologies.

Recovering Wisdom

One of the interesting distinctions drawn by Carr is between technological "determinists" and "instrumentalists." Determinists act as if we are pawns of technology, while instrumentalists think we're just using it without being changed by it. The truth, he thinks, is somewhere in the middle. Precisely because of that, we need to think about how we're being changed and consider more deliberate practices that can make up for what we've lost or are losing.

Only with wisdom were Christians in other ages able to integrate various forms of technology. And only with a similar wisdom, informed by the same convictions about reality and how we encounter it, will we be prepared to adapt to the Internet Age without being swallowed whole.

In Christian discipleship, wisdom is in the driver's seat, not calculative reasoning or visual consumerism. And wisdom is formed over the long haul as each generation of competent disciples passes its faith and practices down to the next. We are not autonomous individuals, surfing the Internet to choose among various identities that the market offers us. The preaching of the gospel calls us outside of ourselves, to look up in faith to God in Christ and out to our neighbors in love. It socializes us as a specific kind of community. Through its regular recital, the story changes us. Instead of just being spectators in front of it, we find ourselves living in it as part of the cast in the covenant of grace.

The Word became flesh. He delivers himself to us here and now through ordinary human speech, water, bread, and wine. In uniting us to himself he unites us to one another. These others are not people we "friend" on Facebook or "join" in "chat rooms" based on how much they're like us. They are real flesh-and-blood human beings. We didn't choose them based on shared consumer profiles; God chose them for us as our brothers and sisters, and we'll be living with them for eternity, so we had better get used to them now! Sure, we change the church, but the church changes us. To grow more and more into one body with Christ as our head, we must exist in real places, where we are drawn from our private rooms into the theater of grace.

1 [ Back ] Keith Ablow, "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists,", January 8, 2013.
2 [ Back ] John Culkin, "A Schoolman's Guide to Marshal McLuhan," Saturday Review, March 18, 1967.
3 [ Back ] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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