Reading as a Creative Act

I recently posted some epigraphs from the novel Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch. In that novel most of the epigraphs come from the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer whose theology provides a historical backdrop for the novel itself. Farrer’s words also serve as a foil and as a guide for the narrator in the novel. In this post, I wanted to look at a passage in the novel where the narrator, Charles Ashworth, picks up one of Farrer’s book of sermons. His reading of Farrer sets off a series of connections and insights for him, and Howatch masterfully shows us how reading itself can be a creative process.

In the scene Charles begins to ruminate on a profound encounter he had recently had with a sculpture. When he was looking at the sculpture, he and the artist began to discuss the intimacy of creating, the deep emotional investment the artist makes in order to create. Later, as he remembers the scene, his mind turns to a sermon he had recently read, so he picks up a copy of Austin Farrer’s sermons Said or Sung and turns to this passage on the divine creator:

“The skill of the divine potter is an infinite patience of improvisation. No sooner has one work gone awry than his fingers are pressing it into the form of another. There is never a moment for the clay, when the potter is not doing something with it. God is never standing back and watching us; his fingers are on us all the time.”

After reading the passage, he begins to think of his own life, the loss of his wife and the ensuing catastrophe, and he remembers the way in which the artist had caressed her own sculpture: “When I remembered how she had caressed her sculpture, I knew I was being called to believe in a creator who never gave up, a creator who suffered alongside his creation, a creator who was driven by “an indestructible sort of fidelity,” by an “insane sort of hope” and above all by the most powerful form of creative love to bring order out of chais and “make everything come right.”

I love this scene because beyond being a lovely meditation on the beauty of art and the redemptive love of God, it is striking representation of the process of reading itself, of thinking along with a book. Charles has a thought that leads him to pick up Farrer’s book. As he reads the sermon, he imagines himself as the ball of clay being sculpted and re-sculpted by God, which then turns his mind again to the artist and the sculpture he had recently seen. And then he ruminates more, reflects, and as he does more of Farrer’s words begin to interweave with his own thoughts. What he had seen in the studio, what he now reads on the page, all interweave to affect a profound thought which helps him see his own circumstances in a new light.

By showing us the connections in Charles’ own mind, Howatch invites us to reflect on the power of art and of reading itself. It’s a masterful scene in a profound novel.

Learning the Wrong Lesson from the Amish – Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World offers a digital detoxification program for the harried and distracted. In addition to providing a step-by-step guide for fasting from technology, he also offers ways for thinking through what technologies and platforms we use and why. I’m drawn to the way he thinks about technology, especially the downsides of social media, and I’ve learned a lot form his blog and especially from his book Deep Work. It was in Deep Work where I first encountered The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges, and that book has been the subject of my last few blog posts. There are many helpful things in Digital Minimalism, many practical things to think about, and as always with Newport, nice summative aphorisms, like “clutter is costly”, that help drive the message home.

However, reading Newport’s assessment of the Amish community and their approach to technology struck me as symptomatic of some of the problems with books like this. To put a name to it, most books like this speak in terms both grand and vague about personal values and how discerning and living by these values is the golden key that unlocks every door. It is through the lens of values that Newport reads the Amish community’s approach to technology, saying, “The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

What I find interesting in his analysis is that he places the emphasis on the values, rather on the community itself because for him the community is mostly problematic. While he discerns that there is something to learn from the Amish about approaching technology, he ends by hedging his bets. At the end of the discussion, Newport wonders “whether this value persists even when we eliminate the more authoritarian impulses of these communities”. And this is exactly where I would have liked him to push further. The threat of the authoritarian clouds his vision, I think, from what is really interesting in the example, which is not values themselves, but the thickness of community itself. Newport hopes to extract all the possible benefits of communal discernment, and to eliminate all possible, and probably very real down sides. Speaking like a true individualist, he looks past the meaning of community itself and the possibility of discerning together, and concludes instead “the sense of meaning…comes from acting with intention” (56). But in the Amish community, the willingness to surrender certain technologies is not intended to pursue a sense of meaning or to live by values in the abstract, but to enact an already present sense of belonging.

His approach assumes that values are free floating, that they are not embedded in communities themselves, and as free floating they can theoretically be extricated from one context and simply applied in another. But the reality of community is that values are not abstractions, and they are not self-determined. Rather they are woven into the community itself. And, yes, this can have a dark side, and yes there is the possibility of authoritarianism, but such is the risk of community itself. For good or for ill, depending on your perspective, the community itself speaks into the life of the individual. These things are not determined in isolation, and this can of course bring comfort and clarity, but it also means that the community may very well, and most certainly does, say no to things that you as an individual might say yes to.

It is not just a they who discern, but a we who not only discern, but more simply live the values. It is a communal act, and moreover, the values are not piecemeal, the values themselves are communal, they are a shared horizon to navigate by. But here is the rub, in the Newport model, I determine my own horizon, and I’m supposed to say no to myself simply on the basis of my own values, which are self-determined. But I know for myself, and assume for most others, such values are often not really enough of a reason to say no to myself. How thin is a self-determined value?