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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Thoughtfulness is the Antidote to Click-Bait Reasoning

Written by: on October 9, 2019

I was in the second grade when my habits of reading were shaped. The program was called “Book-It” and the method was designed around repetition and quantity.  The idea was that competition was the ideal lever to pull in order to generate children who were fond of reading.  That, if we learned to read, with expediency, every word of every page, with rewards lingering in the immediate future, we’d become savvy readers and more thoughtful students.  The number of pages and books read were publicly tracked and those who read the most were rewarded generously with the applause of teachers, the admiration of peers, and access to free individual pizzas at the local pizza place. Ever a competitive individual, I won the “Post-Gold” award as the top reader in my grade level and was acknowledged and celebrated in front of the entire school at year’s end.

 

While the accolades were momentarily meaningful, three reading habits were formed that took years to undo. First, quantity reading trumped quality reading, leaving me as one who could consume a book quickly but could not offer thoughtful reflection on what I had just read.  Second, in order to win the competition, I learned to select accessible, entertaining literature rather than books that would challenge my reading ability and mature my thinking. Third, because the books that I consumed as a youngster were library books and because “one never writes in these books!” I learned to accept the details of the story or, later, the arguments of the author, at face value rather than to disagree or contrast it with other thoughts. In the hours spent learning to read, I had become savvy at elementary reading but had never cultivated the practice of, as Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren identify in How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide, analytical reading.

 

It wasn’t until one fateful Saturday when I showed up as a Junior in High School to a testing sight with my two, yellow, well-sharpened, #2 pencils that I discovered my deficit in reading for meaning.  The ACT test was being administered and I thought that I had done everything necessary in order to prepare for success.  I had honed my arithmetic and science knowledge.  I had dusted off my bullet points on US American history.  My creative writing was on point.  I had gotten a good night’s sleep and had consumed a nutritious breakfast.  I entered the room knowing what score I needed in order to make myself competitive for the University of my dreams and blew through the math, science, and writing sections with surprising ease.

 

My morning came to a standstill on the reading retention section.  I was on the clock, expected to read and analyze fairly complex pieces of literature of various genres, and then reflect on what I had just read in essay form.  I attacked the literature with elementary reading techniques as I had in second grade, mindlessly consuming the words and sentences with nary a circled word nor underlined phrase on the document. Done with the reading, I turned my attention to the essay questions and was stunned to an abrupt halt by my inability to offer any quality reflections. I was in trouble and time was running out.  The final thirty minutes of the ACT exposed my deficit.  It was a terrifying moment that launched me into the journey of analytical reading.

 

Dr. Black, my Freshmen English professor was the first to introduce me to How to Read a Book. With this resource in hand, she taught me about genre and why it matters, schooled me in the art of annotation and building accurate summaries, invited me to interact with the author and her/his main arguments, and exposed me to literature that, far from the leisure reading of my upbringing, forced me to reflect, respond, synthesize, and disagree.  Pulling from Adler & Van Doren’s principals, she demonstrated and then pushed me to prove to myself that his method for reading was not only efficient (I was healed of the need to read every word of a book) but effective in mining and engaging in conversation, if not arguing with, the very best of an author’s arguments.  By year’s end, quality reading had replaced quantity reading as the new rule.  However, with the onset of the internet, the challenge became searching for quality in the quickly over-saturating milieu of the world-wide web.

 

It was just when I was learning to admire thoughtfulness and critical thinking for the first time, that the onset of blogging and, in the years to come, with the inception of social media, un-researched, opinionated sound bites laden with strong emotion created a new norm for “discourse.” It is no longer the thoughtful, deeply researched, and grounded idea that sets the pace, but the quick and eloquent provocative, often divisive phrase or sentence. A competitive war that is oversaturated with click-bait has replaced an invitation into true, thoughtful reading and discourse and seems to be the new industry standard for writing and, sadly, for reading, too.  Thoughtful writing and reading is still essential, however, it seems not inadequate in keeping pace with the fisty-cuffs and childish banter of dangerously thin sound bites.

 

The result? Our own pre-disposed perspectives and premature conclusions shape the way we read (& listen) such that we no longer read analytically, but combatively. In Paul Graham’s, thought-provoking article, “Keep Your Identity Small”, he reflects on why religious and political conversation is so rarely generative, aptly points out that, because these two topics contain multiple understandings of truths and are so closely connected to a person’s sense of identity that wonder and civil discourse have been replaced with fracturing opinions.  People don’t need to be well-read in order to engage in an impassioned debate about their ideals.  So toxic has conversation become on these two issues that we no longer read to understand the perspective of another, resulting in civil, mutually beneficial conversation and transformation. Instead we read in an effort to reinforce the infrastructure around our own sense of personal and tribal identity as well as to innovate and amplify our ammunition against anyone who would dare hold an opposing idea.

 

An alternative?  Enter Dr. Martyn Pearcy who, at our London/Oxford Advance, was a shining example of the kinds of thoughtful, well-researched ballasts needed within the contemporary sea of click-bait. He was humble and incredibly well read. Both in his presentation and accompanying handouts, Dr. Pearcy demonstrated how his thoughts had been shaped by his literary influencers. With the commentary that he added to the thoughts of his philosophical and theological heroes, he demonstrated for us who we can become as we learn to apply the principles of Adler’s masterpiece. He proved to us that learning to read well is the antidote to the click-bait that threatens to define and divide our world.

 

So what can we pull from Adler & Van Doren, Graham, and Pearcy as we seek to become the antidote to click-bait reasoning?  First, we must read to be transformed rather than to consume.  Transformation does not mean that we agree, but that we allow what we are reading to change and/or deepen our thinking and perspective.  Second, we must choose to read perspectives that differ from our own, not in an attempt to discredit them, but with a desire to understand.  For, if we are going to be come savvy at civil discourse, then we must learn to interact thoughtfully and critically with the origins of the ideas that others espouse.  Third, like Pearcy demonstrated, we must learn to draw threads between the reflections that we’re reading such that, over time, a tapestry of thought is formed that, fused with humility, inspires careful consideration by our listenership and readership.

 

 

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

16 responses to “Thoughtfulness is the Antidote to Click-Bait Reasoning”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, we had a similar program to “Book-It” when I was in elementary school called “Accelerated Reader.” Every student was given a goal to reach a certain number of AR points, which were obtained by taking a test on the computer about books that were marked as part of the program. It was also a competition to see who could get the most points (those kids would be rewarded with a ride in a limo and a McDonald’s Happy Meal).

    But the questions were very surface level; we were taught to read for basic comprehension, not deep reflection. This was the kind of reading I carried with me for a long time. Like you said, reading is something that should bring forth transformation. Every book we read has some message in it (whether it’s a worthwhile message or not is a different question) and it should impact us in some way. Whether we see parts of ourselves in a character in a book series we’re reading or we’re reading to learn some new skill or concept, we shouldn’t be the same when we put a book down.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Dylan.

      I strurck by the connection between how we were taught to read (surface level & for entertainment) and the current inability of folks to engage in thoughtful conversation with one another. I wonder how our lack of training in asking questions of the content that we’re encountering in our literature is translating in our inability to question and/or get curious with those whom we’re in conversation and relationship with. As we learn to read better/deeper, let’s pay attention to how that informs how we listen (hopefully better/deeper) to those we’re in dialogue with.

  2. Nancy Blackman says:

    Jer,
    Your thoughtful post shows me that we are never too old to learn. What you cultivated as a 2nd grader carried you until you got to this place in life and now God is showing you a new way to read. That’s amazing, right?! I love this!

    I had a similar experience growing up. I loved to read — Nancy Drew was my jam. I also won accolades for reading at a higher level and spelling bees. And, I too failed SAT’s and ACT’s. Well, failure isn’t quite the word, but I didn’t achieve high scores, but my creative writing was stellar. My imagination was crazy — and still is to this day.

    Thank God for teachers who care, right? Where do you think you would be with your reading if Dr. Black hadn’t been introduced into your reading life? What a gift!

    I struggle with the title of “Keep Your Identity Small” because for many people in the world, identity is non-existent. I think it isn’t about education either, but it is about respect and politeness. Humans have a tendency to disregard the neighbor because they have only judged them by their cover. Thoughts? You mentioned the click-bait alternative to a road of transformation. How does that fit into your context and research? How will you navigate your reading for the goal of transformation?

    Thanks! I loved your thoughts. They made me stop and reflect my own trigger buttons.

    Nancy

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey Nancy.

      Can you help me understand what you mean when you say, “for many people in the world, identity is non-existent?” Based on my experience, I would argue that every people group that I’ve been exposed to has a fierce sense of collective identity that is, often, misunderstood by others.

      As to my thoughts on click-bait, I’m suggesting that we live in a world where surface-level “click-bait” is shaping the thoughts and perspectives of too many. This “click-bait” is thin its thoughtfulness, research, and analysis, but because it’s communicated with some eloquence and a lot of passion/emotion, we as a people aren’t doing the work to question it but are, instead, choosing to accept “click-bait” content as valuable. This is especially evident within white evangelicalism and the hench-leaders who are throwing around thoughtless talking points in ways that are shaping the consciousness and social doctrine of millions of people. As it pertains to my research and project, if we’re going to train faith leaders who are rooted in evangelicalism to usher in what is to come, then teaching thoughtfulness, civil discourse, and influence awareness/management will be critical.

      • Nancy Blackman says:

        Jer,
        I read Darcy’s response to your post and your response back to her. I’m guessing that you both are defining or connecting “identity” to roles in life. For someone like myself, identity is often associated with where you’re from.

        To be honest, the title “Keep Your Identity Small” caused all kinds of triggers within me (which is my problem and I will be reflecting upon this) because for most of my life people have been trying to keep me small because they identify me and put me into a cateogry (think model minority myth). If I take a step back and think about the word “identity” in the same way you are (i.e. “roles in life”) then my world becomes larger, but please know that for you, a white male, your identity will never be called into question. No one will start a conversation with the question, “Where are you from?” I equate that with “…for most identity is non-existent.”

        When I read a title like “Keep Your Identity Small” I know right away that it is most likely written by a Caucasian and most likely male. I understand that this is also a layer that you might not think about, but I have to think about every day.

        This is why I so appreciated David Shosanya’s message on intersectionality. If you take that message and bump it up against the article “Keep Your Identity Small” what kind of an essay do you think would be written? or Sunday sermon?

        Thanks for keeping me on my toes!
        I appreciate you,
        Nancy

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,

    I’ve read this post twice now, and am intrigued about the role identity plays in thoughtfulness and engagement.

    A funny thing happened when I walked away from my church, I was left with gaping holes in my identity. I was no longer Darcy Hansen who attends_____ and serves with _____. The same is true with the shifts that have happened in my parenting and marriage. When stripped of that which typically gives us a sense of belonging and identity, we have little left; but in a way, that leads us to freedom and intellect.

    The article you referenced says, ” If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]” I wonder if that is how Jesus lived? It seems his identity was so laser focused, his ability to think clearly, thoughtfully, reflectively was attuned. Last night when working with the my third-space ministry partners, I realized we have all been stripped of our previous identities. At first I was saddened by this, but upon further consideration, I think that stripping is the golden ticket, in that it will allow us to be more thoughtful and considerate when we enter into the discussions we hope to have through our podcast and in our small community meet-up events. If we truly value transformation, then we will do our due diligence to engage with diverse texts and individuals to gain understanding, be challenged, and grow in ways we likely would not have predicted.

    I wonder what identities have you had to shed to be effective in your ministry context? How has that sheding also impacted other areas of your life?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy.

      Great thought here. Yes, my experience tells me that the stripping of any fabricated identities is a process that is necessary to get to the core essence of whose I am and who I am. I’ve found that this kind of stripping involves pain, community, pastoral & therapy support, and space/solitude for meaning-making.

      I’ve had to shed (& continue to shed) identities that I have chosen to embody and that have been placed on me such as pastor, pioneer, thought-leader, innovator in order to get closer to my core identity as beloved and, out of that, attain a sense of clarity on what’s mine to do.

  4. mm Steve Wingate says:

    Jer, what you wrote reminded me of some of my horticulural knowledge. Like trying to read for consumption a horticuluralist would say is adsorbing. Just adding more to the plant but not really absorbing. But, some products like books are more effective if we adsorb vs absorb.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Steve. Give more on the difference between adsorbing and absorbing from your horticultural perspective. There’s something there that I want to learn. From what you wrote, I got that adsorb is to ingest but not in a way that adds value and that absorb is to consume in a way that transforms the organism. Am I on the right track here?

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ve got lots of parishioners and social media contacts who need to read this post- especially the part about more thoughtful engagement when it comes to our political and religious conversations. Of course, the won’t, and that’s the point. Thoughtful and humble engagement with what we read takes work and it’s often so much easier just to go along with whichever media pundit seems most confident. The antidotes you propose in the last paragraph are helpful. Have you had opportunities to help walk people through this method of interaction and how has that been received?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey John. Feel free to use this post to irritate your parishioners into a learning moment. 😉

      I’ve found that the only way to walk folks into this way of interacting with ideas and then dialoguing in a thoughtful way with one another is to demonstrate it with them. There is something substantially different in the experience of civil discourse that will be noticeable by those we’re in dialogue with that, over time, creates curiosity in them. They want to know how, in a world of polarities, you are able to hold their perspective gently and non-defensively. My hunch is growing that if our approach to generative dialogue can get folks to the point of curiosity with themselves and their inability to engage in civil discourse, then it is more important than ever that we learn to do and demonstrate this well.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Book-it!!! Yes, I totally forgot about that. Excellent narrative format here. You drew us in with you narrative approach. This week, I engaged with the Podcast “Storytelling for good causes.” As you know, we process information by stories. If we saw a room in disarray, we would ask, “What happened?” and begin formulating stories in our mind. I hope to be sharpened as a storyteller for good causes, too.
    https://ssir.org/podcasts/entry/andy_goodman_-_storytelling_for_good_causes

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Powerful. Riveting. Read every word. No space for notes no the screen so, I used my imagination. Appreciate the movement and the story through to transformative reading. The ‘tapestry of thought’ has me entwined right now. There’s life to the adventure of connection. Finding the connect points and us, being moved in ways through the Chronotopes. How to meander, linger without missing a thing in the stories we walk through (irregardless of time and space, ie. genre). There’s a keen navigation that you’ve shared and described. Thankful for the insights.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Chris.

      Perhaps weaving the tapestry of excellent thinking is the journey ahead of us over these next three years. Once that tapestry is woven, then we can stand on it with some authority to offer our own commentary, stories, and experiences in a way that is more impactful. I’m hedging my bets that this is true.

  8. mm Greg Reich says:

    You stated “Transformation does not mean that we agree, but that we allow what we are reading to change and/or deepen our thinking and perspective. Second, we must choose to read perspectives that differ from our own, not in an attempt to discredit them, but with a desire to understand.” I try to read things that I know I may disagree with. Though at times I find it painful; one of two things happens. I either grow stronger in my opinions and understanding of my view by understanding someone else’s or I realize the limited value of my views and learn to expand them.
    Oh by the way, thanks for reminding of my own less then desirable experience taking the ACT’s. 🙂

  9. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Getting out of my echo-chamber of literature and thought has been one of the most important actions over these past three years. Not only has it deepened my understanding of the origins of others’ perspectives, but it has also grown my empathy and sense of solidarity with them. Solidarity with those whom I disagree with? Absolutely, because I have discovered that they, just like me, are doing the best that they can do with the tools and knowledge that they have. Then…the real leap (and necessary action) is to expand from learning about another’s perspective and truly learning from them. To do so in a posture of humble curiosity rather than with an agenda to change their mind is the great challenge.

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