If you follow Cal Newport’s blog, you’ll know he writes often about the trends in our culture and the shift towards all things shallow. In this post, he addresses a chief concern of mine. He shares an example from the life of Martin Luther King Jr’s life to get to his point:
I’m bringing this all up because it provides background for a surprising claim that’s been growing online in recent years, and which seems self-evidently worthy of unpacking: social media might be accidentally undermining religion.
He began to notice a lot of the traffic for his newest book, Digital Minimalism, was coming from certain religious circles. After some thought, he recognizes this should not be a surprise.
Though there are many ways in which tools like Twitter or Instagram might work against (or in some cases with) the traditional objectives of religion, the issue that kept arising is the way in which the ubiquitous distraction they provide corrodes the contemplative life.
Courage, reassurance, revelation: these require a quiet mind capable of apophatic insight. One of the unintentional consequences of innovating an algorithmically-optimized, always-present source of attention-snagging noise is that this quiet disappears.
From my own experience, it’s tough to hear a still small voice amidst the mighty winds of social media and other tools that call for my attention. &
Mairead Small Staid shares a brilliant piece of writing all about reading and its apparent demise. She frames the problem well:
The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness.
So, what we write and what we read helps shape our thinking and our very being? I like that. But Staid goes further — a lot further — and claims that the attack on reading is tied to topics like democracy and the environment:
And perhaps the greatest danger posed to literature is not any newfangled technology or whiz-bang rearrangement of our synapses, but plain old human greed in its latest, greatest iteration: an online retailer incorporated in the same year The Gutenberg Elegies was published. In the last twenty-five years, Amazon has gorged on late capitalism’s values of ease and cheapness, threatening to monopolize not only the book world, but the world-world. In the face of such an insidious, omnivorous menace—not merely the tech giant, but the culture that created and sustains it—I find it difficult to disentangle my own fear about the future of books from my fear about the futures of small-town economies, of American democracy, of the earth and its rising seas.
The remainder of the essay describes the experience of reading books, the immersive act that it can be when done rightly.
The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.” This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?
The alternatives like Twitter and news sites and talk radio (aka podcasts) cannot give this depth. They were not designed with this intention.
Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”
I could quote this entire article (and nearly did). Please stop here and go read it in full. This is a repeated message in my space, but this message bears repetition. It’s crucial to remind ourselves that depth is important and worth fighting for. &
I can’t recall how I came across this article. But it sure got me thinking long and hard about my set up for storing notes and information related to all the things I do. Andre Chaperon absolutely nailed the description of a problem I still experience from time to time:
The inefficiencies of a system (or lack of a system) don’t become apparent until we need to retrieve the information we’ve previously been exposed to; information we’ve already deemed important.
… and then can’t find the info or recall where you saw it.
Despite efforts to ensure this doesn’t happen, I still find myself having these moments. And so this article inspired me.
In short, Chaperon is making a case for the Zettelkasten method of notekeeping. And he goes into great detail about the entire system and how one can implement it digitally. And while he ends up in a different place than I picture, it sounds fantastic. I can picture this set up with Sublime Text. But I feel like it makes the most sense to use Ulysses in this fashion.
My issue on this topic is that the Zettelkasten method feels a little like overkill for me. I could make better use of keywords (tags) and smart filters in Ulysses to ensure I can find the things I need.
However, if one was to implement the Zettelkasten system, I recommend reading why one would want to use it. In his post Create a Zettelkasten to Improve Thinking and Writing, Christian Tietze from Zettelkasten.de goes into detail on the benefits of this method. At its heart, he talks about how taking notes is good for a knowledge worker; the Zettelkasten method is the method to do so that allows related notes to be more interconnected.
Doing it right, you can move way beyond input/output-based note-taking. You can interact with and communicate with your system of notes. As holds true for every communication, you’ll learn something new when you interact with your Zettelkasten.
Anyway, as you can see, I’m a little infatuated with this idea right now. &
A sucker for a new bag
Jory Raphael recently tweeted about a new bag he’d picked up. And I must say, nothing piques my clicky finger interest like bags. Messenger bags, duffel bags, backpacks — this is an area of temptation for me and I can never resist scrolling through pictures of people sharing their own.
This last fall I was needing a new bag as I’d given my daughter my old Tom Bihn Smart Alec for school. This time I didn’t jump to a decision immediatly. Instead, I did a lot of research and spent way too much time watching Chase Reeves talking about bags… (seriously though, the next time you’re in the market, Chase has you covered with his BagWorks review site).
Here are a few of the bags I considered:
In the end, I went with the Day Pack from Aer.
What's nice about the Aer
There are quite a few things I like about this bag. First, it's a great mixture of form and function. Tom Bihn bags work very well, but they're just not nice to look at. Other bags look great but aren't laid out well.
The Aer is the best of both. It looks sharp. I wasn't sure about the glossy aspect of the front, but this makes it super easy to clean.
As for the design, this one has been well thought out. The top pouch is perfect for AirPods, sunglasses, or your passport. It's easily accessible even when the bag is over your shoulder.
The two main compartments also work well. The front one is perfect for your gadgets and tech dopps. You can also easily fit a light jacket in there.
The rear most compartment (closest to your back) has a nice section for your laptop. In front of that go your notebooks (and an iPad or alternate tablet would also fit easily). In his video, Chase talks about “papers”, but notebooks and novels work perfectly in that space.
This compartment also has a nice water bottle sleeve. The only issue is I think this would be more appropriate in the front pocket. A leak in the back would be an issue with all your electronic gear.
Last, build quality is something to think about with bags. Cheap bags from Walmart feel like you'd expect: they won't last much longer than a school semester. A good bag has a solidity to it. And you know it when you feel it. Zipper and pocket linings are the place to look first. Next are the straps. And the Aer passes the test!
Overall, I'm a big fan of this bag and would recommend it. I would also assume the Fit or Flight bags are excellent options as well. &
My favourite writer writing about email newsletters. This is the epitome of my reading experience. About the burgeoning popularity of the age old technology, Craig Mod has this to say:
Newsletters and newsletter startups these days are like mushrooms in an open field after a good spring rain. I don’t know a single writer who isn’t newslettering or newsletter-curious, and for many, the newsletter is where they’re doing their finest public work.
And while we often discuss this topic in terms of the readership experience, Craig shares a sharp ovbservation about creating a newsletter:
Here’s another, more subtle, point about the grace of email and newsletters: Creation and consumption don’t happen in the same space. When I go to send a missive in Campaign Monitor the world of my laptop screen is as silent as a midnight Tokyo suburb.9 I think we’ve inured ourselves to the (false) truth that in order to post something, in order to contribute something to the stream, we must look at the stream itself, “Bird Box”-esque, and woe be the person in a productive creative jag, wanting to publish, who can resist those hot political tweets.
And best of all:
And of all of my publishing online — either through this site or publications, on social networks, in blips or blops or bloops or 10,000 word digressions on the sublimity of Japanese pizza — almost nothing has surpassed the intimacy and joy and depth of conversation I’ve found from publishing Roden.
There is a connection between the newsletter writer and newsletter reader that should not be ignored.
Speaking of which, you can’t go wrong supporting your favourite writers. So please consider joining Craig’s membership. &
Am I doing enough?
I’ve been preparing to teach a new class this spring and start this Sunday. And it’s been one of the hardest sessions I’ve had to prepare.
Sometime last year our associate pastor emailed some of the teachers in our church a list of potential topics as he planned classes for the coming year. I chose one that has been on my heart for some time, but it’s such a vast, broad, and sensitive topic that after some months we both agreed to save that one for later. And so I chose another from the list: steps to keep growing.
At first glance, this seemed like a topic that would be, well, not exactly easy (teaching is never easy), but not a terrible stretch for me either. However, once I started to prepare, I realized my mistake.
There is one main problem with a topic like this. Namely, the people who attend adult Sunday school at our church have long been at this. Oh, we all have room to keep improving, but the fact that they come — and so consistently — is proof of their desire to grow in Christ.
What can I bring that is new to them?
My own walk
I did not grow up in a Christian home. I spent two summers in a row at a Bible camp and it was there that I prayed to God to save me. But with no foundation to build on, the focus fizzled. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I realized I needed to repent of seeking my own way and instead seek God’s way.
I would describe myself in the years between those events as the seeds that fell on rocky ground. But God is good and he delivered me and opened my eyes and I hope I more resemble seeds on good soil. But the years go on and you build ritual and routine and pretty soon you’re … comfortable.
Being a Christian isn’t about “doing”, but you don’t have to attend church for long to know we’re all supposed to read our Bible, pray, and spend time in worship together. How do we go beyond the basics? I often find myself asking the question:
Am I doing enough?
The question is not quite right. It reflect a bad theology, a bad way of thinking about God. Am I doing enough to get saved? Obviously not.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Am I doing enough to keep my salvation? Will I lose it? I don’t believe so.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And yet I read some passages in the Bible and I’m fearful. Let me share a few from the Gospel of Matthew. Returning to the reference I used above, the parable of the sower:
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
And the parable of the talents:
But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
Last, at the end of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
The scariest part of this passage for me is that the people Christ is addressing knew him. Or rather, they knew of him. And they even did activities (impressive ones at that) thinking they were serving him. His response is chilling. How much of what I do now could be just religious busy-ness?
Is this fear a bad thing? I don’t think so, not necessarily. Not when considered in the right way. Philippians chapter 2 has long been a key for me when I think of the tension between God’s sovereignty and my responsibility.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
In this Look at the Book, John Piper gives a nice rundown of this verse and digs deep into what “work out” means here. It’s a continuous, sustained effort. Not to earn our justification, but to press on to the end goal, the end result of the salvation that comes from our faith in Jesus.
We’re not all missionaries in a foreign land. We’re not all serving the needy in our community. We’re not all evangelists sharing the Gospel in the marketplace.
But should we be? Do I make myself feel better about staying in my comfort zone by saying I serve in my church? That I disciple my kids?
And so preparing this class has been a challenge for me. What can I do to ensure I’m growing in my faith and in Christlikeness? I do not ask these questions to cast doubt. But I fear getting stuck being comfortable. I fear hearing those words:
I never knew you.
And so I’m driven to live in a way that results in a far more wonderful statement:
His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic in the coming weeks. &