Saturday, March 10, 2007

Intellectual Snacking -- just be sure you eat healthily

A quick insight into my methodology. I've started these "Bits and Pieces" posts as a way of sharing with you articles that I find interesting, but haven't had time to thoughtfully digest, analyze, and connect with other ideas. How do I put the posts together? I set up a file and dump little paragraphs about each article into that file until I have about 4-5 things to share -- then I post. It doesn't take much time, and it enables me to share interesting things without spending a lot of time on them.

Apparently, if Al Mohler is right, this practice makes me a purveyor of intellectual flabbiness. He points to this interesting article in Wired about how information and media comes to us "snack sized" for greater consumption. From the Wired article: "Music, television, games, movies, fashion: We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips - in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture - and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive)." I hope that my posts are tasty -- doesn't any author/speaker hope that his/her audience enjoys (or at least is challenged by) their work?

But Dr. Mohler sounds a note of concern: "All this may be great for the marketers, but it spells further challenge for educators, parents, and preachers. How will people be able to listen to a serious biblical sermon if their minds are set to pay attention only for a few minutes -- or even less?" In this concern, he echoes Neil Postman's warnings going all the way back to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. (a stinging and thoughtful critique of television's influence upon our culture). The perennial worry is that new technologies sap our critical thinking, analysis, and reflective skills. With every blessing there comes a curse, to be sure, and Postman (and Mohler) are very good at sounding the warnings about these curses.

Mohler and Postman have strong points -- these technologies enable us to quickly indulge our basest instincts and we have used them to reward boorish behavior and to set up a society of a million Little Brothers (always watching, always recording, potentially revealing your secrets on the web). There is a great need for us to cry in the wilderness for wisdom as we approach new technologies (see my previous post on Lifelogging for further thoughts on this). I'm thankful for both men as they help me think through the consequences of my choices.

Wisdom, however, demands restraint. I tire of the panicked cries that "our children can't sustain their attention any longer." We must realize that, as the saying goes, "brevity is the soul of wit." The Wired article rightly reminds us that the capacity for concise targeted statements is not unique to our culture "Neither Nabisco nor Apple was the first to distill things to their essence. Moses gave the world its first Top 10 list long before Letterman (on handheld tablets, no less). Old Farmers Almanac, Readers Digest, and CliffsNotes pared information down to pithy synopses. But cultural snacking isnt just distillation, its elevation. In 17th-century Japan, teenage poet Basho popularized the haiku, an early, lyrical version of the IM. Abraham Lincoln delivered his 272-word Gettsyburg Address in a YouTube-friendly two minutes." Indeed, the entire book of Proverbs is a collection of short, memorable maxims. Popcorn sized for your easy consumption. Brevity in of itself is not a cause for concern. Great intellect has always had both the capacity to snack and the capacity to feast at the banquet.

Neither should we be concerned about losing the ability to attend to subjects for long periods of time. I point you to Adam Cleaveland -- Adam has embraced new technologies and new ways of communicating, yet on his reflections about teaching methods, he gives us this unexpected nugget (The bold emphases are mine, not Adam's): "When I first heard that professors read manuscripted lectures at Princeton, I was so disappointed. I couldn’t believe they would teach in a way that was so un-interactive, so boring. I was not looking forward to those classes. And then…after a few weeks of sitting through Intro to Old Testament, and then later in the year, Systematic Theology, I got used to it. In fact, I was appalled when another student would raise their hand during a lecture (especially a woman we dubbed as “Question Lady“). “This isn’t your time - put your hand down - we’re here to learn from the professor!” So I had become used to the “Princeton way” of doing things. Not that all of my classes were like this; they weren’t. We had some great discussions in some courses, but it was rather funny to see how quickly I became a supporter of these types of lectures."

It seems that Mr. Postmodernity himself has no problem adjusting back to long guess is that the reason he had no problem adjusting is that they were good, thoughtful and engaging. How about the thousands of young postmodern adults who go to hourlong sermons at Mars Hill Church? They don't seem to have much of a problem adjusting. The challenge for us is not to bemoan the new technologies. It is for us to learn to use them wisely and to use them well. The challenge for us is to write and speak in ways that are engaging. If we are going to snack (and to make snack food), it is up to us to snack on friut and granola rather than chips and fries. Just like in our dietary choices, snacking isn't so much the problem as what we snack upon. (Yes, Mom, I remember all those warnings about "empty calories" in cookies and chips).

Technology doesn't save us, only Jesus does. However, we must also remember that Jesus calls us to be salt and light, using technology in redemptive ways. The Holy Spirit empowers us to learn how to be wise in our intellectual snacking and in what we offer up as snack food in this new technological realm.

Soli Deo Gloria