Overcoming the Presentism Bias in the Blogosphere

As Maria Popova (creator and curator of the popular Brain Pickings blog) pointed out in a recent interview for Copyblogger, online culture “fetishizes the new(s),” forgetting all the knowledge and wisdom that’s come before us.

Popova calls this “our presentism bias,” which is “anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist.”

As Popova points out, this “presentism” is often a form of arrogance—one that assumes that “no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.”

Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

In Christian culture, this can translate into thinking that the current “hot-button” theological or Church issues are things Christians have never dealt with before.

Ours is a culture where people rush to tweet articles even before they’ve finished reading them, and in the Christian blog and Twittersphere, many of us find ourselves feeling like Rachel Held Evans, who recently confessed to feeling a bit out of her depth when called upon to comment on theological matters and the current state of the church at Christian colleges and on CNN: “[I’m] upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements I didn’t even know existed.”

This idea reminds me of an essay of C.S. Lewis’ introducing a very old book by a third century church father, Athanasius of Alexandria. Presciently—almost as if he were aware of all the heated blog-and-Twittersphere battles over women’s roles in the church, modesty, sexuality, sovereignty or the atonement—Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

And to put controversies of the moment in their proper perspective, Lewis argues we need to read old books.

We need old books not because they are necessarily better or somehow infallible (“People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we,” Lewis writes, “but not the same mistakes”) but because to read only new books is to join “at 11 o’clock a conversation that began at eight,” and thus to be unable to understand fully all that is going on.

The New Testament itself is in deep conversation with the Old Testament; it’s difficult to understand the former without the latter; Christianity is a conversation that has been going on for two thousand years.

We can’t even hope to wade into deeper waters in thinking about faith if all we’re reading are the writings of the moment.

As someone who’s still trying to wade into deeper waters, I asked a few experienced readers what resources they would recommend to Christians who’d like to avoid “presentism” in their own reading and thinking about faith, and I’d like to share some of their insights for those of you eager to move beyond the shallows.

{continue reading at RELEVANT}

The Stunningly Illustrated Children’s Bible That Should Still Be In Print (But Isn’t)

TaizeCover

There is an appealing, almost haunting spareness to the Taize Picture Bible (1968) in both word and image. Published in the USA by Fortress Press (mine is a fourth edition, 1978), the “note to readers” says

“The guiding editorial policy in this adaptation has been to facilitate understanding by readers of many age levels while remaining faithful to the words and meaning of the Biblical text.”

There is nothing prettified or cutesy about the images or the storytelling in this book. In fact there’s very little that makes it a children’s Bible at all except the stunning illustrations, which, frankly, I, as an adult, find help me move more deeply into the story.

on the road to Emmaus
on the road to Emmaus

I’m not an expert in children’s Bible’s–of those in print I generally like The Jesus Storybook Bible, although it is a bit twee at times in both word and image–but some of our precious suitcase space went to bringing the Taize Picture Bible with us, perhaps for the same reason that Taize music is some of the only worship music that never makes me feel sick to the stomach.

I don’t feel like it is manipulating me or conning me into feeling emotions I don’t feel or thoughts I don’t think. I don’t feel like it’s trying to do anything except reflect the strange beauty of God. In a world where it feels like everyone is trying to sell something–even “right” doctrine and the “right” perspective are items for sale–this is a profound relief.

It seems to me there is value in offering some of the Bible to children in all of its unvarnished strangeness, perhaps for a similar reason that Grimm’s fairy tales in all their grimness are read to children in Waldorf schools:

“Although many of the [word-]images in these stories are ‘grim,’ many experienced teachers believe that the inner pictures the children form are only as vivid or harsh as they can handle. The value of these stories is thought to be in their power to stimulate the child’s imagination by bringing archetypal images. It seems fitting that the range of these images should be as full as possible, since each strengthens the child for certain challenges he or she may face during life. I chose not to alter any of the stories when I told them. If I was not comfortable with a story in its entirety, I did not tell it at all.”

“The style of storytelling that I prefer is when the storyteller does very little with voice or movement to dramatize the story. The goal is to let the images of the story speak within the child’s imagination.

(David Darcy at Waldorf Without Walls)

Joseph sold by his brothers
Joseph sold by his brothers

“In the art and fantasy of fairy tales lies a very deep wisdom which has power to awaken children from the sleep of ordinary life. Forces of healing are also hidden in each fairy tale. The most important effect of the fairy tale is that they stimulate the feeling that man is a being of development, of struggle, of metamorphosis, and that behind all the adverse forces of giants and dwarfs, witches and demons there lies the good world of the true genius of man.”

(Friedrich Hiebel)

“Children experience the greed of the wolf and the evil of the witch quite differently than we adults do. They experience these qualities more as archetypal pictures about life, but do not yet identify themselves personally with the suffering. They trust that there will be a happy ending or that good will triumph over evil.”

(Fairy Tales: Healing Food for the Child’s Soul)

God Calls Samuel
God Calls Samuel

And now you may be wondering why I am citing the imagination-enhancing power of fairy tale when we began by talking about the Bible, which for many people has less to do with imagination (so we think) than belief:

“In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that to pretend helps one to experience God as real. In “Narnia” he offered a way to pretend — by depicting a God who is so explicitly not a God from an ordinary human church. Aslan keeps God safe from human clumsiness and error.”

Safe? Of course the Bible is not safe for children. Which is not the same thing as saying parts of it are not good for children.

anointing at Bethany
anointing at Bethany

What does it mean that our society places such a premium on fantasy and imagination? ‘No culture,’ observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins, ‘comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.’ In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, hunt.”

“Observing the lack of fantasy play among the Manus children in New Guinea, Margaret Mead noted that ‘the great majority of children will not even imagine bears under the bed unless the adult provides the bear.'”

“[Fictions] help us to learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions. That is what Joshua Landy, a professor of French literature, argues in How to Do Things with Fictions: fiction teaches us how to think about what we take to be true. In the cacophony of an information-soaked age, we need it.”

(T.M. Luhrmann in the New York Times )

Reading Classics With Kids (Even as Comic Books)

My dad told me about a series of comic books that were available when he was young—comics based on the plots of books commonly assigned to schoolchildren, which served as CliffNotes in those pre-Internet days when plagiarism generally meant that you copied either from a classmate or from the saved papers of students a year or two ahead of you. I’ve never actually seen one of those comic books, but I always liked the idea of them, even though I’ve pretty much always been the sort of student who reads the book.

(Except for The Martian Chronicles, which was assigned in 9th grade and which I simply did not read.)

Yet even though I’m generally a fan of reading the whole, real book before seeing the movie (or taking the exam)—I read, and loved, an unabridged translation of Les Miserables as a teenager—I’ve discovered that shortened and child-friendly adaptations of classic books can be very good things. I mean, I’m no expert in reading instruction or in child development or in anything else in particular, come to think of it, but there is something about allowing children to absorb great stories, even in a sketched-out form, that seems to be pretty powerful.

A few years ago, my husband started telling the children a child-friendly version of The Lord of the Rings, and they continue to ‘play the story’ in Lego and out in the yard, mulling over the endurance of Frodo, the faithfulness of Sam, the pitiable nature of Gollum, and the dangerous allure of the ring of power. About a year ago, my father read them a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, took them to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, and watched the classic film (with Gregory Peck). Again, the story figures into their thinking and playing still.

And recently, I read them a children’s version of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving works of literature in (Old) English. They could hardly wait for each successive chapter, and they cried real tears over the death of the old knight Beowulf. Don’t tell them I told you that.

Graeme's version of Beowulf v. Grendel
Graeme’s version of Beowulf v. Grendel

This is not at all to slight classic children’s literature, which I also love (I cried reading Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter on Charlotte’s Web in her literary memoir Booked), but only to say that even as children can absorb stories from the Bible in simplified form long before they can understand theology or read passages from the Good Book itself, they can meaningfully encounter great stories in ways that open up their imagination and creativity long before they’re ready to read Melville—and even if they’re never ready to read Melville.

In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wrote that one way to know you’ve encountered ‘myth’ (by which he meant not not true but rather a transcendently powerful story) when even reading the bare bones of the plot moves you in some way, or, in his words, a myth has “value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” I think that when my children take little child-sized bites of Beowulf, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, it begins to open up the back of the wardrobe.

Not Because It Is The ‘Greatest on Earth,’ But Because It’s Mine

I’m not a flag-waving American. I don’t think that my country is the ‘greatest country in the world,’ and I cringe at phrases like “God Bless the USA,” simply because if I’m going to ask God’s blessing on people, it seems a pretty small vision of God’s kingdom to ask that blessing only upon the land that happened to issue my passport. Still, I’ll admit to being pretty fond of my blue and gold US passport, and even to having gotten a little misty-eyed when it gets stamped and I hear that (New York accented) “welcome home!” at JFK International Airport.

Look, I’m not into illusions about America, Americans, or our history. I’ve read A People’s History of the United States more than once, and other books which have left me with little in the way of naive patriotism of the ‘greatest country on earth!’ variety. To anyone who wants to pick bones about US foreign policy as it has related to economic interests, I invite you first to read Confessions of an Economic Hitman or anything, anything at all about the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected leader Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala.

I have less patience with generalized criticisms of (US) Americans generally, such as: Americans are fat, Americans have no fashion sense, Americans don’t know how to eat well, Americans don’t care about other countries, Americans are ignorant, Americans are lazy, Americans are racist. I’ve heard all of these and more in my time overseas as well as at home, sometimes even from fellow Americans who clearly felt themselves to be exceptions to the rule in each of these categories.

(My answer to each of these charges is, quite simply: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Well, kidding. Sort of.)

In some circles it is pretty much fashionable to be at least casually anti-American, even if you are American. Every few weeks, it seems, there’s some article telling us why the {Dutch, Swedes, French, Japanese} do {food, work, parenting, clothing} better than we do and a few times a year, it seems, there some book coming out telling us how to {eat, parent, work, dress} like the {Italians, Dutch, Germans, French}. I find this not a little annoying, and, yes, spectacularly American, in both the best and worst ways.

Best: because what is pretty cool about the US is how many cultures and nations and ideas have shaped it.

Worse: because what’s not so cool, at least, not to me, is how anxious many of us seem to be that we’re doing it wrong (whatever ‘it’ is) even as many others of us refuse even to consider that we may, in fact, be able to do it better (whatever ‘it’ is.) Because there’s always more to learn. (Healthcare non-system, I am looking at YOU. Although maybe it’s getting better. Is it?)

But for all this–biting criticism of the healthcare non-system, tax code, foreign policy and so on notwithstanding–I am, as I said, happy to hold a US passport and to call the USA my home. I love my country with its faults and probably because of them. I’ve even eaten at American fast food restaurants overseas AND ENJOYED IT, though I rarely, if ever, eat at such places in the US. Why, then, when I’m overseas? Because for better or worse (usually, if I’m being at all objective, worse)–it tastes like home. As C.S. Lewis wrote, far from leading necessarily to arrogance or aggression, patriotism properly ordered can be a place from which to understand other people from other places not as benighted fools who don’t understand what is truly good in life but as people who love what they love just as we love what we love:

“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it.”

{You may also want to see…this alternative, Christian, patriotic song of peace which I wrote about late last year.}