How much attention do you pay when you read? I mean on a regular basis. Neal Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death and the overall thesis of his work was that many of the problems of the modern age are caused by television media because it does not cause people to engage critically. Postman, in essence, argued that when we fail to critically engage what we are taking in, then we stop learning or growing intentionally and instead simply because passive components, allowing ourselves to be shaped by the entertainment media that we consume. I agree with Postman’s thesis here, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve discussed him in previous posts (though I couldn’t tell you which ones), but I think that it was a mistake to limit this to television. The truth is that any time we stop engaging critically and simply consume we are allowing ourselves to be passively shaped instead of taking an active part in our growth. This is true when we watch television, listen to music, sit in class, sit in church, or when we read. So, I ask again, how much attention do you pay when you read?
I actually had this very well illustrated for me in my small group tonight (for those of you who are not part of a Christian community, or not part of one that follows a small group model, a small group is a community building model that many churches use. A small group is a tighter community within the larger church body [generally about 5-20 people] that is based on the house church model of early Christianity, but functions under the umbrella of a larger church). In the sermon on Sunday morning the pastor made a simple mistake. In Acts 4:4 it discusses five thousand (that’s 5000) people converting to Christianity. The pastor, however, accidentally replaced this number with two thousand (2000) in his sermon (illustrations and all). Personally, I found this hilarious, and I heard a few other people in the church chuckling at the blatant error. It’s understandable. We all make simple errors sometimes, and typos can easily run away with a person.
However, in my small group tonight, we read Acts 4:1-4 and then immediately started discussing the verses. Even though we’d just read the verse, our discussion was partially dominated by a discussion of the two thousand people who were converted. This, however, isn’t the same as a typo in a sermon. The pastor was one man, and a fallible one at that. However, when a group of 11 people begin a discussion of a passage that they have just read and make the same error repeatedly (only two of us caught the error), it speaks to a different problem. We often check out when we read. This is as true of religious texts as it is of educational materials or fiction, and equally problematic. As Postman (should have) argued, when we don’t critically engage with what we are reading, we allow ourselves to be passively shaped by our unconscious assumptions about the text, or we allow ourselves to be shaped by what other people (whose words we also haven’t critically engaged with) tell us about the text.
This is an issue that I don’t think is noticed as often as it should be in our culture, or taken as seriously as it should be. This is an issue that certainly affects religious people (as I’ve just exemplified), but it doesn’t just affect religious people. Everything we come in contact with can potentially have a shaping effect. Many Christians have responded by running away from anything that doesn’t agree with their worldview (this is a mistake, but not one that I intend to engage in this post), and there are plenty of other people who do the same. However, a better approach is to engage critically with those things that we watch, read, hear, etc. Engage the world that you live in instead of simply passing through it. You might be surprised at what people are telling you.