Is it possible to think any more?

This post is prompted by four things

1. Reading an interview with a guy called Cal Newport who’s just published a book Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

2. Re-reading parts of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was published back in ancient history (2010) but remains, I think, an important exploration of what the digital age is doing to us. It remains remarkably current.

3. Trying to find space to be creative: to think about a new writing idea: to clarify the concept; to identify the audience; to articulate a compelling rationale; to plan a structure; and – finally – to begin the writing process from the starting point of a blank (yes) screen. I’m reasonably disciplined and am used to writing, but I’ve found this way harder to do than usual. Of course there could be many explanations for my brain fog (isn’t much going on in there / haven’t got much to say / add your own insult) but I wonder if its connected to Lockdown and more enforced screen time, more time indoors etc?

4. Supervising an MA dissertation on church and the digital age

Both authors above, from different angles, are saying things probably most of us are experiencing. The all-encompassing encroachment of the digital age into every area of our existence has some serious downsides. The digitalisation of life is negatively impacting our thinking, creativity, work patterns and imaginations, amongst other things.

So, yes of course we can think, but are we thinking less well, less creatively, and less imaginatively than if we were not in a state of constant distraction and information overload?

Here’s a flavour of Newport’s argument

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

His book is about freedom from the tyranny of email – relegating it to be a servant of effective work practices rather than the master. He argues that a solution has to go beyond the lone individual battling against a tide of haphazard communication – there needs to be a fundamental shift in workplace culture to put email in its place.

That master-servant analogy also applies to Carr’s book, indeed he uses it early on;

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master. p. 4.

He means by this that the net is doing something to our brains. Its fragmented, hyperlinked and confetti-type nature is fundamentally alien to the way human thinking and culture have been developed and sustained. It has pulled us into the shallows, where we are mired in distracted thought.

Add on to this other unplanned consequences of the digital age that Carr discusses:

– vast amounts of available information does not necessarily make research and writing any better or any easier

– every time we follow suggested links we follows scripts written by others, limiting intuition, creativity and accidental discovery

– long hours in the electronic world keeps us, in effect, in an ‘urban’, busy, high-stimulus environment. Overwhelming research shows that our brains relax in natural environments. Spending time in nature leads to better cognitive functioning.

– a calm, attentive mind is also more empathetic. Human relationships are complex interactions of verbal and non-verbal communication. Take out the physical leads to a loss of empathy and a dehumanisation of those we engage with online. Since 2010 when Carr wrote this, the toxicity of the internet has poisoned public debate and polarised politics.

But my main focus is distraction so I’d better get back to that! Carr writes,

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lost the thread, begin looking for something else to do. p.5

Which describes just about how I’m feeling at the moment. How about you? Does the following describe your experience?:

  • constantly connected
  • distracted
  • having multiple conversations on multiple platforms at the same time
  • spending most of the day looking at one sort of screen or another
  • feeling bombarded by images, texts, messages – many unsolicited and trivial
  • never feeling you have enough time
  • anxious if you misplace your phone and can’t rest until you have found it
  • struggling to concentrate
  • endlessly flicking over to email, news, netflix, whatsapp, FB or Twitter or Instagram
  • checking your social media accounts obsessively
  • at work feeling like you spend most of the time reacting, especially to haphazard emails
  • struggling to maintain boundaries of work and the rest of our life
  • used to read books but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • used to read your Bible but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • physically less active than you used to be?

If so, then you don’t need me to say there is a problem.

I’m old enough to be a digital migrant rather than a digital native. College studies and PhD research were all done ‘long-hand’. For the latter I had to travel 100 miles to the nearest university library to photocopy articles and hand write notes. I wrote it up in WordPerfect on a 386 running on MSDOS with (I think) a 256kb hard-drive and saved files on floppy disks. The internet hardly existed in any useful form. We lived in the country and had a terrible dial-up connection. No mobile phones, certainly no smartphone, no social media, no whatsapp – and not that much email.

So I had to smile reading Carr talking about what he had to do to actually write The Shallows. It’s an irony that, despite all the technological progress since the 1990s, he essentially retreated backwards to our lives in the Irish countryside pre the Web.

If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent thought? It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows … I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words … It was clear big changes were in order … I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service .. the internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. Most important, I throttled back on my email application … I began to keep the program closed for most of the day.

The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months my synapses howled for the Net fix … But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old disused neural circuits were springing back to life … I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts – less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. pp.198-99.

So what to do? I could suggest to my wife that we move back to the hills of Tipperary. She may like the idea but I suspect that the internet connections are a lot better than they used to be. Smartphones ain’t going away. And Carr’s move to the wilderness isn’t the most practical solution for 99.9% of people.

To start with, on a study day I’m starting to turn off email and phone. I’m prioritising reading physical books and articles rather than a screen. I get out for a walk, preferably along or near water. And if writing, to turn off wifi so it would take a bit more of an intentional decision to open up a web browser and check the news or something else irrelevant. It’s not a quick fix but it helps. And if Lockdown eases and I get the chance, I hope to get away to a cottage for a few days and disconnect from all distractions.

How about you?

Unbridled captialism and the erosion of civil society

From The Atlantic

An article analysing the destructive effects of long hours combined with unpredictable schedules now commonplace among corportations intent on maximising profit by utilising their workforce most efficiently.

“Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore: Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society”

This concluding paragraph

It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.

How kick back against this on a societal scale for the common good?

And if community is crucial within Christian faith, how does that community flourish and be sustained if significant numbers of people are unable to participate on a weekly basis due to long hours and unpredictable work schedules?

Idolatry today: work

never finishedOver at The Altantic staff writer Derek Thompson has an almost theological deconstruction of modern work: ‘Workism is Making Americans Miserable’.

Here’s a proposal and a question.

Proposal: Idolatry is alive and well in the 21st century West.

Question: If so, what would you say are some examples of modern idolatries in Western culture?

Thompson makes a good case, from a non-religious perspective, that much modern work has become idolatrous.

Some clips from his article:


The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

And more

Perhaps long hours are part of an arms race for status and income among the moneyed elite. Or maybe the logic here isn’t economic at all. It’s emotional—even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves. “For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play,” the economist Robert Frank wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”

and this

What’s more, in a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95 percent of teens said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including “helping other people who are in need” (81 percent) or getting married (47 percent). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.

and this

“We’ve created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work,” says Oren Cass, the author of the book The Once and Future Worker. “We tell young people that their work should be their passion. ‘Don’t give up until you find a job that you love!’ we say. ‘You should be changing the world!’ we tell them. That is the message in commencement addresses, in pop culture, and frankly, in media, including The Atlantic.”

But our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office.

Thompson draws out important realities. Modern white-collar work has few tangibles. And so modern worker turn to social media to make manifest their accomplishments. It is a world of metrics, of followers, of likes, retweets, friends, viewers, of success, of competitive achievement.

More and more, the competitive market economy reaches into every area of our lives. Work, for many, is ruthlessly competitive – it is fellow workers against whom we compete. Such a world is hard to opt-out of – each of us is pushed towards ‘selling ourselves’ in order to survive and prosper.

Workism offers a perilous trade-off … A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshippers. Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.

Thompson suggests, in effect, ‘de-idolising’ work by making it serve our best interests rather than the other way around – making time for relationships, hobbies and basically having a life. He wants to see public policy put in frameworks that reorientate cultural priorities.

Which all raises a further interesting question that will have to take another post ..

What does it look like to de-idolise work from a Christian perspective?






Lasting Work

work mattersThis is the last of a few posts giving a flavour of R Paul Stevens’ book pithy and thought-provoking little book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture

Towards the end he has a reflection on work and the future, when for many work is something to be endured and lacks any telos.

What then is work that carries spiritual significance – even into the new age to come?

He rejects a sacred / secular divide that sees explicitly ‘Christian’ work as that which really matters – stuff like preaching, evangelism, Bible study etc. Behind such a split is a dualism between the ‘spiritual’ (good)  and the ‘material’ (bad).

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit are both powerful indicators of how the future is already here in the present.  Stevens sees continuity (not annhilation) between this world and the new creation.

Stevens goes to three key Pauline texts on work. The eternal significance of our work lies in relationship with the living resurrected Lord.

1 Cor 3:12-15 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation[Christ] their work will be shown for what it is ..’

1 Cor 13:13 ‘The greatest of these remain: faith, hope and love’

1 Cor 15:58 ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord for you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’

There is, Stevens argues, then hope of redemption of not only our lives or of creation but also our work.  The damage done by negative work – the environmental, social, cultural and political scars left by destructive work – may yet be transfigured in the new creation.

How’s this for a positive vision of daily work in light of future hope to think about next Monday morning?

Clearly, through our daily work we leave our mark on the cosmos and our environment, on government, culture, neighborhoods, families, and even on the principalities and powers. The Bible hints that in some way beyond our imagination our marks are permanent. The theological truth that undergirds this fascinating and challenging line of exploration is the statement that Christ is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and firstborn from the grave (1:18). If Christ is truly the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the grave, then all work has eternal consequences, whether homemaking or being a stockbroker. This brings new meaning to those whose toil is located in so-called secular work – in the arts, education, business, politics, the environment, and the home. Not only are ordinary Christians priests of creation past and present; they, along with missionaries, pastors, and Christian educators, are shaping the future of creation in some significant way. This means that we are invited in Christ to leave beautiful marks on creation, on the environment, family, city, workplace, and nation. (158-9)

The sluggard – the misdirected desire of the lazy person

work mattersIn his book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture, Paul Stevens turns to reflect on the sluggard. What a great word.

Before we get to what he says, some questions:

We hear a lot these days about overwork and stress, but when was the last time you heard much about its other side – laziness?

Is laziness similar to wasting our time? When we get distracted by useless things? And since we live in an age of terminal distraction, is it fair to say that we have 24/7 opportunity for slothful frittering away of time that could be used constructively?

And if that is the case, do we need seriously to think about laziness in a technological age?

What counts as a waste of time? When is such waste being lazy and when is it rest from work ? When does self-indulgence of spending hours on Facebook (or whatever) become slothful and sinful?

OK – to Stevens:

Proverbs gets stuck into sluggards with a dose of ironic humour:

Sluggards dip their hands in the bowl but are so lazy they can’t bring their hands to their mouths (19:24)

Sluggards are married to their beds, groaning when they turn over it’s like a squeaky door as it rotates in its socket (26:14)

They use the excuse of danger not to get out of bed. (22:13)

They don’t bother to plant seeds in season and then go out to look for a harvest (20:4)

The lazy are restless with unsatisfied desire (13:4; 21:25-6), helpless in the mess of their lives (15:9) and useless to anyone who employs them (18:9, 10:26)!

Stevens locates this in desire – for the wrong things. The lazy person is locked in himself, futilely pursuing emptiness. He lacks a positive theology of work. [just as a workaholic is also destructively locked in himself, pursuing work at the expense of all else].

Work properly understood is a gift and a blessing that leads to all sorts of positive outcomes – harvest, provision, helping others.

A destructive attitude to work is seen when even the thought of work is a drag – a constant physical weariness and lack of energy to complete tasks. Mental laziness in not seeing what needs to be done. A moral laziness in failing to take up the virtuous benefits of work. Spiritual sloth is not caring about God or his purposes.

Quite a bit of what he describes here could be someone who is seriously depressed. But let’s leave depression out of the picture as a cause of an unwillingness to work.

Stevens goes to the desert Fathers and their deadly serious confrontation of destructive inner thoughts through solitude and reflection and prayer. It is only in a willingness to change before God can the heart be renewed.

… those who would be converted must take up the disciplines of responsiveness: waiting on God and confronting self in solitude, cultivating new thoughts about work (both its intrinsic and extrinsic value), taking decisive action even when they don’t feel like it, and reminding themselves continuously for Whom it is they are working

This book grows on you. Stevens has distilled a lot of learning and reflection into pithy and deep meditations.

Work, the providence of God and hyper-Capitalism

work mattersR Paul Stevens begins a short chapter on Providential Work with this quote from a classic study, Studs Terkel, Working.

The blue collar blues is no more bitterly sung that the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot-welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank-teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steel worker. “A monkey could do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. “I’m an object,” says the fashion model.

Which one does not feel sometimes that we are in the wrong place, at the wrong time and doing the wrong thing asks Stevens.

The temptation is to imagine that the key to happiness and fulfillment is in being somewhere else, doing something else. [This may actually be true in some cases which Stevens could acknowledge.] Stevens says the reality is that God has a providential purpose for our lives right where we are. Don’t go aimlessly from job to job hoping that one will be the perfect fit – find a life-giving purpose where you are.

Stevens goes on to talk about Esther and how God providentially placed her, against all appearances, in the right place at the right time. Christians should then look to the providence of God in their work – life is not haphazard chance. Each believer is placed in ‘such a place and time as this’ – we need to discern the significant moments to serve God amidst the daily small opportunities that come our way.

Stevens’s focus is Esther, but this coheres well with Paul’s advice to Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 7) to ‘stay where you are’ – even if you are a slave:

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

Paul’s context was a long long way from a the contemporary world of work where we ‘sell ourselves’ (packaging our skills and experience) in a hyper competitive capitalist marketplace.

Is such teaching redundant in a modern globalised information economy where the average length of job in the West for millennials is just over 2 years and who therefore might have 15-20 jobs in their working lives? Where ‘staying put’ for a long time in one job can be interpreted as career failure? 

When to say ‘No’ to an ‘upward’ and ‘logical’ career move in order to stay with a sense of calling? God has placed me here and I ain’t going.

When to say ‘Yes’? God is providing a new opportunity.

How to be counter-cultural in our attitude to work?

How to see the providence of God if work cannot be found – about 25% of young people in Ireland are out of work.

These are some of the questions swirling around ‘faith and work’.

Feel welcome to add your own – and some ‘answers’ of course ....

Musings on work (2) Spirit work

work mattersR Paul Stevens has done a lot of reflecting and working on work. He’s written a nice wee book called Work Matters: lessons from Scripture, which takes the form of a series of short reflections on work and various biblical characters.

One is on Bezalel and ‘Spirit work’. In it, he rejects the notion that the Spirit gives his gifts solely for ministry in the church. Rather, the Spirit equips and gifts his people to “enter into God’s beautiful work of transforming creation, culture, and people.”

Bezalel is his ‘patron saint’ of Spirit work, a craftsman and artist working to make the tabernacle, the sacred place of meeting with God  of whom Moses says

he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts.(Exodus 35:31-2),

The Spirit gives Bezalel three things

i. Wisdom: practical intelligence and vision

ii. Understanding and knowledge –  clarity in problem solving

iii. Practical ability – work with the hands

And Moses continues:

And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.

The Spirit enables people to teach others how to work to create beauty, as well as the wisdom, understanding and knowledge needed to get a good job done.

Stevens’ argument is that, while this sort of Spirit enabling is rare in the OT, in the new covenant, the Spirit gifts his people for working ‘personally, universally and permanently’.

[This is more a theological position rather than argued textually – he quotes Rom 12:3-8 as an example of work that can be done anywhere, but this seems a push to me given Paul’s strong ecclesial community focus). But it’s a position that makes sense, since “ Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Col 3:23)

Good questions follow:

What is God calling you to work at? Or to put it another way, do you see your work as a calling from God?

What work excites you and you enjoy doing? And if it does, it’s likely that God-given gifts are being used. Frederick Buechner says

The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

What work have others affirmed you in?

Do you see all work as a place to glorify God? – whether work in communication, business, healthcare, teaching, building, bringing up children etc

How does your work involve serving others as an act of worship and love?

How can we see work as a place to enrich human life and create beauty? – in cooking a meal, in talking with a student, in cutting hair, in creating jobs ..

Comments, as ever, welcome.