So, Richard Foster and I are fighting.
He doesn’t know this, but we have a long running feud; it has been contentious and bitter and totally one-sided. Ever since everyone and their grandpas started talking about Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I have been developing a deep-seated resentment against this lovely man and his holy brilliance. “Discipline.” It’s a word I just can’t get over, much less celebrate.
For one already struggling with the old evangelical hero complex, in which I feel the urge to always have to do more, always more, always better, I can’t read Foster without hearing it as something else I’m supposed to add to my already too-long list. And the idea of exerting even more effort in the celebration of something so severe as discipline is dreadful, an extra weight to be hung from an already-too-heavy yoke.
And when there's just so much that's seemingly required, it's overwhelming. My response is to fight against it, or more likely, to just give up. Perhaps I am merely too attached to the lavish comforts of food, drink, and sleep, but it’s much more my style to exercise the spiritual practice of radical self-care, with its promises of holy napping and hearty celebration of chocolate (at least that’s how I do it).
All that said, I decided to put away the bad blood between Brother Richard and myself, and attend his presentation at last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The title of his session sounded mysterious and terribly interesting: “The Humiliation of the Word in our Day.” What could that possibly mean?
And as he began to speak, waxing rhapsodic about the weight and the beauty of words, I shed a tear. The power of creation and Christ are bound up in the Word and words themselves--amen, hallelujah!--also, there is something eminently moving about how that man wears a ponytail. “The Word is precious,” he said. “A word poorly spoken demeans us.”
Respect to my nemesis. That’s some good stuff.
I was so on board. But then discussion turned to how, in our day, the “humiliation” of the written and spoken word is achieved. And while I will take away and hold close what Richard Foster said about the value of words, I feel it behooves me to respectfully disagree with what came after.
As I understand it, he finds the proliferation of words through mass media and digital formats to be enacting a kind of inflation in the value of words, causing even a word well spoken to lose its currency. Not only were formats like Twitter and blogs taken to task for being generally mediocre platforms for meaningful communication (too fast, too easy), visual media was characterized as passive and mindless distraction from the stuff of real value--the written word. Television and film were cast merely as means for “checking out” of reality.
The problem with thinking about new media as a distortion or desecration of the true, written word is that it shows disregard for the fact that all things must be read, not just words. Paintings, faces, numbers, noises, the posture of the body in embrace, a precious Polaroid, clever, cutting hashtags, and even ClipArt. (Is that still a thing? Clearly I’m the last person who should be defending technology.) The language of literature is not the only thing we read. Whenever we take information in and work to make sense of it, this is communication, this is “word,” and all creation cries out.
But how can we understand without one to instruct us? This is the real problem. Not the democratization of media--as if such a thing were possible, even online--the real problem with the polyphony of voices populating the electronic ether is that often we fail to understand them, and too often we don’t want to admit that we don’t know how to read them with discernment. We struggle to process information, evaluate sources, and understand the purpose and potential behind this innovation; it’s a library whose card catalogue is written in secret code. But it’s a code we must decipher; we must learn how to find Dickens amongst the penny-dreadfuls. We must learn how to separate the gold from the dross.
It is not the word but rather we who are humiliated when we are forced to grapple with our own illiteracy, even as children are navigating this cryptic library with such ease. And when I say “we,” I mean those those of us who have had the privilege of being equipped with strategies for reading at a high level--we’ve been educated in the Western canon, an education that has not prepared us to deal with the rebirth of the word in the digital medium. We have our own secret code, but it will not get us passage through the strange, new words set before us.
And I recognize I am preaching to the choir (or more likely, the very hip worship team); most of you who have found your way to this site are not internet noobs. But there are two things I want to say in conclusion: first, when people denigrate new media as mere diversion, don’t settle for that judgment; but also, don’t simply write them off as out-of-touch. So: Richard Foster, you’re okay, brother. Again, this is a new literacy issue; he and others of the same mind might make this judgment in completely good faith because they are simply unaware of the kind and quality of media that can be found outside of established institutions, how to find it, and how to use it.
Second, Christian educators--including internet writers, for writers are educators, after all--have a responsibility to think deeply about new media and how we can open this realm to those unfamiliar to it. We must consider how we can teach the necessary techniques that can lead others to engage it in meaningful ways, and how we can produce the kind of work that makes thoughtful engagement worth the time it takes. The word will not be humiliated in our day as long as we are not content with churning out content; there is new life here, in our digitized selves, waiting for us to give it breath.
So let us not close our eyes, ears, or laptops to the Word, wherever it may be found. Words are intercessors, hanging in the space between bodies and Spirit, and sometimes even the internet groans with longing that keystrokes cannot express. But let us not stay silent; if we shut our screens, perhaps the rocks will cry out.
Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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