Monday, June 23, 2014

The Problem Is in the Pew

Last week I wrote that the reason many people leave church—well, a key reason—is that preachers are not giving them a reason to stay. That is, preachers are too boring, too judgmental, too irrelevant, and too pragmatic (by which I meant to insinuate they are too focused on offering advice and not enough on lovely mysteries). In general, people leave when what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t make them put on crash helmets and strap themselves in the pew.

So that was harsh. Perhaps a bit too sweeping.

This week I will blame the current malaise in churchgoing on the churchgoers themselves. People today, by and large, just don’t know how to do any of the things we used to expect of churchgoers. In particular, when they get to church, they can neither hear nor understand. Worship doesn’t translate into anything that makes sense.

I’ve suspected this for a long time. When I was studying communication theory in grad school, I became aware of the work of Walter Ong. He belonged to a small school of scholars who insisted that the development of widespread literacy changed what and how people knew things. Before literacy you knew only what you remembered; after literacy you could learn new things from books. Before literacy, churches taught the basics with drama, art, song, pilgrimages, icons, and so on. The kinds of media that worked for oral people also profoundly shaped what their “faith” was. After literacy, in large parts of Europe, these methods of transmitting and defining faith gave way to linear, rationalistic definitions of the content of faith, as found in books and tracts. That rationality and content rich data, in turn, came to define what was essential about literate faith. In my book, Not Sure I outline this process at some length. And I suggest that in our new, post-literate era, we need as preachers to recover many of the pre-literate strategies the church used to transmit and share the faith. These methods are many, creative, can be lots of fun, but also require way more work and imagination and honing and preparation than most preachers are used to. In fact, if I look at my own preaching, I know that it often falls short of the ideals I have in my head for it.

So now I’ve read another book, by a scholar who owes a large debt of gratitude to Ong, to Marshall McLuhan and his disciples, and also to modern neuroscience. His name is Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. This is not a religious book, but consider its closing words of the last chapter before Carr’s  epilogue. He begins by quoting Martin Heidegger, who observed that the technological revolution could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” He adds that, the frenziedness of technology threatens to “entrench itself everywhere.” To which Carr adds a secular “Amen,” stating, “We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.”

It is the frenziedness of our souls that is keeping people out of church. Worse, if we think by offering an unfrenzied hour we might help people calm down, the real news is that people are addicted to that frenziedness, and won’t give it up to go to church. Put differently, people are staying away from church because they don’t know how to do faith, or mystery, or awe, or worship anymore and are too distracted even to consider it. Their brains are no longer equipped, and all the great preaching in the world won’t bring them back in. In his only other quote of scripture, Carr compares modern technology to the idols of Pslam 115, and modern Netizans to their worshippers:

They have mouths, but the speak not;
Eyes have they, but they see not;
They have hears, but they hear not . . .
They that make them are like unto them;
So is every one that trusteth in them.

What is the basis for the frenziedness that Heidegger warns against, according to Carr? Well, you have to read the book to get the nuanced, carefully annotated, and compelling case Carr makes. But some key factors are these. The internet is designed to make us consume as many different pages as possible, all in the service of showing us more ads. It is made for scanning, cherry picking information, and moving on to something else. This overloads our short-term memory to such a degree that we are unable to remember much, in detail, of what we have read. This sort of reading also breaks up narrative, and invites superficial reading. This in turn develops a whole set of neural changes in our brains that in turn also make reading deeply more difficult. The time we spend on the internet detracts from the time required to develop similar deeply practiced and active neural pathways (we’re talking actual cell changes here) that allow for deep reading, creative thinking, deep empathy, contemplation, imagination, and so on. My take away is that the internet and all other forms of contemporary media have so changed our brains that we generally can't do religion, or faith, or worship, or awe, or contemplation anymore.

Look, the bottom line is that you have to read the book to get the whole argument. I find it compelling because of the massive amount of clinical evidence Carr marshals from many science labs and experiments to make his case. I find it compelling because, as I said in my own book, I’ve believed for a long time that consumption of even a small amount of contemporary media makes it much harder to read deeply and contemplate what you’ve read as well. I find Carr compelling because in his own mea culpa about his reading and study habits he describes how his own reading has suffered from being too plugged in. I know what he’s talking about.

But what it means—I’m drawing from several sources now, and not just Carr—is that people have incredibly short attention spans. They thrive, emotionally, on fractured and shallow stimuli bombarding them; but they are averse to sitting down, paying careful attention, and then considering what they have heard—Daniel Kahneman’s “slow thinking.” They are adept at following only the simplest narratives, and are unable to recognize the several levels of meaning you will find in all great literature, much less contemplate those meanings. They believe all but won’t commit to learning anything. They can’t study. They can’t remember. They know how to use the Internet as an adjunct to memory and study, but no longer think creatively in the deeply linear and rational ways that are the basis not only of science, but also of 99% of contemporary theology, catechism, and church law. In one of his summaries, Carr states that, “It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” That can’t be good for church as usual.

So what is the answer? Although Carr warns against thinking that the methods used in the preliterate oral cultures of our ancestors provide the answers for teaching today’s post-deep-literate  people, I do think the “psychodynamics of orality,” provide many helpful clues for how we might reframe the gospel so that those who are deaf to traditional Enlightenment means can hear it, or parts of it, again. Use of rhyme, rhythm, visuals, pilgrimages, relics, space, memorizing a few key sources, drama, music, and so on could help preachers craft sermons and services that at least have a chance with today’s new audience. But, ironically, the sort of preachers who could do this need to spend far more time imagining and creating sermons than most of them have—and they need to be personally free of the Net’s siren song to even imagine such things.

This much is sure. We need a lot of discussion and creative thinking in this area if we’re going to speak the good news in a language—Netspeak, let’s call it; or The Shallows—that a majority of today’s people can understand. We need to rethink how we do worship—keeping in mind that one formula will not satisfy every audience niche. And we will need, in view of the general decrease in ability to contemplate deep mystery and complicated truth—we will need to rethink what comprises the essentials of the faith. Probably not the ordo salutis. Maybe the command to love God and neighbor, the story of Jesus, and the words of the Lord’s Prayer are about as much as we will be able to reliably get across.

Which would be an accomplishment, because even now, I’m sure there are many, many tens of millions of people in North America who probably can not explain even two out of these three.


  1. Well, right now they are shooting a movie on our street, and the church is rented out to the cast as their parking lot and cafeteria. I spoke with one of the crew, and he asked me, "does the government pay to keep this going?" And, "you mean people pay to go to church?" And, "I never heard of anyone going to church. What is it about?" And, "that's crazy, man." All the while keeping an eye on his twitter feed and texts, phone never leaving his hand, his eyes glancing up and down between phone and me. How would he do in our church, with organ, sermon, singing hymns, prayers, responsive readings. Not too well, I'm thinking.

  2. "does the government pay to keep this going?" Wow. That communicates on so many levels at once. Thanks John for your pondering.

  3. I'very been thinking of 'the problem' as akin to 'colony collapse disorder' in bee hives. That is, we just don't know what we are witnessing.

    1. That's darkly funny, especially as I have a nephew whose colonies of bees have actually collapsed, and who has managed to get most of us in our family into lobbying the government to do more research and ban neonicotinoids (which can't be good no matter how the bees shake out).


What do you think?