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Internet Preaching: A Bad Case of the Shallows

It is not a particularly original observation: the Internet is great for facts, but not so great for wisdom. But Nicholas Carr is among the first to give it full treatment in his new book The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brain, which began as a much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
 
As Jonah Lehrer observes in his excellent review of the book in The New York Times Book Review, Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet.  Carr’s analogies are arresting, “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Another: “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” 
 
Beyond such plays with words, Carr notes that “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” leading him to switch from “reading to power-browsing.”
 
As Lehrer points out, Carr neglects to acknowledge the various studies that point to how the Internet is changing our brain for the good. A comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. Similarly, a 2009 study by neuroscientists at UCLA found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the area of the brain that underlies selective attention and deliberate analysis.
 
Fair enough. Yet Carr’s general range of concerns remains. Many reviewers are adding to Carr’s body of evidence, such as Ruth Marcus, who cites a new study at the University of Michigan which found that college students today are about 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts 20 and 30 years ago; the biggest drop occurring after 2000, coinciding with the rise of online communications and social networking.
 
Needless to say, we should be concerned about the nature of the knowledge we gain from the Internet, and the way it shapes our personal interactions, particularly when it becomes our primary source for knowledge and communication.
 
All of which prompted me to think about what I’ll call the potential rise of “internet preaching.” No, I’m not referring to using the internet for the conveyance of the gospel, but preaching and teaching in a way that has been shaped by the Internet – both in terms of content and form. In other words, the concern that the primary input of spiritual knowledge might be dropped to an Internet level or style.
 
What might this look like?
 
Internet preaching would be giving out pop psychology, but not deep biblical insight. Like hitting a link on the main page of Yahoo or AOL, it would involve advertising a tantalizing topic that addresses real felt-needs, but delivering little more than tips and techniques. 
 
Internet preaching would drop to the level of modern discourse, turning John 3:16 into “God luvd da ppl of dis wrld so much dat he gave his only son”, and Genesis 1:1 into “In da Bginnin God cre8td da heavns & da earth.”  
 
Internet preaching would be limiting the material to what has been digitized and made available through the use of an online search, thus failing to give the historic content of a true biblical theology.
 
Internet preaching would be catering to short attention spans and then letting that attention span limit the depth brought to bear on issues that demand a depth the Bible offers and the world’s wisdom does not – reducing the essence of the Sermon on the Mount to “Jesus taught that true happiness comes from having the right attitudes.”
 
Internet preaching would be offering a message that is more a narrative of your life, like most blog posts, with the speaker’s musings, opinions and experiences the center of attention. Yes, there is talk of God, but only in light of the speaker’s journey.
 
Bottom line? Internet preaching would be giving exactly what the internet gives: information, but not wisdom. Even worse, it would be offering little more than what could have come from the pen of a tabloid lifestyle columnist.   
 
Or as Carr notes, it would mean a very bad case of the shallows.
 
James Emery White
 
 
Sources
 
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton, 2010).
 
“Our Cluttered Minds: The Internet is great for facts, Nicholas Carr warns, but not so great for wisdom,” Jonah Lehrer, The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 6, 2010, p. 22.
 
“The Net chews at our hearts, brains,” Ruth Marcus, The Charlotte Observer, Thursday, June 10, 2010, p. 13A.

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