Like many people my age, I struggle with an impulsive need to look at my smart phone. I found myself looking at mostly banal things, and I began to suspect the constant looking at silly vacuity on a screen was eating away at my brain. I had a difficult time concentrating on anything for an extended period of time, and I wondered if it had something to do with how much I looked on my phone.
Turns out, I was right to feel suspicious of my phone. In an article published back in 2014 by Psychology Today, Victoria Dunckly, a psychiatrist, claimed “excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills.” Her observations mainly focused on childhood development, but it is not difficult to conclude that if screen time can have such a negative effect on children, it could potentially be adverse for adults as well.
Even with these negative effects confirmed, however, I found it difficult to simply stop looking at my phone consistently. It bordered on an addiction. I felt a tugging, like a cord hooked to my brain, pulling me away when I found myself lost in a particular thought for too long, or if, heaven forbid, I found myself in a moment of silence. I felt the urge to flood that quiet in my mind with the bright light of triviality, of Instagram pictures of friends’ food, plunging the endless depths of Wikipedia for its endless wealth of useless, often suspect, information. I had failed at quitting cold turkey, so I needed to ease myself off of this constant need.
I, therefore, followed the cue of those I know who wanted to overcome an addiction of some kind. Friends of mine in the process of quitting smoking carried water bottles in order to fill that gap left by smoking so that whenever they feel the urge to lift a cigarette to their mouths, they would instead drink water. It is important whenever you want to get rid of something from your life, a bad habit, an addiction, that you fill that space with something, else you will be more likely to relapse.
To fill the gap left by my smart phone, I began carrying a small New Testament with Proverbs and the Psalms. I first got the small Bible for my New Testament Intro class with Douglas Campbell, who encouraged us to carry it with us to read whenever we get a moment, as rarely as those come in graduate school. My friends and I jokingly called it the “Marcionite Study Bible” after the early Christian heretic who wanted so little to do with the Old Testament he even edited out Old Testament references from New Testament books. I would have preferred to carry more of the Old Testament than just Proverbs and the Psalms, but fewer books make the book more compact, more easily transported in my pocket.
I realize that few things can make me seem more “holier-than-thou” than forgoing looking at my phone to read my Bible. I do love the Bible, but in fact, I found stopping myself from looking at a screen in order to read difficult. It was important for this endeavor that I didn’t simply use a Bible app on my iPhone such as Youversion or Bible Gateway – I needed to pull myself completely from screens and from the temptation to slide on over from my Bible app over to, say, Twitter or Facebook. I needed to go analog.
After a few days of carrying my Bible around with me, I started noticing a few differences with how I read. Mostly, I read the passage I planned to preach that Sunday. At first, I only gave the passage a once-over, a quick glance. Then, I began to slow down. By staying with the passage and not moving on to something else, things leaped out at me that didn’t before, tiny details I hadn’t noticed. Questions began forming that hadn’t before. Eventually, it was like the text got inside me somehow, so I no longer read it but it read me.
Ancient texts like the Scriptures are not meant for only quick reading, but deep constant reading. My addiction to the easy hit of dopamine trained my brain not to stay with anything too long, but to flutter like an insect from one thing to the next. The scripture, as with all texts, requires attention, careful loving contemplation that most of our modern lives don’t afford room for. So we read scripture, but we never make room for it to speak to us, never really listen.
While I was in seminary, I took a directed study with Professor Campbell on the Greek text of Romans. It was Dr. Campbell, myself, and just a few other students in Campbell’s office. We would take turns reading the Greek text and translating it, a verse at a time. One day, my turn came up, and I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately, or so I thought, the verse was one familiar to me, Romans 3:23. I recognized the verse so I just said:
“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
“Is that really what it says?” Prof. Campbell asked.
“Uh . . .” I said, actually looking at the Bible this time.
It didn’t really say that. Instead, it said: “For all sinned, and lack the glory of God” (my translation, obviously). I translated it correctly this time.
“Why did you translate it the other way?” Prof. Campbell asked.
“I guess I had the NIV in my head,” I answered.
“Well get it out!” Campbell said.
Even with the original language in front of me, I found a way to not slow down and listen to the text. The difference between “have sinned” and “sinned” and “fell short of” and “lack” can seem small but are really monumental. People have built entire doctrines from less. Is “the glory of God” some sort of standard that we fall short of? Or is it something that we lack because of sin, but perhaps Jesus returns to us? I think it is closer to the latter. These tiny details are the ones I missed because I did not listen to scripture, I only read what I already thought it said.
Many times, what we actually read when we read scripture is not actually scripture, but certain constructs that we bring to scripture. It is very difficult to allow scripture to speak to us past our understanding of it, to let it put pressure on our reading of it. We do not come to scripture, or any text, as a blank slate; we always bring things with us. We bring our understanding of what it says and rarely allow it to actually speak. Only by prayerful attentiveness to the Bible can we allow the Bible to shout over what we think the Bible says.
I also cannot help but wonder if how we read scripture is inextricably linked to how we listen to one another. Or, rather, how we do not listen to one another but instead hear only what we think one another says. Instead of listening with charity, lovingly considering each word, we hastily draw conclusions about one another based on what we think they said, not what they actually said.
Perhaps, like the Scriptures, this happens mostly when we feel too strong a sense of familiarity with the person. I can tell you from experience that it is with the people closest to me, the ones I care about the most, that these kinds of misunderstandings occur. I do not intend to not listen; I believe I am listening, that is the deception. But because I believe I know what they will say, I more easily become distracted, inattentive to the person with me.
The two greatest commands God gives are to love God and to love one another and it is impossible to love one another without listening to one another, to hear what we are saying to one another. By allowing ourselves to become comfortable with being still and not pulled to and fro by flashing lights, we open ourselves up to God speaking to us through the Scriptures. This requires attentiveness and leaves little room for just assuming we understand. The text must push through to us past our false understandings and transform us. So too, with those we love, we must do the work of hearing one another. In our world of constant distraction, where we cannot do one thing without also doing something else, whether it be texting while driving or the constant background noise of the TV, the choice to not be distracted, to pay attention, we must make deliberately. We must choose to put down all distractions to live in better relation with God and with our neighbor.