Reading it made my blood boil.
You see, I’m in marketing. It’s my job to get people to attend Word of Life Camps. I do this most often by assembling short, punchy paragraphs and compelling bullet lists. I make our facilities sound irresistible and our programming peerless. It helps that I happen to believe those things are true.
When I read this little addendum to the policies and procedures page of our website, I was irate: “Please do not bring cell phones, music/media players, computers, PDAs, radios, TVs or gaming devices.”
Most of my
unauthorized grand scheme marketing strategy was built around our customers, your students, posting pictures and videos of their camp experiences. This no-media policy meant Word of Life Camps would be generating exactly zero social media cred. They were taking tools out of my toolbox; it was like telling me I no longer would be allowed to use the subordinate clause.
I marched down to my boss’ office and demanded an explanation. A perfectly good one was given, but I still did not like it. I knew all the stats. I knew that…
• The amount of time Americans have spent on social networking rose 37 percent in the past year1.
• Most people (61 percent) spend more time networking online than socializing in person2.
• The overwhelming majority of us (90 percent) use multiple devices simultaneously3.
People today, especially students, live their lives in the digital world; and I know what it takes to succeed in that space. People don’t read—they skim—and to reach them you must be concise. Punchy. Sensational. Efficient.
Oddly though, Scripture is none of those things.
God chose to reveal Himself to us mostly through narrative rather than a bulleted list. He tells us about Himself and our own origins through long-form prose, an art form that we are precariously in danger of losing.
Stories are all around us. Pick up any remote, glance at any screen, and you probably will take in at least part of a story. Common, though they are, we demand our stories to be lightweight, told in chunks of 30 or 60 minutes. On rare occasions, we take in a 120-minute epic, but in these stories we have no participation.
As the modern world advances, we devolve from active participants to passive consumers. We tell fewer stories than ever, yet they remain ubiquitous because they are infinitely important.
Stories teach us about ourselves. As they elicit an emotional response in us, we learn what things make us angry and sad often from our earliest stories. Many of us learn of our longing for true love by watching one princess or another fight to achieve it. In a very primal sense, we learn the most about ourselves by hearing stories about imagined others. The stories of Scripture teach us not only about ourselves, but about the heart of God. In the story of Hagar and Ishmael4, we learn God is tender toward outcasts. We read that pride, deception and injustice makes God angry5.
Stories teach us about the world, too. This is the benefit of reading, most often cited by librarians. Our understanding of the world, especially in our youth, is limited by our experience. Stories allow us to see corners of the wide world that we would not experience otherwise. Emily Dickinson, a recluse who seldom left her room, told us as much: “There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away.” God’s history of the world makes clear to us why things are the way they are today. By reading and believing, we can gain wisdom not available from any other source6.
Unlike when we passively consume screen-bound stories, reading a book is a creative act. Stories found in print are told collaboratively in a sacred partnership between writer and reader. The writer assembles a sequence of words, crafting and honing through many months as the story’s framework takes shape in his or her mind alone. The written story then is unwound by a reader who assigns meaning to the string of nouns, predicates and modifiers. A written book is not a told story; only in the reading does a story find its voice.
When a believer reads the narrative of Scripture, both roles in this sacred partnership are held by individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathed out the words of Scripture into the hearts of apostles and prophets,7 and it’s with the Holy Spirit’s illumination8 that we read.
Even guided by the Holy Spirit, our journey to understand Scripture always will be a wandering one. Stories require wrestling. They do not allow us to round off the rougher bits that are hard to understand. They are inefficient, often wild and always resisting simplicity. Yet, compared with a bullet list, stories are a vastly superior container for the infinite heart of God.
The scriptural narrative ought not to compete with the Internet for our attention, but it does. It remains uniquely undistilled in our world of truncations and summaries. I fear we have traded our ancient, yet active connection with God in favor of a 4G connection with one another. I fear the Internet has rewired us to value brevity over authenticity.
Thanks to our technology prohibition, Word of Life Camps will remain a place with more stories than bullet lists. It still makes me uncomfortable, but I’m learning that is by design.
4 Genesis 21
5 Proverbs 6:16-17
7 2 Peter 1:21