Listening to the Latest Ideas

Posted on May 24, 2013


Do you spend your time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest news and ideas? Are you a social media addict? Do you wake up in the middle of the night to check Facebook, to Tweet, to read the absolutely latest on all the blogs you follow, write email?

Do you think you are on the cutting edge? Has modern technology so captured you that you are a slave to it?

Wouldn’t it be great, you think, to have lived in the pre-electronic days, when cruises meant several weeks or months slowly crossing an ocean, letters were written by hand, news delivered weeks, maybe months (especially if slowly crossing the seas on that sailing packet) after the event?

But, sometimes strange things happened.

Perhaps the greatest American victory during the War of 1812 was won by stopping the British at the Battle of Chalmette just outside of New Orleans. battle of chalmetteThe battle was fought about two or three weeks after the peace was signed between England and the United States in Europe. So much for battles determining the outcome of wars.

Today we hear of a battle or a skirmish or a bombing, a breakout of tornadoes in Oklahoma or Kansas, almost instantaneously, sometimes even while the event is unfurling. There is no time or distance to give us some perspective. We have to digest it immediately before the next piece of “breaking news” hits us. Perhaps that’s why we get a form of “news indigestion.” We can’t take in the news like good food, push away from the dinner table, take a walk, and let your body go through its normal processes. We are forced, like the old adage goes, “to take a drink from a fire hose.”

I don’t think that’s how we are wired. Even in Biblical days, the Apostle Paul, when in Athens debating with the Athenians on the nature of God, commented “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

Paul obviously found that to be a frivolous pastime, and proceeded to lecture them on the one true God. The Greeks listened, but they weren’t overly impressed by the logic of this Jew in their midst speaking of an unseen, all powerful God whose spirit resides inside us. But it no doubt made for great conversation, perhaps the “breaking news” of the day. One never knew what was going on in the far reaches of the Roman Empire!

Time in the past was not measured in nanoseconds, but more often in months and years. In fact, it wasn’t measured by anything we would recognize, unless you are into sundials and hour glasses, one measuring the passage of the sun across the sky and the other measuring small increments of time.

We don’t think too much of the basic concept of time, or even of calendars, for we take it for granted that everyone understands time. A second principle we seem to have accepted—at least in the 21st century—is that the faster something is done, the better. Speed, whether in a Marathon or race, is always better. The hare always beats the turtle. Our clichés incorporate this rule: speed to burn, 0 to 60, breaking news, fastest chip, the list goes on and on. You can fill it in with your own examples.

But let’s step back a moment and examine this fascination and devotion to speed and the “latest news.” How does it improve your lives, to live from one second to the next, always anticipating, never remembering or looking back, for fear someone will get ahead of you, from the line at the checkout counter at the grocery store, to the guy behind you moving faster than you in your place of employment.

I’d like us to look at this phenomenon from two perspectives: one, from history, and two, from inside of Christianity.
The Gospel is translated as the “Good News,” not the latest news, or the breaking news, or “hot off the wire,” a phrase that today is dated in the wireless world.
Now the Gospel, or the New Testament, has been around for almost 2000 years. It hasn’t changed since about the third century when the early Christian community finally decided by Church councils what was authentic and what was not, since there were a lot more accounts of early Christianity than those that made it into the Bible, called “canon” by Christians.

The point is that while not news in the contemporary sense, Scripture continues to be read profitably by generation after generation, for teaching the basics of Christianity, for instructing, for evangelizing, and for a host of other reasons related to practicing the faith.

Why is this? It is not new. It is well known by now to millions. Can any preacher really claim to preach something original or novel? Not if he is truthful. But, if they are good, they are deep into Scripture and can often repackage it for a contemporary audience.

It, in fact, is powerful and still read for it is the word of God. This will make sense to believers, but will not to atheists or agnostics. That is not my point. My point is that some elements of our cultural and religious life persist and continue to edify, teach, and lift us up, not because they are “breaking news,” but because they are true.

Not everything under the sun has to be new, or at the cutting edge, to be valuable. What we do lose by emphasizing the new is the old. We don’t have time to savor and read and be lifted up by the old for we are wrapped up in what is new.

Let’s take a sport analogy since most of my readers are here in Alabama. The race goes to the fastest or newest right? Wrong. Take golf, my favorite sport. The winner does not win by speed, but by skills and practice. Football, a sport of some repute in Alabama, is not won by the fastest, but so often by “returning to the basics,” like blocking and tackling. Sure, there are a lot of other factors that go into the equation, but the basics underscore all winning teams.

Historically, we have forgotten who we are, so concerned are we with the present and future. We don’t have time to read the great classics of literature, philosophy, religion or history for we are too busy checking our email, tweeting, texting and keeping up. How we spend our time in fact is the basic clue to how we, as individuals and as a people, turn out.

Are children, for example, better off playing stick ball they invented in the open lot in their neighborhood, totally unsupervised and left to their own devices, or better off as soccer moms supervise their every activity and waking moment. Parents who are entertainers make for poor teachers and models.
Time becomes a thing to fill—with activities, largely supervised—rather than a medium to live in, to dream by on a lazy summer afternoon, perhaps reading a book, fishing with a grandfather, going off an adventure with your buddy, like Tom and Huck did in Mark Twain’s novels. You have read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn haven’t you?

As a friend told me not too long ago, for every new book I read, I try to read two or three old ones. That is hard to do. We are trained that computers are relegated to obsolescence about every eighteen months. We think automobiles should all have new models every year. We don’t want to “waste time.” Be productive, get ahead, be on the cutting edge, otherwise you will be left behind. Who has the time to read old classics when the breaking news is demanding your attention on the networks devoted to news 24/7.

So, what have we left behind? As we grow older, certainly our youth is left behind. But we Boomers want to be forever young, virile, and vital. Seventy is the new fifty. Is ninety the new seventy? Is fifty the new thirty?

Take a deep breath and relax a bit. Don’t abandon your plans and dreams, but just take each day as it comes. I read some in my Bible every day, and enjoy not only the stories but it moves me along, slowly but inexorably, in my faith walk. At night I am reading a biography of the Apostle Paul and one of Thomas Jefferson, kind of at opposite sides of the religious spectrum, one the craftman of Christian theology, the other a Deist who deeply distrusted the organized Church and really thought that reason and science had answers for the world’s problems.

I find myself liking Jefferson, not always for his ideas, but for his persistence and high ideals and trust in things like the public and the common man. But I trust Paul for the wisdom and the faith that transcends the ages.

I like the world of ideas, the stories of our history, how the Civil War was fought and won (or lost), my memories sometimes entertain me, and I can sit on the swing on our front porch for a long time just petting one of the dogs or watching the sun set.

I reenter a place where few of us visit anymore, one where I can travel in my mind, think great or commonplace, or just swing and let time pass by like a gentle stream under the bridge of life. It is a place we have lost touch with, but can easily reconnect. Sigh, but I’ll sign off for now. Got to check my cell phone for emails.

Posted in: Life in America