The Wonder of Reading

While reading through Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death again as I teach on media literacy, I was struck by his description of what is required of an individual in order to read a book. The entire book is worth reading, as it compares a print-based culture to a television-centered one, but the following selection, at least, should awaken within us a thanksgiving to God for the gift of simply being literate.

Although the general character of print-intelligence would be known to anyone who would be reading this book, you may arrive at a reasonably detailed definition of it by simply considering what is demanded of you as you read this book. You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. This includes your bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence,” meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, or charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images. (pages 25-26)

Given all that is required to read such forms of literature, it should come as no surprise that Postman goes on to say: “I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist” (27).

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Unrestrained Moderation

In Book Four section 26 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he states:

You’ve seen that. Now look at this.

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.

Someone has done wrong… to himself.

Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.

Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present–thoughtfully, justly.

Unrestrained moderation.

Aurelius was, of course, the famous philosopher-emperor of the Roman Empire. He adhered to the philosophy of Stoicism, meaning (to butcher with over-simplification) that he held to a deterministic view of the world being governed by nature or by the logos.

As such, he repeatedly emphasized that we cannot change the people or circumstances around us, so why waste time worrying and trying to do so. Instead, we can only control ourselves; let us, therefore, do just that. From this reasoning, Stoics placed a tremendous weight upon the need for self-control and discipline.

As Christians, we can applaud (and even learn from) Stoicism’s thoughts on discipline and self-control, while Aurelius’ certainty that life will unfold as nature intended causes me to consider how much more I ought to trust the One who authored the laws of nature.

Christians will find many of Aurelius’ insights to be in line with wisdom, while disagreeing adamantly about others. He was, after all, not a Christian by any means.

Yet I could not help pausing at the phrasing of Aurelius’ thought above, “unrestrained moderation.” These seems to perfectly capture the aim of Stoic philosophy, and (because nearly everything believed has, at least, an element of truth to it), I think this also reflects well the Christian’s view of worldly, yet God-given, pleasures.

For us, the problem with pleasures is not about the pleasures themselves. Food and sex, for example, are natural gifts, designed by the Creator for our enjoyment. Food and sex only become sinful whenever we treat them as ultimate, whenever we abuse them. The reactionary tendency then becomes two extremes, either to forbid abused pleasures entirely (i.e. religious dietary restrictions or clerical celibacy) or to indulge ever more (trusting the grace of God to cover a multitude of our continuous sins or a simple denial that the body is of any importance whatsoever). Both of these responses are wicked, legalism and antinomianism alike.

The proper response for the Christian, who is no longer under the burden of the law in Christ, is certainly one of unrestrained moderation. We freely and gladly delight in the full array of flavors that God brought into existence for the benefit of our taste buds, but we will not be mastered by those delights. We rejoice in the marital bliss of intimacy between husband and wife, yet we guard and honor the marriage bed, refusing to let such a gift exceed its proper boundaries.

Or as Paul said to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 6:12 | “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

In Christ, we are unrestrained to enjoy the gifts of God, but we do so in moderation, knowing how easily they might become gods instead.