Archives For N.T Wright

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909

The quote below, taken from Tolstoy’s ‘A Confession’, reads like a critique of the leviathan that is social media:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions:
What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.
Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over Russia, and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us. It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that’[i].

Of course, it is anachronistic to suggest that Tolstoy was talking about social media as we know it. Tolstoy’s words are, however, a critique of 19th Century, Russian media, its medium and the noise therein. Therefore, they are an early critique of the content and form which makes up a large part of social media. As such, they are a relevant criticism for us to take seriously, particularly when applying them to a 21st Century context.

Today, Henry Ergas from ‘The Australian’, made an interesting observation. In writing about sensitive information, how it is monitored, distributed and delivered. He provided an historical insight, which although topically unrelated, helps us to contextually frame the sharp poignancy of Tolstoy’s reflection:

“19th century’s Pax Brittanica, was built on a solid technological foundation: Britain’s control of global telegraphy. As late as 1890, 80 per cent of the world’s submarine cables were British; Britain ruled the wires even more decisively than she ruled the waves… The sophistication of today’s communications networks is obviously many orders of magnitude that of Britain’s global telegraph system. In 2012, daily internet traffic was in the order of 1.1 exabytes, one billion times more every day than the 19th century system could carry in a year. And the growth rates remain breathtaking: wireless traffic alone is now eight times larger than the entire internet in 2000[ii]

If Ergas’ facts are correct, that is a lot of information being exchanged. For better or worse we engage, encode, disengage and decipher information at ‘breathtaking’ speeds. Matthew McKay suggests that ‘55% of all communication is mostly facial expressions’[v]. Thus, my conclusion is that because most of the information exchanged via social media is in written form, it seriously limits our ability to receive a message, in the same way it was intended to be received by the author. (there are many examples of how comments have been wrongly interpreted).

I consider Tolstoy’s reflection a full-stop. An important interruption that encourages us to take a breath and ask ourselves:

  • Is the information we are consuming authentic, well-informed, or is it just propaganda; distortion (noise)?

Further questions might be:

  • Are we consuming information without really processing and retaining what it is being said?
  • Who is saying this, and why are they saying it?
  • Is the source trustworthy?
  • Will my time be well spent reading this or not?

There is a further word worthy of consideration here. Augustine, in his day, had this to say about grace and human nature:

…’many sins are committed through pride; but not all happen proudly. They happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness, and many are committed by people, weeping and groaning in their distress[iii]

Perhaps there is a timeless clarity by which these words help us to reflect on the interpersonal conduct, and content of the information exchanged on most prominent social media sites today?

Diary of Leo Tolstoy

Diary of Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even with all its pitfalls, the strength of social media is in its ability to connect people and strengthen relationships. I remain a cautious participant of social media, aware of its limited ability to ‘properly allow a healthy and fair exchange of ideas’ (Elshtain, 2007). Therefore, I find here in Augustine and Tolstoy’s words, a reminder about the limits and the responsibility which coincides with the right to use such mediums. Augustine’s insight here could be bridged to Tolstoy’s reflection, and therefore buttress our proposition. Their words present us with a useful framework for a theological critique of social media.

Finally, if we look at Proverbs 4:20-5:6, we can see a parallel logic that could exonerate this train of thought.

Be attentive to God’s word

Keeping them close.

Guard your heart with vigilance,

Avoiding spin and smear.

(“Refusing to be conned by the rhetoric of either the new right or the new left’’)[iv]

Looking forward, ponder the path of our feet.

Be attentive to wisdom.

Use words that guard knowledge,

And ponder the path of life.


Related articles

Tolstoy’s Faith – GVL

The Who, What And When Of Social Media – RVD, The Christian Pundit

Sources:


[i] Tolstoy, L. 1879 A Confession (Kindle for PC ed. Loc. 92-100).
[ii] Ergas, H. 2013 Wrong for Abbott to follow Obama and add lying to spying, The Australian, Sourced 25th November 2013
[iii] Augustine, ON NATURE AND GRACE (With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Ed. Loc. 704-706
[iv] Wright, N.T. 2013 Creation, Power and Truth: The gospel in a world of cultural confusion, SPCK & Proverbs 4:27
[v] McKay, M., Martha, D. & Fanning, P. 2009 Messages: The communications skill book p.59, New Harbinger publications

©RL2013

Rehabilitating Marx?

November 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

I am not an adherent of Marxism. I do not favour the idea of an oligarchy boxing people into slavery to an overarching ideology or binding them to economic classifications which transform citizens into clients of the state.

With its blueprint for a ‘politically correct anarchy’ (Wright, 2013:46) this is something that the extreme left seems to be so attracted to. I am also not supportive of “practical-atheist, post-Christian” Western capitalism and its ”Darwinian” justifications for greed, such as an over-emphasis on the enlightenment, and a preference for egoist individualism.

I am, however, an adherent of finding a ferocious balance. One that falls in line with Alex De Tocqueville’s belief that ‘too much power is as bad as no power’ (cited by Elshtain, 1995:11). One that also falls into agreement with Jean Bethke Elshtain’s view that democratic civil society only exists, as long as there is a  disposition towards a ‘generous openness to sharp disagreement; a democratic feistiness over against a cynicism which breeds mistrust, paranoia, resentment and fear’ (Elshtain, 1995:xii & xiii).

In other words a healthy dose of respect for disagreement,responsible care; an openness to wisdom, truth or open rebuke spoken in love.

I currently lean towards a fair economic system, such as distributionism which fairly empowers and raises the underprivileged (not just keeps them in that position and lowers everyone else).

Having said this, with a sense of gratitude I acknowledge, the historical alliance between capitalism and democracy that Dr.Tim Stanley recently highlighted:

I write about this subject with the ferocity of a convert. I was once a Marxist and I once fooled myself that there was a distinction between economic analysis and practical despotism. There isn’t. I wish this could be patiently explained to the dumb kids who put Marx on their wall and wail about the unique EVIL of a capitalist system that has actually lifted millions from misery and proven to be a close ally of democracy. It’s an education every bit as vital as the one we give about fascism. – Tim Stanley [link]

It might pay to consider the publisher’s note in Gene Veith’s 1993 book Modern Fascism. Especially when being confronted by the noise of the left (and a growing number from the right) on social media. Often perpetuated by people who generalise and sadly, show little concern for objective analysis:

…A sincere, conscientious effort to clarify biblical principles and apply them is far superior to relying on a framework of secular relativism in a society that prides itself on pluralism and (egoist) individualism and yet in some respects is captive to fascist-type domination’ (Veith, G.E 1993 Kindle Loc.75-77).

It is here that I  find myself in agreement with Tom Wright, who points out that neo-Gnosticism finds itself expressed in both far-right and far-left ideologies. To the point where the ‘vox Dei (voice of God) is set aside leaving the vox populi (voice of the people) to become a law unto itself’ (2013:39 – I plan to write a bit more about this once I finish a review of Elshtain’s ‘Democracy on Trial and complete my reading of Wright’s book).

For the Church, Wright suggests that:

‘we should understand some key elements of today’s culture in terms of modern types of Gnosticism e.g.: Far-right American Evangelicalism, the Historical distortions & elevated conspiracies from the Left, Dan Brown & Richard Dawkins et.al…We can and should identify, and critique, an overall gnostic mood in today’s culture’ (2013, pp.4-31)

Sources:

Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy On Trial  Basic Books Perseus Books Group
Veith, G. E 1993 Modern Fascism, Kindle for PC ed.Concordia Publishing House.
Wright. N.T 2013 Creation, Power and Truth SPCK Great Britain

©RL2013