“We should …”

I came across an essay by Alan Jacobs in which he grapples with “The Challenge for the Church in an Age of Distraction”, and no surprise that it’s really pretty good, even in its concluding prescription to the modern church:

When George Whitefield and John Wesley were preaching sermons that created the First Great Awakening, they almost always started by trying to arouse in their hearers a conviction of sin. […] But I don’t believe we can readily reach people today with the same sequence. The very idea that I am a sinner sends me groping for my smartphone to avoid unpleasant emotions. […]

But what if we tried to tell people that by disconnecting, however temporarily, they might be able to hear God? […] We need to put people – those who don’t yet believe, those whose belief is young, those whose lives with Christ have become attenuated in a “technogenic” environment where our thoughts are largely directed by engineers – in a position to “pick up clues.”

If I have read the signs of the times accurately, the first clues are likely to suggest the presence and activity of God; next, God’s love and grace. An awareness of sin is not likely to come early in the process. St. Paul tells us that the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4); that may need to be our watchword in these times. If people can come to know that divine goodness, then they may understand the flaws in their nature through contrast to it. And that may be the path by which people in our world can come to a right understanding of themselves.

All good so far, and what follows is good as well … but …

For Anglicans the major resource is, of course, the Book of Common Prayer, and more particularly Thomas Cranmer’s subtle and ingenious adaptation of the Daily Office for the use of laypeople. As vigorously as I applaud the centrality of the Eucharist to Anglican worship that has developed over the past 150 years or so, I think we may be at a point in our cultural history at which we need to turn more attention to the resources carried by our own versions of the Daily Office. In particular, we should place greater emphasis on contemplative services in the prayer book: Evensong, Vespers, Compline – but also Morning Prayer without music.

We should encourage parishioners to adapt these services for home use as well; and place special emphasis on training people in contemplative practices. Teaching about and reflection on technology should be a permanent and central part of church ministry, including pastoral understanding and regular conversation about the fears associated with silence and a lack of stimulation.

Who among us can resist the temptation of urging ideas on others that look good (to us) in theory but are untested in practice? Not even Jacobs, it seems. I don’t know that I’m any better at it, but some time back I set myself the goal of always backing up an abstract claim with several concrete examples from my direct experience–here’s what I did and how it worked out for me, or at least here are some folks who did and how it’s worked out for them. It helps keep me from launching into flights of fancy like this.

In the case above, as in so many other proposals of the kind, I see the germs of good ideas being buried by the need to cast a grander, more comprehensive vision. I mentioned in a comment a few days back that if a small group of folks were interested in stripping down their worship to a regular practice of unadorned Morning Prayer, I’d be there with them. I think it’s a good idea, enough to sign up for it in advance.

But in the space of two paragraphs Jacobs has conjured up a vision that has your average parishioner engaged in Evensong, Vespers, Compline, and Morning Prayer, both as gathered worship and at home … while also engaged in contemplative practices … while also engaged in study and reflection on technology (a permanent and central part of the church ministry!) … I suppose in addition to the already scheduled Sunday worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, potlucks, and the rest.

Is this a serious proposal? If not, how are we supposed to go about processing it?

8 thoughts on ““We should …”

  1. I don’t know that it’s untried, exactly — people have been praying the offices for more than a thousand years at this point. I used to get a lot out of matins when i was a teenager (although it was exclusively a Sunday thing, it had music, and took place in church). But I agree that if this is adding to the list of activities, it’s a questionable vision.

    I think one of the problems in switching from our over-mediatized age to contemplative practice is that the average smartphone addict is going to find him/herself at loose ends for quite a while until s/he learns to retake her own thoughts. Worship could fill some of that space. However — I should admit that his suggestion underlines what I appreciate about Jewish worship. One issue I had with Quaker worship is that it didn’t offer enough program to keep me from being distracted by every noise in the room. Orthodox Jewish prayer does a better job of focusing my attention. An ex-boyfriend described it once as a process of retuning in a radio that gets off the channel regularly.

    To the bigger question of offering a vision — to me this reads like an offer as opposed to pushing something on the audience. It’s sounds like you’re hostile to all suggestions of how things could be? I get being frustrated with people who have a whole program they want to realize. But essentially if he changed everything from “should” to “could,” would that be a problem. It’s still a vision. I didn’t read this and thing “he’s giving people marching orders.”

  2. I don’t know that it’s untried, exactly — people have been praying the offices for more than a thousand years at this point.

    I don’t mean that the activities themselves are untried, only the use of them as a remedy to the current crisis. Those activities provided the sorts of benefits we are looking for, but to other people in other times and circumstances. They might provide similar benefits here and now, but we just don’t know.

    Actually, I think there may be a good case that they won’t succeed that, at least when introduced into the current church ecology. All of the things Jacobs suggests have been tried recently, as practical measures intended to combat spiritual malaise. They don’t seem to have worked—at least I’m not aware of any communities that are celebrated for having accomplished it.

    To the bigger question of offering a vision — to me this reads like an offer as opposed to pushing something on the audience. It’s sounds like you’re hostile to all suggestions of how things could be? I get being frustrated with people who have a whole program they want to realize. But essentially if he changed everything from “should” to “could,” would that be a problem. It’s still a vision. I didn’t read this and thing “he’s giving people marching orders.”

    Here I have to retreat behind Bonhoeffer’s claim that God hates visionary thinking—and by extension so do I. To me, what makes these final two paragraphs a matter of vision-casting is that they are an invitation to the system-makers to consider tweaking their system—new services, new programs, new practices, new emphases—perhaps not marching orders for the institution itself, but eventually marching orders for the individual parishioners (at least to my anarchist sensibility).

    Another objection—I have plenty, but I’ll spare you the rest for now—is that since none of these are new suggestions and they’ve all been tried repeatedly, we should look at the data from those attempts before suggesting them again. Instead, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Rocky and Bullwinkle bits:

    Rocky: And now …

    Bullwinkle: Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

    Rocky: But that trick never works!

    Bullwinkle: This time for sure!

  3. I guess I’m reading some wavering between “I don’t like visionary thinking,” “I don’t like untested visionary thinking,” and “I don’t like visionary thinking when pursued by middle-aged and older people” over the last few posts. I think the problem for me in saying that is that the status quo is actively harmful to some people. Although I grew up with it, I’m not really comfortable with the position that earthly life is essentially not worth changing (because it’s permeated with sin, and because heaven is the goal anyway). I mean — isn’t the perception that institutions are not worth saving so let’s not make any attempt at saving them (what I understood you to be saying a few days ago) also a kind of visionary thinking? It’s just a negative vision.

    re: would suggestions like Jacob work? I don’t think any suggestion will work for all people in any project. Will it work for some? Potentially. But I think the problem is one of developmental stages. I think that I’m starting to embrace a mystic version of Judaism, but I couldn’t have just started here. In fact, if you’d have told me in the 1990s that I’d defend some of the propositions I regularly defend now I would have done much worse than scoff.

  4. I guess I’m reading some wavering between “I don’t like visionary thinking,” “I don’t like untested visionary thinking,” and “I don’t like visionary thinking when pursued by middle-aged and older people” over the last few posts.

    Servetus,

    I never blame my reader, so if you’re seeing it, it’s there! I think it’s at least partly due to my not being a good enough writer to always distinguish clearly between individual and group action—and by group action I don’t mean action taken collectively, but deferring individual initiative to the group.

    For example, individuals joining together for the sake of Evensong, Compline, Morning Prayer and so on can be a very good thing for both the individuals and the group. But declaring by fiat that we are now a group that joins together for Evensong, Compline, Morning Prayer etc. doesn’t make us that sort of group—even if we do all those things faithfully! And joining a group established for that sort of person doesn’t make us that sort of person, even if we do all those things faithfully.

    If I write a longer post about this, it will probably focus on the idea that practices can shape our heart, and our heart can shape our practices—but practice can’t transform our heart, the desire to become a certain sort of person has to come first.

    I think the problem for me in saying that is that the status quo is actively harmful to some people.

    Provided I understand you correctly, I strongly agree, and I would say the reason behind it is that the status quo actively encourages individuals to turn over personal responsibility to the group, i.e. to take a “just tell me what to do” stance. Bad enough that this puts folks in a very vulnerable position. But I think the more pernicious result is that it actively keeps them from the thing they want, because achieving that requires them to take personal initiative. The group can’t make you the sort of person you want to be, no matter what it promises—it can support you in your personal efforts, but no more.

    isn’t the perception that institutions are not worth saving so let’s not make any attempt at saving them (what I understood you to be saying a few days ago) also a kind of visionary thinking? It’s just a negative vision.

    Again, bad writing on my part. It’s not that I believe institutions are not worth saving, it’s that institutions are the wrong vehicle for the work that needs to be done. What makes them difficult is that they are well suited for a related function, namely supporting individuals in their efforts to shape their own characters. But that quality also makes them dangerous, since interacting with them presents individuals with a constant temptation to let the institution do the work (would that it were possible!), and—this is the wicked part—institutions are highly motivated to fill that role, since it gives them a much expanded domain of operation and reason for being.

    Rick

  5. Servetus,

    Adding to the above, let me take a stab at a concrete example of the group/individual dynamic I’m trying to get at. My household is one that eats its meals together. We’ve practiced this for 35 years now. At the beginning we probably weren’t dedicated to the notion, and life could have taken us in a direction where we all ate at times individually convenient. But as we formed and refined our ideas about what a family should be, eating meals together fit nicely with them and we became more dedicated to the practice.

    And for a long time now we have been The Family Who Eats Together. Even though we don’t always eat together—I’ve been away for month-long stretches, and our oldest two have spent the past couple of years working in another state, only coming home for short visits. And sometimes one or another of us has a reason to eat a meal elsewhere. But our default behavior, our magnetic north, is to join together at the dinner table for meals.

    It has nothing to do with the food—although the food is pretty good! And it helps to have a routine activity to occupy us during the lulls. But really the point is to join together and be there for whatever might happen, conversation or joking or watching one another. There’s a common observation about professional conferences—the best stuff happens during hallway encounters. This is like that.

    And I should note that while it built deep and strong relationships among most of us, it didn’t work for one son. He was there for it all, faithfully, but was not inclined to do the character work that the situation made possible but didn’t force. There’s nothing wrong with the character he ended up with—independent, not much interested in family connections—I only mention it to point out that the practices only support and enable work that ultimately must be done on one’s own initiative.

  6. Servetus,

    One more thing (!) to close the loop in the previous comment. We were hardly the only folks to notice that eating as a family was an important thing. And there was a burst of writing and teaching in the early 2000s urging the Family Dinner Table on people as a remedy to increasingly frayed family bonds. Good idea—the dinner table is a place where those can be strengthened—but as far as I know nothing came out of it beyond a rash of now-forgotten books, a rash of conference talks, and a few startup businesses that quickly failed.

    I think the reason is simple—the Family Dinner Table is something that arises from strong family bonds, a thing that can strengthen them, but not the thing that creates them.

  7. re: which comes first, the heart or practices … the medieval theologians spilled a lot of ink on that one without coming to a conclusion; indeed it was a central problem of the Reformation. But trying to leave my theological knowledge out of it:

    “If I write a longer post about this, it will probably focus on the idea that practices can shape our heart, and our heart can shape our practices—but practice can’t transform our heart, the desire to become a certain sort of person has to come first.”

    I think your dinner table example is interesting here, and I have a different perspective on it as it affected me. My parents always ate dinner on weekdays and all meals on weekends together and with my brother and me; if they went to a restaurant, we went too. If dad was late for some reason, we waited until he was home unless that was going to be after our bedtime. As he was somewhat erratic in terms of accepting scheduling, my mother became a really fast cook. But it wasn’t a decision. It was just always there, as long as I remember. (And probably because all of my dairy farmer grandparents were the same way.) And I don’t remember anyone of our friends for whom the custom did not apply, i.e., if for some reason I were not at home at dinnertime and ate at a friend’s house, their families ate together as well. Now it’s just me and dad but we also still eat most dinners together. I cook. My brother works shifts, but they also eat every meal together that he’s home for and when he’s not there, they still eat together. I always ate most dinners with my romantic partners. If I had my own nuclear family, I would also make sure that we ate dinner together, not merely because there are lots of other good rationales for it (improves table manners, helps teach children how to have polite conversations, teaches about cooperation, gives an opportunity for values transmission) but because it feels right.

    I’m actually kind of a loner in general; my brother and I try to avoid certain kinds of discussions because we don’t want to fight; I lived away for three decades and I’m only here now because of my father. Most people who know me would probably say I’m not the kind of person who’d be inclined to be a family-meal-practicer. But it’s part of my core because it always was that way. I suppose you can say I am a person who has a heart for family meals, but I don’t think so. I never worked at it. It just always was that way, not just in my family but also elsewhere in my world, without any discussion. The practice made me into that person without me ever deciding to be her (except in the sense that I have never seen any reason to rock the boat). So, I guess I think that practices can transform our hearts in the absence of thought or feeling / conviction about them — but it has to occur in this organic way, before there’s an opportunity to make a choice. This is one of the things that community is potentially useful for.

    (I sort of have a similar feeling about worship — except of course that I know many people who find it tedious. But most traditional (haredi) Jews I have known see their worship/prayers in that way.)

    gotcha, and d’accord, re: institutions.

  8. We crossed over, I guess. I left home for university in 1987, so I guess we were either behind the trend not to eat together, or ahead of it? :) My parents and brother kept eating together, though, until he left home, and afterwards when it was just my parents, although they often went out as my mother didn’t enjoy cooking all that much.

    re: persisting trends: I think there is just so much that militates against it these days. The two-income family with both parents outside the home, and the resulting exhaustion strike me as important. My dad now sometimes sees ads for frozen foods that tout as an advantage that everyone can have what they want, and then he makes some awful statement about how everyone should eat what goes on the table (which was the rule when I was kid). I haven’t told him that in my brother’s family, they usually have two options because my youngest niece is a wildly picky eater and my SIL has decided that family togetherness is more important than a power struggle at every single meal. I can completely see why, if you worked an 8 hour or more day outside the home, you wouldn’t want to get into some kind of argument with your kids at dinnertime. But there again — I feel like in many cases, of which my niece may or may not be one, that’s a ship that sails when kids are very little. If you miss it, you’re stuck with the resulting behavior for a long time.

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