During one of my classes today I noticed a student furiously typing away on her smart phone. I do mean furiously. She was silent (except for the tapping of her fingers). At first I wanted to believe that she was taking notes. But I’m not that interesting. I am certainly not interesting enough to inspire furious note taking.
Then I thought that perhaps she disagreed with what I was saying. I wondered if, instead of voicing her objection, she was recording her rebuttal for future reference. But that didn’t seem likely either. She is a good student who is usually engaged. I was pretty sure that she would voice any serious disagreement.
Finally, I decided to say something. This is always a tough call. If the student is doing something they shouldn’t, then they are embarrassed. I don’t really have a problem with that. But if they are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing (like taking notes) then I am embarrassed. I guess I am more comfortable with their embarrassment than I am with my own.
“I have to ask…are you taking notes on that thing?” I asked. She looked abashed. “No…no. I’m sorry. I’ll put it away.” And she did.
I think in my earlier years I would have launched into a lecture about classroom decorum and respect. But I’ve since learned that when students are distracted, there is often a good reason. Pressures outside the class creep across the sacred threshold and their urgent whispers drown out my scintillating lecture. These distractions often come from things like divorce, death or shattered love affairs. As for the handful of instances where the problem really is a lack of decorum and respect, well those students are not intimidated by my scolding anyway.
After class the student came up to me and apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I was in the middle of a long argument with my mother.”
“I know” I answered with a smile. “I could hear you shouting.”
I learned about the 80 second rule this week. Apparently the attention span of those viewing content online is less than a minute and a half. The person who told me this warned, “You only have 80 seconds to get your message across before they click through.”
I suppose I should be encouraged by this. After all, the length of the average commercial is only 30 seconds. I have nearly double that amount of time before you get bored waiting for me to say something meaningful and go looking for the puppy cam on YouTube.
Still, I can’t help thinking about Neil Postman’s warning that technology is not neutral. “Every technology is both a burden and blessing; not either-or but this-and-that” Postman writes in his book Technopoly. Postman observes that the uses a culture makes of technology are determined by the structure of that technology and that any benefit it renders exacts a cost. He warns that in the early stages of adoption by a culture, the unintended consequences of a new technology (both positive and negative) are unclear. “This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even say wildly unpredictable” Postman explains.
The Internet gives us immediate access to the collected thought of greatest minds in human history. We can find their writings in a matter of seconds. Yet as it does so, it seems that the same technology also robs us of the attention span needed to read what we find. Not to worry. A click or two more and we can easily locate a topical index of their most famous quotations. That was all we really wanted anyway.
If we have lost the capacity for focused attention necessary to read works like the Confessions of Saint Augustine, it also seems likely that we are losing the ability to engage in the kind of sustained reflection that would be needed to write anything comparable in the future. But the most terrifying implication–the truly life changing consequence of this is…
Oh, I see that my time is up. You’ve already moved on.
We all love stories where some great person stoops. The Mayor of a great city moves into the housing project for a month. The CEO of a billion dollar company works on the loading dock for a day. The NBA star joins a pick-up game in the neighborhood. The college president helps a freshman unload the car in the first week of school.
We like hearing stories like these. But the truth is, excursions like these have very little to do with real humility. Humility is not a day trip. It is not a place we occasionally visit in moments of extreme devotion. Humility is a realm that Jesus calls us to explore deeply and inhabit permanently.
Despite its importance, the truly humble person is not marked by an extreme interest in humility. What we sometimes mistake for humility in others is often just a carefully disguised form of pride. Such attempts at humility are intended to set us apart from others. These acts of false humility are not merely comparative, they are competitive. It is hard to serve those with whom you are in competition.
Real humility is harder to recognize than we think. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
This is what differentiates true humility from false humility. False humility is conspicuously self-conscious. But the truly humble person, as Lewis observes, is not thinking about himself. This is not because the humble person loathes himself. It is because the servant is genuinely interested in the other.
Love, it turns out, is the real secret to humility. Before Jesus’ great act of humility, the Scripture testifies: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 ESV). The key to humility does not lie in thinking about humility at all. What we call humility is really just another name for love.
In his book on Christian ethics entitled Vision and Virtue, Stanley Hauerwas notes that modern Christians find the everyday morally uninteresting. “The Christian life is a constant struggle to wrestle the truth out of the everyday” Hauerwas writes. “Recent Christian ethics has concentrated its attention on the crisis situation or the ‘big event.’ The Christian life is defined in relation not to the humdrum but to revolution and conflict; the everyday is morally uninteresting.”
I think the same could be said of our notion of what it means to follow Jesus. We are preoccupied with radical Christianity. We are waiting for an opportunity to do something epic–something extreme. The everyday is spiritually uninteresting to us.
In reality, when we follow Jesus, what we do is liable to be so common, so knit together with the fabric of our ordinary lives, that our actions will be virtually invisible. So invisible, in fact, that we often do not recognize it as following Jesus. “Lord,” we will say when the true significance of our actions are finally pointed out to us, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” And Jesus will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Perhaps this is why I do not find talk about “radical” Christianity especially motivating or particularly helpful. I suspect that if we were to really examine the lives of “radical” saints from the past, we would find that the extreme obedience we so admire in them was really an extension of their day-to-day devotion to Christ in the small things of life.
I once had a friend who spoke with Jesus in her dreams. He showed up unexpectedly, like a friend who drops by on a whim. When I asked her what Jesus said to her on these occasions she just smiled and shook her head, as if that explained everything! “That’s my Jesus,” she exclaimed. I suppose I should have been happy for her. But I wasn’t. I was jealous. Although this sort of thing didn’t happen to her every night, it happened often enough to make me wonder why Jesus never appeared in my dreams.
Then one night He did. He sat down on the edge of my bed with a grin and began to speak. He wasn’t what I expected. He had the robe and the sandals. But his hair was swept back as if it had been styled with a blow-drier. To be honest, He looked more like a blond surfer dude from California than the Jesus I read about in the Gospels. And He wasn’t making any sense. In fact, the longer He spoke, the more I realized that what He was saying was gibberish. That’s when I woke up. I had longed for an intimate encounter with Jesus like my friend’s. Instead, I met His Hollywood stand in. That was forty years ago, in the early days of my Christian experience.
Since then I have discovered that there is more to the Jesus of the Gospels than the Jesus of my dreams. The Jesus I meet in Scripture is more astonishing than anyone I could ever have imagined. He is enigmatic and reassuring. He is a comfort and a terror. He is a puzzle to His friends and an outrage to His enemies. The Jesus of Scripture says and does the most outrageous things. He does not resemble the simpering Jesus of Hollywood or the nagging Christ I often hear about in church. He is the most interesting person you will ever encounter. You will not forget Him. You will never get over Him.
Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”
Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.
This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.
In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.
But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
Thanks be to God.