Read Theology in Hard Copy

When I was in college, I considered myself an early adopter of ebooks.  I was delighted to learn that I didn’t have to lug around heavy volumes anymore, but could just toss my Kindle in my bag and be good to go. Plus, ebooks tended to be a lot cheaper than the tomes I’d grown up reading. Today, I still read a lot of books on my computer (like every other theology grad student in America, I have a large and ever-growing folder of unread PDFs) but my initial enthusiasm for the technology has worn off.

One of the worst side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, to my mind, has been the forced migration of “real life” to the internet. In a season of sweeping stay-at-home orders and persistent business shutdowns, there is no longer a felt gulf between social media and the “real world” of physical spaces and human interactions. Rather, the world is now mediated through the screen. Happy hours turn into Zoom calls, and church services turn into livestreams—it’s all one River of Content now, as the boundaries between “the online world” and “everyday life” collapse.

What this means is that reading ebooks doesn’t really feel like a reflective experience anymore. Rather, in the Everything-Is-Now-Online era, the ebook is just one form of longform text among others. Worse, every web-connected screen is a vector for endless distractions: there’s always another group message thread to reply to, another new batch of emails to review, and another tweetstorm to peruse. 

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously remarked that, when considering the effects of a new form of communication, the medium is the message. This is not a point I found easy to grasp at first, but McLuhan’s core argument is that a distinct set of value commitments is embedded within the choice of any particular communication medium. By its nature, television prioritizes urgency and shock value, just as social media prioritizes performativity and “personal branding.” Building on this theme, it seems to me that the theological significance of McLuhan’s contention is something like this: if you’re reading about eternal things, you ought to be doing so in a way that facilitates your contemplation of those things.

When I sit down to read something I expect to find challenging (most recently, it was Ernst Kantorowicz’s massive The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology) I deliberately remove certain distractions from my environment. I’ve taken to sitting outside and reading in the garden with my cat, leaving my otherwise-omnipresent cell phone indoors. (Sometimes I pour some whiskey too.)  Perhaps this is just a character flaw on my part, but I find the pull of the River of Content to be so powerful that it threatens to hijack my attention whenever I hit a slow point in the text. Online, there’s always something new to encounter that seems urgent and important in the moment, but that always leaves me feeling unsettled and frustrated in the end. Does anyone really scroll through Twitter and not come away with a kind of undifferentiated anger at the world? 

Within just a few minutes of settling in, the perpetually-on-edge feeling that comes along with being plugged in starts to dissipate. A kind of awareness arrives: I am sitting in a quiet and peaceful place, in the midst of a creation that changes far more slowly than the River of Content, and ultimately in God’s presence. My focus turns to the text in front of me, my mind relaxes, I reclaim the fragments of my attention that feel like they’ve been tied up for too long in online psychodrama, and I get the sense that, despite it all, maybe things are going to be okay. 

All of this is to say that, when I want to acquire a new volume of theology, I’m increasingly happy to pay a few dollars extra for the physical book. (The price gap between ebook and hard copy has narrowed dramatically in recent years, as publishers have realized they can charge high prices for “digital goods” that are virtually costless to deliver.) I realize that, for various reasons, buying hard copies isn’t always an option for everyone—as I’ve learned the hard way after a succession of cross-country moves, a sprawling personal library can be a serious pain to store and transport. But when I have the choice, I now buy the book.

I think you should too. It’ll do your soul more good than you realize.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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