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Tell me the story that the paper tells

As a companion to our spring book issue, we asked our bloggers about their experiences of writing as a spiritual practice. Here are their blogs.

I am more educated than almost every person who ever lived. What I mean is that, in the past, only the well-educated could read and write. The first time I learned this, I was amazed. At that time, I could both read and write and I was still in elementary school. Six years old, and I was already surpassing the best and the brightest of the 13th century!

I have since learned that writing is a tool, and use of a tool does not equate to knowledge or wisdom. Writing simply preserves thoughts and ideas – imperfectly – to be reviewed at a later time. It’s something we take for granted, as author Ted Chiang highlights in his two-part short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.”

The first part of this story concerns a European missionary who lived in the early 20th century and the dialogue he created between societies with and without writing. When the missionary arrives, a boy watches him take pieces of paper out of what looked like a block of wood – a chest. Unlike records of sale, which he’d seen before, this new paper was different. It was bound together, and when the missionary noticed the boy watching, he opened it and asked, “Have you heard the story of Adam? … This paper tells the story of Adam.” The boy asks, “How can paper tell a story?”

It’s fascinating to hear writing described to someone unfamiliar with it. A person speaks, marks are made on a paper and another person looking at that paper at a later time can know what sounds the first person made and hear what they said. When the boy hears this, he says to the missionary, “Tell me the story that the paper tells.”

Writing is an incredible invention. But it was never one that I liked to use. Do you remember having to write essays in school? Do you remember enjoying them? Me neither. I remember being forced to write history reports, book reviews and journal entries all while thinking to myself, “I hope I never have to write for a living.” My English teachers are laughing because, after having written hundreds of thousands of words over the past few years, I’ve realized that’s exactly what I do. I spend my time reading and analyzing text from the Bible and other theological books, and I use that knowledge to write sermons. Every. Single. Week.

But writing ain’t what it used to be.

Writing, like all technologies, is evolving. I’m not using paper and pen to write, I’m using a computer. I’m using the internet to make backups of my writing on a server somewhere in California. I don’t just re-read what I’ve written: I can search it, analyze it, copy it, paste it, and almost instantly count number of words I’ve written and how often I use them. (As of today, I’ve used “the” about 16,000 times in my sermon writing.)

This end result of this evolution in writing technology is the subject of the other half of Chiang’s story: Far in the future, a memory implant called “Remem” is on the market. Remem will bring up a video of the embarrassing dance from that one wedding, it will bring up the video of your last vacation if someone mentions it, it will bring up the video of any words that you subvocalize by reading them silently. It can help you remember where you put things. But in this story, Remem is becoming more than an assistant: it’s becoming a memory replacement.

A photo the author took on October 31, 2009.

We already have this technology to a certain extent. I can tell you almost exactly what I was doing on, for instance, October 31, 2009. It was a partly cloudy day in the high 40s. I was in my first year of seminary and it was at the end of “research and study week.” That did mean some time off from class: I had just watched “The Astronaut Farmer” and sent the DVD back to Netflix. “Over Her Dead Body” was in the mail to me. The seminary flag football team came back after halftime to win 16-13 against the seminary across the street. Since it was “research and study week,” I had to write a 10-page paper, create an outline of Genesis and Exodus, and read about emancipatory language in the book “In Her Own Rite.” I was applying for a hospital internship (which I would soon land) and trying to figure out how to move forward to become a pastor. Facebook tagging had just come out, and one of my friends tagged me in a post for the first time. (Apparently my friend wanted me to know that in a movie of my own life, Kelsey Grammer would have the starring role.) My wife and I took our dog Chester on a walk around campus and saw a squirrel together. In the afternoon, the kids on campus went trick-or-treating and my wife and I gave out candy from our apartment for the first time in our married lives. That night, we went out to a big Halloween display along Hillcrest Avenue in Louisville and saw a brass quintet playing in someone’s front yard.

A photo the author took on October 31, 2009.

I remember almost none of this – but through emails, documents, pictures, videos and social media, I can reconstruct a diary of the day. It’s not perfect, but it’s proof that we are at a turning point between the invention of writing and the recording of every moment of our lives. The written word is changing from a memory assistant to a memory replacement. And at this particular turning point, perhaps writing has more power than at any other time in history. Students with an elementary-level education are able not only to write, but to publish. People write more words today than at any other point in history, and those words can be read by people around the world through social media and websites. This power, however, has limits.

In Chiang’s story, the boy who met the missionary learns to write and becomes a scribe. When the elders of the tribe fight over which clan is their closest kin (and therefore which clan they should merge with), that boy consults the Europeans’ records of clan ancestry. Their records show their ancestry lies with the Shangev clan, but the most trusted elder of the clan, Sabe, says they should join with the Kwande clan.

Sabe tells the boy that kinship questions can’t be remedied by paper. The Kwande clan helped the boy become a scribe, the Kwande clan gave them helpful information, the Kwande clan looked out for them. Sabe tells the boy he should know what the right choice is, not because of paper, but because of what’s in his heart.

Words help us remember, but they cannot always tell us what is right. Words record facts and recollections of events, but they do not contain the events themselves. Words can inspire us or frighten us, but they cannot force us to act. Whenever something is written down, part of it is also lost. Even the simplest of written facts can be misconstrued in both writing and reading, something that is more dangerously true of the Bible than most books.

In the second half of Chiang’s story, a journalist uses the Remem memory assistant and discovers that he has always misremembered a key event of his life: his daughter didn’t yell a terrible thing at him; he yelled at her. The factual version of events and his memory of those events didn’t match; like the boy scribe, he discovered there is a difference between the story that is written and the story that is told. But if he hadn’t found the record of that conversation, he wouldn’t have been able to admit his own wrong and seek forgiveness from his daughter. His “digital memory” is useful and factual, but it does not replace who he is or force him to be a better person. He says:

“Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that — I hope — acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others”

Writing serves as an anchor: it doesn’t contain events or memories, but it hints at them nevertheless. My sermons, emails and Facebook posts are amalgams of the events of my life and my state of mind in those events. They are my shadows and, in some cases, my horcruxes. But they are not me. The word, the subject and the author are always distinct.

For Christians and other “people of the book,” this reminder helps us read the Bible more responsibly. The Bible contains stories, songs and ideas about God and God’s people. But when we read the Bible, we don’t read the events themselves, only the records of the events. We don’t get to see bare facts, we only get to read and interpret them. And so, when we read the Bible, we don’t read God – we read about God. A Facebook post doesn’t tell us everything about a person, and the Bible doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about God. The Bible is not God, nor does it contain God. The Bible is a book of words: a powerful book, but a limited one.

Reading the Bible doesn’t make us Christians; nor does writing about it. As writing becomes more prevalent and automatic, actions will speak all the more loudly. We read and write about God, but we ought also to experience God and put our beliefs into action. Don’t just write the story, don’t just tell the story – live the story. The story of the Bible does not end in those pages; it continues in those of us who want to live in the story God is still telling: one of both words and actions. 

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.