The Soul in Cyberspace

While going through some old files, I discovered a handout dated 2004. I, along with several hundred other pastors gathered at Parkside Church in suburban Cleveland, OH, received it as part of the registration packet for Alistair Begg’s annual Basics Conference. After reviewing that canary yellow circular again after all these years, I felt compelled to pass on to you the “meat” of it, excerpts from Douglas Groothuis’ The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997). I trust you will find them both relevant and insightful as the author makes his case for the old-fashioned, printed book.

The Excerpts:

“The stewardship of the senses is no small matter in our information-overcrowded world. Our perceptual and intellectual capacities are limited; we cannot possibly handle the ever-increasing quantities of information with sufficient wisdom. Therefore, our sensibilities serve as our filters and our guides. They are the editors of the soul and direct our orientation toward good or evil. As Simone Weil said, “If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” Jesus also underscored the importance of developing appropriate sensibilities when he declared: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). Good eyes behold truth and enlighten the soul. 

Christians and Jews are “people of the book” because they believe God revealed his truth to the varied writers of Scriptures through words that ought to be conserved, understood, and obeyed. Throughout history, the books of the Bible have been meticulously copied, recopied, and preserved so that the faithful would have the Holy Scriptures at their disposal. Of course, the Scriptures are not deemed holy simply because they are inscribed words, but because they are God’s inscribed words to us. 

However, the very form of the book, its conditions of sentience, are not incidental to how we orient ourselves to reality. The nature of the book itself and how we read shapes our souls. 

Neil Postman argues that American culture has been molded by the book in an unprecedented way. The American veneration for literature produced what Postman calls the ‘typographic mind.’ This mind pursues logical coherence and intellectual depth;  it is impatient with superficiality, but is willing to endure long and complex arguments for the sake of finding truth. For these reasons, Postman called the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America “The Age of Exposition.” He says:  Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.

Such mature discourse is rare in our agenda of incivility and intellectual impatience. Much of the blame, as Postman and others have argued, can be placed upon television, as we mentioned in chapter one. When a culture moves from typography to an image-based medium as its dominant and normative mode of expression, the very concepts of truth, reason, and evidence undergo a profound shift. Joshua Meyrowitz, a professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, comments about his students: “They tend to have an image-based standard of truth. If I ask, ‘What evidence supports your view or contradicts it?’ they look at me as if I came from another planet.” Why is this? “It’s very foreign to them to thinking in terms of truth, logic, consistency and evidence.” Might this same erosion of the idea of truth and the ideals of logic, evidence, and consistency be perpetuated in cyberspace? 

…the effect of words on a screen-whether written or read-can depreciate the depth and gravity of language itself. Since I do not turn any pages, but instead scroll through the material, I may lose the sense of linearity reinforced by the book and other printed matter. The screen has less involvement with physical history than does the book. I can easily move about a text electronically without fingering pages. I can “call up” a screen that records my previous work or something I have downloaded. Yet the screen text does not bear the marks of the physical world and the human touch. No pages are worn, no hi-lighting appears, no distinctive smells are evident. The screen is clean, always the same; it has no history and little personality. It is a receptacle for text and images, but is imprinted by none of them. Without power, it is a mere blank, a dead conduit. 

The computer screen-despite its myriad enchantments-may not be a hot house for the soul. The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth. The computer screen, despite its allure, often lacks the resources for making the truth lodge deeply in our souls. 

 -Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.