In our present American culture we live in an unprecedented time where attention spans are likely the shortest they have ever been. In the digital age we are used to instantaneous results. If we want to know something we Google it and thousands of results immediately appear on our screens. We don’t even have to wait to get to a computer but can run searches on our mobile devices. Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death has documented the deleterious effects that digital media has had upon our culture. He notes that in the nineteenth-century when Abraham Lincoln ran for office that the presidential debates lasted for hours on end, whereas in our own day, they last minutes and the media then strips the debate down to one or two sound bites. I suspect that when Lloyd Benson debated Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate few people remember much about the substance of their exchange. The one ringing sound bite, however, still lingers in the minds of many. When Quayle said that he had more political experience than John F. Kennedy, in terms of the amount of time served, when Kennedy became president, Benson responded to Quayle, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This is the one statement that sticks—everything else has faded away. Instead of digging deep into books, people go to Wikipedia. As useful as the Internet can be, never before have we had access to so much information yet know so little.
Given these trends I think seminary students and ministers these days suffer from a short attention span and the inability to read long, detailed, carefully argued information. I am a digital immigrant, which means that the Internet was not around when I was a kid. To give you an idea, I used 8-track tapes and 45’s and even my dad’s reel-to-reel from time to time. But even then I still notice the negative effects of technology on my attention span. As with any problem, diagnosing and recognizing the issue is half the battle. If you know that digital media can have a negative effect on your attention span, then resist the temptation to turn on the computer, surf the internet, or watch a show. If you need to learn about something, fine, go to Wikipedia, find out what book you need, and then turn off the computer and get the book!
Also resist the urge for instantaneous gratification. The first time I read Geerhardus Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology I was bored to tears. I thought Vos was writing in Dinglish (Dutch + English = Dinglish). But I persevered and read through the whole book. I still wasn’t satisfied, however. So a few months later I picked up the book and read it again. I could tell I was benefiting from this because the first time I read the book I used a yellow highlighter and hardly marked anything. The second time I used blue, and I marked a number of more passages. But I still didn’t feel like I had figured out what Vos was saying, so a few months later I read the book for a third time. This time the lights came on and the Dinglish scales fell off my eyes! I could tell because I was painting entire pages with my pink highlighter. I couldn’t believe I had missed so much on the first two readings of the book.
Now, there is the real possibility that I am a dunce and it takes me a lot of elbow grease to understand something in comparison with others (yes, mom and dad, I now understand how they make movies). On the other hand, maybe I’m like most people and I have to fight the temptation for immediate gratification—I have to read, and re-read in order to grasp carefully argued and reasoned information. In other words, don’t be misled by our culture, which tells us that we can have everything immediately and with little to no effort. You can Google or Wiki something but it doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned anything. Read and re-read and don’t be afraid to work hard to learn. Read once, twice, three times if necessary. Outline the book. Take notes. In the end, you will reap the benefits, and more importantly, so will your congregation.