Thomas Friedman wrote a provocative book a few years back declaring that, largely due to the rapid growth of technology and the increasing connectivity of people worldwide, the world is now flat. I can find no reason to argue, but one of the natural bi-products of living in a flat world seems to be a more narrow perspective on life. No longer is our vision pointed upward and outward; we are too busy peering at our hand held doohickeys. Rather than a view of the world that is spiritually and intellectually round, our view is functionally limited to the here and now-to me and mine.
How do we overcome this myopia of the soul? One important and rather neglected solution is reading; in particular, the reading of stories. Books broaden the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual horizon. After all, Lewis Mumford wrote, “the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local” (Technics and Civilization). I believe the world in which we live has found a whole new way to be dominated by the immediate and the local. Rather than being limited in space to one location, we are limited in time-quite disconnected from history and lacking any impetus to plan for the distant and unknown future. Print, by its nature, requires intellectual activity and those men and women of history who were readers were precisely the ones concerned with remembering the past and living in light of the future. Visual media has disengaged the anchor that was print, trading in the real for the virtual. We are now an untethered people, alone more than ever, not in spite of our technology, but perhaps because of our technology.
The point is this: when a people like the early Americans are awash in literature, they are given opportunity, whether poor or rich, mean or refined, to see the light more clearly. Visual media has, in many respects, robbed western civilization of this opportunity by feeding our insatiable lust for the immediate and the shallow, by perpetuating our propensity to chase every distraction.
This blog post is not a diatribe against visual media. I enjoy a good movie just like the next guy. I am suggesting, however, that our current struggles, both individually and socially, will be more substantively addressed by trading television shows as the common reference point of a people for the printed word; especially stories. When our communal words are grounded more in literature and less in the latest episode of ____________ (please fill in the currently popular television show for your demographic), then our intellectual and spiritual vision will be both clearer and see further. I am not calling for unbridled reading of any stories, but those stories that serve to nourish the whole imagination, nurture the whole person, and ennoble the whole world-3D reading in a flat world.
What if Christians more intentionally worked to sanctify the whole imagination and the whole person, in order to ennoble the whole world? I believe that our times are desperate for this higher vision. I also believe, however, that while three dimensional reading will help draw us out of the second Dark Age in which we live, it will not, of itself, complete the process. Jesus Christ called himself the Light of the world and his Light has spread through the world ever since the first century. I believe the world is, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame forth like shining from shook foil.” Anthony Esolen, in his book, Ironies of Faith, comments on Hopkin’s poetic vision of the world: “a real gleaning is going on, with the poet as gleaner, walking through the rows of grain: and his instruments are his heart and eyes. He is gleaning the savior.”
Our human calling in this flat world, is to play the poet with our heart and eyes. Stories are a proven training ground for such a high calling. When we read three dimensionally, we are better able to search for the savior’s likeness, to find all that points to him, and to glean it as a harvest that will feed the world into roundness and life.
May your reading (and writing) serve to unflatten the world and bring light where there is darkness.