Neurons that fire together wire together: a review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr


Nicholas Carr believes that the internet is rotting our brains. Do we believe him, and should we be worried?

Carr is not arguing against all technology. His point is that there is something specific about the Internet that is changing the way we think, and that this is to the detriment of our humanity.  It comes from a toxic mix of writing, multi-tasking and neurons.

The internet is a type of intellectual technology, a set of tools that extends the power of the mind and includes the map, the clock and the written word. We can compare this with technologies that expand the our physical power or dexterity (the plough, the needle and the fighter jet); or that extend the senses (microscope, amplifier), or that reshape nature (birth control pill, GM seeds).


The advent of the written word changed the way we related to knowledge. We learn to remember rather than to know:

The written word is “a recipe not for memory but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom … but only its semblance@ (p. 54, quoting from Plato’s Phaedrus)

It was fascinating to learn that spaces between words seem to be a relatively recent development. I don’t agree that it means writing before the middle ages had no literary craft because scribes simply transcribed what they heard:

The scribes didn’t pay much attention to the order of the words in a sentence either … In interpreting the writing in books through the early Middle Ages, readers would not have been able to use word order as a signal of meaning. The rules hadn’t been invented yet (61).

It seems to me that classical Hebrew and Greek were sufficiently literary that word order is relevant to meaning.

Nevertheless, writing opened the door to ‘deep reading’, immersion in a text that follows from giving it concentrated attention. The new technologies threaten to slam that door shut.

When a printed book … is transferred to a device connected to the internet, it turns into something very like a Web site. Its words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer (104)


The problem with the Net is that it provides us with so many simultaneous stimuli that we lose the ability to concentrate on one thing only.

The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it (90)


The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious though, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively (119)

and again

improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively (140)

As we get better at such shallow thinking, we lose the ability to think deeply. It changes the way our brains are wired.


We read web pages in a different way to printed text. Web pages promote cursory, hurried and distracted reading. The more we use the internet, the more we learn to read in this way. We are like lab rats, says Carr:

The Net also provides a high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … it turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment (117).

I think that is a bit strong. Yet I agree that the cycle of reinforcement means that we are training our brains to read more in this way, and therefore less in the concentrated way of ‘deep reading. The biology of it is that when the brain learns to do something, the neuron pathways involved become stronger: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. Learning new skills rewires the brain in new ways. These new skills and their consequent neural pathways come at the expense of old skills and old pathways:

Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out time we spend reading books, as the time we send exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs … the circuits that support these old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old one.  (12o)

Patricia Greenfield agrees when she says ‘every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others’ (quoted by Carr 141); Marshall McLuhan wrote that our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify’ (210)


Three of Carr’s implication are striking

  1.  The loss of the reading class. Carr says that the practice of deep reading will continue to face, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm: ‘we are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class’. The problem is that the reading class no longer coincides with the social and economic elite.
  2. If we lose the ability to think deeply, we will lose the ability to think morally: “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection’ (221). If the social and economic decision-makers are not readers, they will not make thoughtful decisions.
  3. All of this is detrimental to our humanity. ‘The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation … the tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities – those for reason, perception, memory, emotion. (211).

Have you taken a break from the computer today? Do you take longer breaks, eg computer free holiday (digital detox)? And what habits are you allowing your digital-native children to grow?


A Preacher’s Prayer


I have been working my way through Greg Scharf’s Relational Preaching in the Langham Preaching Resources series. He says (p183):

For many years my custom was to pray Philippians 1.9-11 aloud at the beginning of each sermon, placing emphasis on the “my”

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11)

Think of it as a prayer for success in preaching. We ask God to work in our hearers in such a way that they gain not only knowledge but also insight and ethical discernment. We ask that these will yield abundant righteousness and love. We ask that all these virtues and graces will be seen as coming through Jesus Christ, that he will enable them to stand before him on the last day, and that they will all reflect glory and praise to God, both now and then. That is praying theologically!

Amen to that!


Can Matthew be Married?


Last night’s episode (Episode five) of Downton Abbey raised an interesting ethical question. Can you help?

Cam Matthew be married? (Spoiler warning)

Matthew Crawley returns to Downton Abbey to recover from his injuries sustained at the battle of Amiens (1918). He is wept over in turn by Lavinia Swire (his fiancée) and Lady Mary Crawley (who still loves him). He nobly releases Lavinia from their engagement on the grounds that they can never be ‘properly married’, because his injuries make him unable to consummate a marriage.

Is it true that they cannot be married on that basis? Maybe it depends on your point of view.

The Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic Church’s view seems to be that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. Marriages can be annulled on the grounds that they have not been consummated, as happened famously with Henry VIII. If that is right (and I am open to correction), then were Matthew and Lavinia or Mary to seek marriage as Roman Catholics, then they could not be properly ie validly married.

The Church of England View

According to the marriage service used by the Church of England, the marriage is contracted by the giving of consent and the exchange of vows:

In the presence of God, and before this congregation,
N and N have given their consent
and made their marriage vows to each other.
They have declared their marriage by the joining of hands
and by the giving and receiving of rings.
I therefore proclaim that they are husband and wife.

The signing of the registers is therefore just a bit of legal tidying up. Incidentally, this is how the Bishops of the Church of England were persuaded that civil partnerships are not equivalent to marriage, because a partnership is contracted by signature, whereas a marriage is contracted by vows. I think they were naive.

If a marriage is contracted by vows, then it is valid at the point where the minister makes the declaration quoted above. Surely otherwise the declaration would have to wait for evidence of validity (ie consummation). Or is that too indelicate even for Cranmer and the reformers to codify into liturgy?

On the other hand, can such a marriage fulfil the purposes of marriage, which are given in this order by the 1662 Prayer book:

  • The procreation and godly raising of children
  • A remedy against sin
  • Mutual society and comfort

Surely only the last can be confidently fulfilled. Would that make it a ‘proper’ marriage or not?

The Secular View

A court in France recently ruled that a wife had a right to conjugal relations. Her husband was fined 10,000 Euro for his lack of action in the bedroom. On this view, Matthew would be depriving his future wife, be it Lavinia or Mary, of her rights as a wife.

There’s a point to be made about fiction here: the message of a drama is drawn from the period in which it is made, not the period in which it is set. The secular view is anachronistic in the setting of 1918 but not in 2011 when the drama was made.

The cynical view

Of course this is fiction, and the plot of Downton Abbey has more twists than a dish of pasta bake. We may yet see Matthew lead Mary down the aisle; the diagnosis may prove to be wrong. We have to wait and see.

In the same episode, kitchen maid Daisy married former second footman William on his deathbed. He had been fatally injured with Matthew Crawley. William died very shortly afterwards. Were the grounds for their marriage sound? We shall also have to wait and see.

Back to the original question: on theological grounds please, can Matthew be married?

The Case for Enlargement Theology by Alex Jacob


The two main contenders in Jewish-Christian relations are Replacement Theology and Two Covenant Theology. Both have their inherent weaknesses, and Alex Jacob’s thesis is that a third way exists that remains faithful to the teaching to Romans 9-11. He works for CMJ (UK), a Christian Ministry to Jews.

The author writes from a clearly evangelical perspective which he sets out in the first section. He goes on to examine Romans 9-11 in detail with each section consisting of a commentary and some remarks on what he terms Enlargement theology. I confess that I have skimmed this book as I prepare preaching Romans 9-11, and have not therefore followed the exegesis in detail. The main points are summarised as follows (pp 171-3)

  1. Romans 9-11 is an integral part of the ‘Gospel of God’ outlined in Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is a helpful argument for the unity of the letter and the consequence importance of the context for understanding the place of Israel with regard to the church.
  2. Paul shows unswerving passion for and commitment to Israel. Israel is central to God’s purposes, where Israel here refers to the physical descent from Abraham.
  3. Paul shows a clear rejection of Two Covenant theology. Contemporary two covenant theology emerged as a response to the Holocaust. While it is an emotionally attractive position for those engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, it cannot be supported from Romans 9-11. Christians who hold a high view of Scripture must therefore find another paradigm for conducting Jewish-Christian dialogue.
  4. Paul shows a clear rejection of Replacement Theology. Paul consistently argues against the idea that God has rejected Israel, or that he has transferred the promises of Israel to the (Gentile) church. Israel has stumbled but not beyond recovery.
  5. God’s purposes are being worked out through a threefold understanding of God’s people. There is ‘unity within diversity’ and three distinct groups within God’s calling: unbelieving Israel, believing Israel, and the Gentile believers in Jesus.

He also offers a ‘beginners guide’ on the CMJ website here. As I don’t support either Replacement or Two Covenant theology, I agreed with Jacob’s reasons for rejecting them. It would have been good to see more engagement with the standard Reformed option, One Covenant or Remnant theology. While that may be because it is not a significant voice in Jewish-Christian Dialogue, it leaves a theologically coherent position absent from the debate. With the caveat that I have not followed the close exegesis, I have to say that find the ‘three people’ solution to be hard to swallow given the time and attention given in the NT letters to getting the church to act as one body. As I did not have time to look at the section that justifies this take on ‘unity’ from the doctrine of the Trinity, I cannot comment on whether it is persuasive.

In the end I suspect the sticking point between us comes down to what answers are given to this question: to what extent should a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ leave behind his or her Jewish identity? Are they a Messianic Jew, or a Jewish Christian?

The Case for Enlargement Theology
by Alex Jacob
ISBN: 978 0 955179 08 2
Publisher: GLORY TO GLORY 272pp

Redeeming Singleness by Barry Danylak – a Review


I think this is a really important book because Barry Danylak makes a persuasive case for the importance of the single Christian life: it is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

Christianity is unique among the major faiths in speaking positively about singleness.Jesus’ teaching in this area is in one sense a new departure from Israelite concentration on marriage and family. In a greater sense it is a fulfilment of the whole Bible’s storyline. Danylak follows the themes of marriage, progeny and singleness as they develop through the Bible. These themes are surprisingly central to the theme of the whole Bible and open up a central vein of the Covenants, the Seed.

The Covenants with Adam and Noah contain clear commands to multiply and fill the earth. The Covenant with Abraham promised him a great name, and great people, and an inheritance, which seem to me to be a fresh way to multiply and fill the earth. Having children is vital to inheriting these blessings.

  • Children will continue the family name, and there is an incident where a father with four daughters obtains special dispensation for them to bear his name so it will not die out (Zelophehad in Numbers 27)
  • Children allow the people to multiply.
  • Children are then able to take on the inheritance, the portion of land that is allotted to that family.

It follows that the worst thing that can happen to an Israelite to be refused these blessings: to have his family line ended by being killed with all his descendants; to have his Name wiped out and forgotten; and to have no heirs because the family line has come to an end. This is what it means for someone to be ‘cut off’ from his people.

Eunuchs and women who cannot bear children are unable to receive the blessing inherent in the Abrahamic covenant because they have no-one to bear their name, to carry their line or to inherit their portion. Childlessness is a calamity under the old covenant.

The Prophets, and especially Isaiah, therefore raise an interesting hope: that the Eunuch will be blessed and the barren woman rejoice (Isaiah 54 & 56). How can this be? It is because under the new covenant, the blessing is received not through one’s own (physical) seed, but through the Seed himself, the Suffering Servant. Under the new covenant, blessing comes by spiritual birth and eunuchs and barren women are able to bear spiritual children and be blessed.

Jesus bears this vision out in his sayings about new birth (John 3); about eunuchs (Matt 19); in his answer to the Sadducees’ question about marriage at the resurrection (Matt 22.23-33 par), and in his redefinition of the family (Mark 10.28-30 par).

All of which makes sense of two difficult passages in Paul: the allegory in Galatians 3-4, and 1 Corinthians 7, which each receive a chapter to themselves. I must say I was persuaded by his argument in both cases. Danylak argues that the problem in Corinth was not a mixture of asceticism and licence (the common interpretation) but that  in common with their home culture, the Corinthians Christians were wrestling with whether or not it was good to marry. And for their culture, marriage and sex were not related – there was sex without marriage. Paul needs therefore to teach them that sex is for marriage, and then to discuss whether it is good to marry (and be continent) or not (and be abstinent). He also discusses the ‘gift’ of singleness, and distinguishes chosen singleness from imposed singleness.

All of which builds a solid biblical-theological case for singleness in the Kingdom. We are all born single; most of us will die in that state. And in the light of eternity, those of us who marry, will be married only for a few decades, a drop in the ocean of eternity. This is no side-show: this theme takes us to the heart of the covenant blessings. A great work.

Further details from 10ofthose or Crossway

Other books on singleness

I have only come across two other books on singleness (actually a book and a chapter).

The first is Al Hsu’s The Single Issue. In order to make a positive case for singleness, Hsu needs to defeat the wrong emphasis on marriage and family in Christian circles. (I have even been to a wedding where the preacher – not me! – congratulated the bride and groom on being ‘about to enter into what it means to be truly human’. I died a thousand deaths inside on behalf of every unmarried person in the church – the preacher had just told them they were not fully human!). Hsu’s task is to say ‘singleness is OK’.In order to do so he needs to take a very pro-family Christian culture down a peg or two. And he does it well, but it is a shame to have to be ‘down’ on marriage in order to be ‘up’ on singleness.

The second, more theological, resource is a chapter in John Piper’s This Momentary Marriage (reviewed here). Piper writes a foreword for Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness and apparently it was a conversation between the two which prompted the chapter in Piper’s book (which was published first). Marriage matters because it is a parable of the Gospel (Ephesians 5). Singleness also matters because it is a parable of the Kingdom, where we will be single. This was the first positive theological statement I had come across for the value of singleness. At the time I thought it a shame that one has to read a book on marriage to find this great chapter on singleness’. Danylak’s thesis now has a book of its own. It is written for theologically aware readers: I hope that once Barry Danylak has completed his PhD in 1 Corinthians 7, he will be able to write a popular level version of Redeeming Singleness.