Et Tu, Brute?

After a blogless week due to illness and continued work on blog renovations (the reason you haven’t seen any yet is that I’m reconstructing the blog on a whole new platform, although all the important content will carry over; stay tuned for a launch hopefully later this week), I’m popping in just to announce/confess that I am finally on Twitter, under the unimaginative moniker WBLittlejohn.  Yes, me, author of those anti-Twitter screeds this past year—although, to be clear, I never argued against Twitter as such, merely that it was a platform ill-suited for certain functions, and ripe for abuse.  Whether I shall be among the abusers, remains to be seen.  No doubt it will have deleterious effects on my already overtaxed productivity, as I’m already finding my Twitter feed full of diverting links and utterances.  Whether I shall be among those offering such engaging contributions, or whether I will find myself continually stymied by that shocking 160-character limit (a couple times today, I tried posting what I took to be very short quotes, only to find they were around twice the character limit), remains to be seen as well.  This is a highly experimental enterprise for a chronically sesquipedalian Luddite.  Stay tuned for the results.

At the very least, it means much fewer spammy posts here—the sort, like this one, where I announce some modest landmark in my online existence, or point your attention to something interesting someone has written elsewhere.  Hopefully in future, most such housekeeping and marketing can be done via Twitter (which, in any case, will appear in a little box on the upcoming renovated blog).  I look forward to “seeing” you there.


Suspending Judgment: Hooker the Anti-Tweeter

While reading an essay by Georges Edelen this week, “Hooker’s Style,” I came across a more prosaic explanation of my instinctive antipathy to Twitter and its ilk (expounded in recent posts here and here); perhaps Hooker is just rubbing off on me.  Hooker, of course, is notoriously the Anti-Tweeter, occasionally indulging in sentences than can run up to a page in length, and which might take a week to diagram.  His Puritan opponents accused him of “cunningly framed sentences, to blind and entangle the simple”; Thomas Fuller famously described it as “long and pithy, drawing on a whole flock of several clauses before he came to the close of a sentence.”  Indeed, Edelen’s survey of Book I reveals that half his sentences are longer than 40 words, and fully a tenth are longer than 80 words.  However, Edelen suggests that there may be a method to his madness—that in his sentence style we see the key to his thinking as a whole.   

For Hooker’s sentences are not merely remarkable for their length, but quite often for their suspension.  That is to say, rather than stringing together a number of independent clauses, or stating a thesis and then elaborating on it, Hooker often prefers to hold the main clause for many lines, introducing a whole labyrinthine series of dependent clauses first.  Tension builds throughout, as elements of thought are assembled but the meaning of the whole is withheld, until finally, with a triumphant click, the decisive clause snaps into place, concluding the thought.  “The suspension,” says Edelen, “forces the reader ahead into the distinctions and concessions that are necessary to an understanding of the proposition.  The structure of the sentence demands, as in the previous case, that all relevant information be absorbed before a grammatical or logical stopping-place is reached.”  Hooker, in short, does not want you to understand the main point he wishes to convey until you have understood the basis for it and the relevant qualifications, for premature or inadequate understanding can be worse than no understanding at all.  This sort of writing, says Edelen, “is a natural vehicle for the mind that insists that no conclusions can be validly reached prior to a discursive and open-minded examination of all the relevant premises, causes, evidence, arguments, distinctions, or effects. . . . Extended suspensions reflect the methodological tentativeness of a rational process whose conclusions are finally validated by their position in a logical pattern.”

A sample of one of Hooker’s suspended sentences (a comparatively brief one) may be a helpful illustration (divided out into clauses by Edelen; spelling modernized for ease of reading):

1     “Now whether it be that through an earnest longing desire

2     to see things brought to a peaceable end,

3     I do but imagine the matters, whereof we contend,

4     to be fewer then indeed they are,

5     or else for that in truth they are fewer

6     when they come to be discussed by reason,

7     then otherwise they seem, when by heat of contention

8     they are divided into many slips,

9     and of every branch a heap is made:

10   surely, as now we have drawn them together,

11   choosing out those things which are requisite

12   to be severally all discussed,

13   and omitting such mean specialties as are likely

14   (without any great labour)

15   to fall afterwards of themselves;

16   I know no cause why either the number or the length of these controversies should diminish our hope

17   of seeing them end with concord and love on all sides;

18   which of his infinite love and goodness the father of all peace and unity grant.”

 

Of course, once one draws attention to this tendency to hold in logical unity all the relevant premises and qualifications before a conclusion is reached, it is obvious that this is simply Hooker’s whole method in the Lawes in microcosm.  Hooker insists on patiently working through first principles in Books I-IV before attempting to form any conclusions about the particular matters of dispute in V-VIII, and even in these books, he repeatedly draws us back from a narrow focus on the particular to understand the wider context of what is at stake before offering his answers.  The suspension of a conclusion in individual sentences reflects Hooker’s repeated call to his opponents to “suspend” their judgments until they had grasped everything that bears upon the question.  Edelen again:

“Periodicity is, therefore, not simply a favorite grammatical construction for Hooker, but a cast of mind which is reflected everywhere in the Laws.  Not only the syntax of individual sentences but the plan of the entire word is periodic. . . . [quoting Hooker:] ‘So that if the judgments of men do but hold themselves in suspense as touching these first more general meditations, till in order they have perused the rest that ensue: what may seem dark at the first will afterwards be found more plain, even as the later particular decisions will appear, I doubt not more strong, when the other have been read before.’ . . . Suspension is thus to be understood not simply as a syntactical or organizational principle in the Laws but as an expressive embodiment of Hooker’s understanding of the rational processes by which men must seek truth.  The entire force of his attack upon the Puritans lies in his conviction that they have failed to suspending their judgments, that they have leapt to conclusions that are not rationally tenable, precisely because they have failed to take into previous account all of the relevant considerations.”

 

Later in the article, Edelen looks also at the teleological orientation of Hooker’s sentences, in which it is the final few clauses they contain and orient the meaning of the whole, drawing us inexorably forward.  This too, suggests Edelen, reflects deeper philosophical commitments.  

“The concept of final cause dominates the Laws: ‘the nature of every law must be judged of by the end for which it was made, and by the aptness of things therein prescribed unto the same end.’ . . . The flux of the world is, in reality, an orderly pattern of movement toward divinely known and appointed ends, a pattern hierarchically arranged in a chain of causality reaching ultimately to the Final Cause, God Himself. . . . The periodic sentence is itself a syntactical embodiment of this same teleological pattern.  The ‘final cause’ of the grammatical structure is the terminal resolution which exerts an attractive force on the preceding elements, rationally ordering and justifying them as means to a preconceived end.”

 

Although Edelen acknowledges that modern English usage can no longer sustain sentences like Hooker’s, we may still honor the principle that lay behind it—the conviction that there is a complex but coherent rational order to the world, from which no truth, if it is to be rightly understood as truth, can be wantonly snatched out on its own and flung about willy-nilly.


What Would Jesus Tweet?

Toby Sumpter has answered some of my recent arguments (and those of others) about the pastoral use of social media here.

The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).  And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.”  Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.”  He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.

From this he concludes,

But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”

I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:

  • Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group.  The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
  • Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
  • The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
  • Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
  • Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?

 I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue.  I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.  Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy.  But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force.  I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative.  If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.  


(Anti)-Social Media and the Pastor

(This is the first of what I hope will be a somewhat informal series of reflections over the next few weeks on the promise and pitfalls of social media.) 

Mark Driscoll has in the past couple years gained a great many enemies (and, I expect, made few worthwhile friends) by his unguarded use of social media as an extension of his ministry; while he may have done much good at the same time (I don’t know), the nature of the medium is that the mistakes get magnified.  From several thousand miles away, nothing edifying or profitable Mark Driscoll has said online has ever reached my ears, but a number of offensive and divisive things have, things which, while they might only bother me slightly, I know will greatly and needlessly antagonize many of my Christian brothers and sisters.  Is this just because Driscoll likes to be obnoxious?  Perhaps.  But I’ve come to wonder increasingly how much of the problem is with the media, not the messenger.  Can Twitter serve as a tool of the pastoral office?  Or is this like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer in nails?  

 

The pastoral office, it seems, actually consists of two distinct but closely related offices—that of preaching, and of pastoral ministry.  While many pastors today seem to think that social media provide them a great platform for extending their reach as they pursue both these tasks, it seems to me that these media are, by their nature, almost certain to be detrimental to the faithful prosecution of these offices, unless they are used very judiciously. 

The task of preaching is to declare the word of the Gospel, the truth of Christ, to his saints and also, when they will listen, to the world—to expound and apply the teachings revealed in Scripture for illumination, edification, and training in righteousness.  How can this be done in sound-bites?  There may be a couple passages in the New Testament that manage to capture the whole essence of the Gospel in 160 characters, but to do the subject justice usually requires extended narrative and careful exegesis.  We Reformed have often been scornful of 10-minute Anglican sermonettes; why then do we think that Facebook and Twitter posts are likely to be any less superficial and uninstructive?  Of course, the problem is not merely one of length, but of impersonality.  It is quite important for our faith that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; when the Word merely becomes pixels, it is a poor substitute.  Christ’s encounter with those to whom he preached was often a remarkably personal encounter, discerning the word of condemnation or encouragement that each needed to hear.  Preaching, it would seem, generally works best when it is rooted in personal encounter, so that the message may be tailored to the actual needs of those hearing, rather than merely being let loose upon the multitude to work its magic or wreak its havoc, as the case may be.  Again, we Reformed are generally scornful of megachurches, where mic-ed up pastors declaim to thousands of people they may have never met before; why should we be any less concerned when the mic is Twitter, amplified to reach potentially millions, without the pastor having any idea who is reading?

This concern applies all the more urgently to the task of pastoral ministry, which aims to shepherd the souls of believers, chipping away at the armor of hearts that are hardened, and strengthening the faint-hearted with words of grace and comfort.  The diseases of soul that pastors are called upon to diagnose and treat are countless, and the wrong diagnosis and prescription can, I suppose, do eternal harm.  I am very glad that I am not called to that awesome and heavy responsibility, and have great respect for anyone who undertakes it.  But I cannot see how this complex task—of discerning sin, its causes, and its symptoms, and of determining the appropriate word of challenge, of counsel, or of comfort to apply in order to root out the sin—can possibly be performed without great risk upon faceless, numberless masses sitting in front of their laptops or tapping on their smartphones.  One might profitably condemn some vice to a group of guys in a Bible study, whom one felt needed to hear the message, and who would be able to respond and interact to discern its application to them.  But unleashing it on the world at large, without the ability to make all the relevant qualifications, might well trouble tender consciences, who don’t realize you weren’t talking about them, or might turn off people who misunderstood your point and thought you were being needlessly judgmental.  The more flamboyantly-worded your utterance, the more likely to do harm rather than good.  Unfortunately, the medium almost demands flamboyant wording.

 

If we don’t go so far as to say the medium is the message, we must at least admit that it dramatically shapes it.  It is not hard to see how this is the case in the world of social media.  What are these media about?  Well, they are about grabbing attention, about making people notice you and hopefully share whatever you said, so that even more people will notice.  The medium thus constitutes a powerful temptation toward vanity, and, for the pastor, the still worse temptation of substituting fidelity to the unpopular Gospel for something that will prove popular enough to be shared far and wide, that is not automatically bad.  Of course, these temptations can be resisted, and there can be good reasons for wanting to get people’s attention with these media.  We should want to grab people’s attention with the words of life and prompt them to share it far and wide.  

But this leads to a subtler temptation.  For the problem is that social media are self-defeating in their goal of grabbing attention.  Diluted by the thousands, millions, billions of similar utterances coming through the Cloud all the time, and embedded in web pages or mobile devices engineered to distract us from intent focus on anything in particular, the vast majority of what is said on social media is no sooner read than it is forgotten.  Of course, this is why it has to be short and snappy (although, of course, this brevity, which  it takes real talent to pack a lot of substance into, exacerbates the transience)—because people don’t have much attention to spare.  In this overcrowded competition for ever more evanescent flickers of attention, one must try to be either extremely profound or extremely witty or extremely provocative.  Unfortunately, the first of these is the hardest, and the last of these is much the easiest.  Even if it were possible to make a balanced, nuanced, carefully targeted, and pastorally sensitive pronouncement in 160 characters or a Facebook status update, the medium would militate against such an utterance—no one, browsing through their feed full of witticisms and exclamations and flashy pictures and caustic political commentary, would even read to the end of the statement, much less be inspired to “Like” it or share it.  

For these reasons, I am skeptical that such media can really serve as an effective extension of the pastoral ministry, or even of preaching, unless it be, as some do, primarily just to share links and quotes (and if a quote on some contentious matter, ideally from those very few truly great writers like Lewis or Chesterton who could pack a year’s worth of sermons into a sentence).