During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recurring theme in my industry was fatigue. Many of us were working longer hours to help our organizations weather the storm, and the pace went from fast to frantic overnight. You could see it in people’s faces and detect it lurking behind emails sent at 2 a.m.; everyone was exhausted.
In addition to sapping your energy, being busy robs you of focus. When there are a million little things to do, it’s hard to see beyond the next few minutes. You become overstimulated, reactive and adrift in the churning currents of the present moment. In his latest book, Alan Jacobs borrows a phrase from Thomas Pynchon to describe this relentless focus on “the Now” as having narrowed our “temporal bandwidth.” We are more solid and full when we live somewhat in the past and future, Jacobs argues. This is Pynchon: “the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago.”
Most people’s temporal bandwidth seems to have narrowed during COVID, but this trend has been going on in other ways as well. When Joe Biden told Donald Trump to “shut up” during the first presidential debate of the recent American election, it triggered a cathartic response across the internet because many of us want to silence Trump as well. Not in the thuggish and simplistic way of removing his free speech, but in the sense that he has become an unwelcome permanent resident in our minds. The mental space Trump occupies is burdensome because it requires constant attention, and because its defining characteristics are chaos, dishonesty and bad faith. And yet we can’t resist ceding him this ground simply because he asks for it through the irresistible ping of our phones upon each fresh news story or tweet. The pace of current events has become unrelenting under Trump, although hopefully by the time you’re reading this American politics will be boring again – which is to say that they will not demand our constant attention.
When we are tired, starved for focus, and attuned mostly to the current moment, we become increasingly susceptible to the psychological manipulation of our devices. Everyone who owns a phone should watch the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It shows how powerful algorithms created by the tech giants shape our thought patterns gradually over time by selecting what appears in our feeds and leading us, step by step, down mental paths that are brilliantly designed and insidiously curated to keep our attention. Without realizing it, we find ourselves thinking and reading within a walled-garden of content and reinforcing mostly the same constellation of views we’ve clicked our way into through the curated echo chamber of social media. It starts to feel like everyone thinks the way we do, and it becomes increasingly incomprehensible to us that anyone could see the world differently.
While it is incredibly important for all of us to recognize our entanglement in the algorithms, the echo chamber effect seems to have been particularly damaging among evangelical Protestants and on the political right. These two groups are by no means the same thing, but there is a great deal of overlap and it is in large part true that, as a group, white evangelicals put Trump in the White House in 2016. Lest we be unclear, this includes Reformed denominations – it was during a speech at Dordt College that Trump made his infamous pronouncement that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any supporters.
Dordt never should have hosted Trump; again, not in order to deny him free speech or a platform but to maintain of their institution that in this place and among these people, truth, dignity, moral conduct and good theology actually matter. Evangelical Protestantism in America (and to some extent Canada) has failed shamefully in this regard, from those who have actively supported Trump and the constellation of toxic and reprehensible beliefs that attend him, to those who have simply remained silent because we are too tired or timid. We have done immeasurable damage to the institutional credibility of the evangelical Protestant church, and, as a group, we must find a way to repent as a necessary precursor to repairs.
The Balm of Books
All of these conditions, taken together, shed light on the epistemology of the culture wars. As a society, we are tired, distracted, divided and entrenched, and it’s hard to see a way forward or – given our current position – a productive role for the institutional church in healing these wounds. Alan Jacobs’ answer is that we should read old books, and I think this is a good place to start. Curating our own reading outside the reach of the algorithms offers a momentary pause and restorative widening of our temporal bandwidth.
I’d take it one step further and suggest that we should specifically seek out authors who encourage us to cultivate a robust and generous Christian humanism, one that is decent, kind, empathetic, gracious, orthodox and – above all – loving. I find such voices in each issue of Christian Courier and it gives me hope. We need fewer click-bait articles about the stupidity of our political opponents and more reminders (and probably instructions) on how to access and practice what Marilynne Robinson calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.” Focusing our attention more widely on such goodness just might be the path back to reenergizing our exhausted, distracted selves, and, in time, to restoring the relevance and potency of evangelical Protestantism.