Larry Bird was slow of foot and suffered from White Man’s Disease. Wayne Gretzky was only 6 feet tall and weighed 160 pounds when pundits opined that he was “too small, too wiry, and too slow to be a force in the NHL.”1 Yet Bird and Gretzky are enshrined in their respective Halls of Fame. Both possessed a skill that made their teammates better players. You too can acquire it – not making better players but making the world better. The next 180 seconds will indicate whether you’re gaining this skill or not.
Why 180 seconds? That’s about the time it takes to read this piece and the number of Americans who read something this long is shrinking. In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Two decades later, only 67 percent did. More than 40 percent of Americans under the age of 44 do not read a single book – fiction or nonfiction – over the course of a year. The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004.
As a result, most Americans only pay continuous partial attention to what’s happening – a term introduced in 1997 by Linda Stone, then an executive with Microsoft. Harvard University’s Kiku Adatto supports Stone’s summation. He found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite for a presidential candidate dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.2 This time period, of course, encompasses the rise of the Web and video along with the decline of reading. Continuous partial attention means we’re clueless about our modern myopia. But the problem isn’t video per se.
In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, science writer Steven Johnson assures parents that while they may see their “vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouths agape, at the screen” these “are not signs of mental atrophy. They’re signs of focus.” Exactly. Video shrinks attention span to particulars – and that can be a good thing. Yet “the real question is what toddlers are screening out, not what they are focusing on,” writes Susan Jacoby.3 What’s screened out is peripheral vision. That requires reading or listening to great stories.
If you’re a follower of Christ, this matters. We’re supposed to make the world a better place. This requires a broader understanding of the issues rather than simplistic remedies. And that requires peripheral vision. Yet there’s a fair amount of evidence that we’re instead becoming myopic. Take the rise of “passion” – a relatively recent word in our vocabulary. David Brooks says magazine editors churn out “page after page on lip-gloss trends, armoire placement, or powerboat design” without getting depressed because “these editors have, to use their favorite word, passion.”4 It’s become everyone’s “hot” new word. Novartis is passionate about curing cancer. BusinessWeek tells readers to “Follow Your Passion.” Lexus is passionate about their pursuit of perfection. The accounting firm of Grant Thornton has “a passion for accounting” (imagine accountants as passionate!). Christians are likewise urged to have a “passion” for God. Sounds particularly good, doesn’t it? Not if you enjoy peripheral vision.
A wider view reveals only one positive reference to passion in the Bible. If people lack self-control, “let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” wrote the apostle Paul.5 Passion properly scrunches peripheral vision. If you doubt me, ask how many couples quote the stock market while making passionate love. This means passion is perfect after the wedding. Consummating a marriage is a picture of the consummation of the church with Christ.6 In the “four chapter” gospel, this happens in the next life, not this one.7 Then we’ll be perfected as a result of the beatific vision – seeing God as he truly is and being sealed forever. We won’t need wider peripheral vision because we’ll “know fully.”8 Once we’re perfected, passion is perfect.
Not so in this life. Passionate people can be a problem. History reminds us that those most willing to die for their faith are often more likely to kill for it. William Butler Yeats feared a world where “the centre cannot hold” because “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We don’t need passion as much as we need purposeful, prayerful people who enjoy peripheral vision. And that requires reading – reading good literature.
“He can watch the entire game and be playing at the same time” was how high school teammate James “Beezer” Carnes described Larry Bird. Wayne Gretzky enjoyed the same peripheral vision: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Bird and Gretzky had an enviable ability to see the whole game before them. They did more because they saw more. Christians can do more when they see more. This doesn’t mean we stop watching videos. But it does require more reading.
2 Susan Jacoby, “Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces,” Washington Post, February 17, 2008; Page B01
3 Jacoby, “Call Me a Snob.”
4 C.f., David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
5 I Corinthians 7:9
6 C.f., Revelation 19:7, 21:9, and 22:17
7 The Judeo-Christian tradition was once understood as a “four-chapter” story that describes how life ought to be (creation), how it usually is (the fall), how life can be made better (redemption) and what it will be one day (the final restoration).
8 I Corinthians 13:12