Fathom Mag

Feasts of Attention

An excerpt from Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World

Published on:
September 11, 2017
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3 min.
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Much ink has been spilled over shrinking attention spans in the age of the smartphone. I’ve spilled some of that ink myself. But I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the problem entirely on technology.

Perhaps attention spans have grown short because a disenchanted world fails to give much reason to attend to anything at all. If the background of our lives is that the world is empty, meaningless, and destined to be forgotten, it’s hard to justify investing ourselves deeply in something—a relationship, a novel, or a even movie—that isn’t immediately pleasant or, at the very least, distracting. This, like so many burdens, applies equally to Christians and non-Christians.

David Foster Wallace wrote about this in his novel The Pale King, questioning why dullness is such a powerful impediment to attention. . . .

Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like “deadly dull”or “excruciatingly dull” come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly. . . . But surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

What if the trouble with attention isn’t merely that we’ve been trained for constant stimulation but also that constant stimulation is addictive precisely because it distracts us from the anxieties of disenchantment?

This could account for not only the shortness of our attention spans but also the shallowness of them. Anything that demands a depth of attention—something like a work of art, a novel, or even a substantive conversation with another human being—exposes our humanity and forces us to reckon with what Charles Taylor calls the “malaise” of disenchantment. In a world without transcendence, what we experience in those moments is something akin to bumping your head on a low ceiling. They draw us into the heights and depths of our humanity—the world of art, beauty, music, and darkness, of love and romance and bitterness and sorrow—none of which have a truly satisfactory explanation in a disenchanted world. They confront us with something too big to explain in terms that deny transcendence.

As Charles Taylor describes it, there is something painful to this experience. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in at a feast, but our disenchantment blocks the door and we remain in the grey cold.

We can avoid that pain with a thousand distractions, bite-sized entertainments that allow us to float blissfully in the shallow waters of life, each two-minute YouTube clip and 140-character tweet arriving like another wave of distracting energy.

God pays attention. He truly attends to his creation. We celebrate it in dozens of phrases that are almost clichés: His eye is on the sparrow. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Every hair on your head is numbered. Before he formed you in the womb, he knew you. Perhaps we could re-label the doctrine of God’s providence as the promise that God is paying attention.

God’s attention is God’s delight.
Mike Cosper, Recapturing the Wonder

It’s not enough, though, to point out that God pays attention to these things. As G. K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, the sun rises each day because God never tires of saying “Do it again” to the sun. Every daisy looks alike not out of some mechanical necessity, but because God likes the way they look, and likes making them over and over again. God’s attention is God’s delight. When he pays attention, he invests whatever he is attending to with his immense joy.

And the miracle of God’s providence is that he’s paying attention to all of it. 

Mike Cosper
For sixteen years, Mike served as one of the founding pastors at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He started Harbor Media in 2016, where he works to develop resources for Christians in a post-Christian world. He’s the author of several books, including The Stories We Tell (Crossway, 2014) and Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (Intervarsity Press, 2017). He and his wife Sarah live in Louisville, Kentucky, with their daughters, Dorothy and Maggie.

Taken from Recapturing the Wonder by Mike Cosper. ©2017 by Michael D. Cosper.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P. O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.

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