Novelist Cormac McCarthy gives a fascinating interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he discusses, among other things, books, movies, God, cultural permanence, and ideas. At one point, the interview turns to the modern attention span, and how novelists must adapt:
WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?
CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.
I think this is largely true — the only 800+ page non-thriller novels I’ve read tended to be old and Russian. The bite/byte-sized culture in which we operate today makes our attention spans struggle to hold beyond 140 characters, much less 140 pages (see Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making us Stupid“). Such indicators would not seem to bode well for Christians who claim to be a people of the book — a book which generally has over a thousand pages, thin paper and double-columns notwithstanding. Could there be any future for ideas that are bigger than a status update?
I don’t think we’re beyond hope. After all, Dostoevsky originally published The Brothers Karamazov serially, suggesting that even TV- and Internet-deprived nineteenth century Russians may have had to deal with enough competing distractions that precluded them from easily digesting a thousand-page tome (keeping warm in the winter comes to mind).
Sometimes we approach big ideas in bits and pieces, so as to make them easier to apprehend. But we likewise need ideas that can’t be so easily digested — the kind that apprehend us. The proliferation of small ideas won’t make the big ones go away.
So, to answer my own question, no — we don’t have to have to contextualize the Bible to a steady stream of Twittering tweets. We don’t even have to consign ourselves to pondering the truths of Bible verses floating distantly out of context. Most Christians I know who read the Bible successfully do so as part of a sustained, disciplined effort. They don’t necessarily see the whole picture as they view each piece, but over time, the whole is revealed. As Christ told us:
…The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-28)
That said, I think I’ll go tweet this post.