I don’t intentionally read depressing literature. It’s not my thing. But sometimes I accidentally read something that leaves me depressed, like the other day when I came across an essay by Christian author Philip Yancey called “Farewell to the Golden Age.” Reading it left me glum in two different ways.
In the piece, published on Yancey’s blog, he laments the demise of the publishing industry, particularly as a way to make a living. Where once an aspiring author could reasonably consider submitting articles to magazines, writing a few books, and by means of cultivating this exposure generating some income, changes in the publishing world have made this nearly impossible. The “Golden Age” of publishing, where to be an author was a viable (if difficult) career choice, is over.
Yancey’s essay isn’t particularly novel, but as a seasoned author (and seasoned especially in the world of Christian publishing) his words carried some sobering weight. That this is depressing to me ought to be, I hope, self-evident. I am myself an aspiring Christian author, and yet the field from which I aspired to harvest is one that is increasingly unfruitful. What is more, an author like Yancey who has succeeded in that field is advising other authors to look elsewhere.
But the real nugget of depression is not the difficulty of success—the real, deeper reason is the feeling I have that I was born in the wrong era. Talk of the “Golden Age” makes me long for the Golden Age, to wish I had lived in that time and place where books and words meant more to people, to a time when journalism was a valuable commodity and books were precious. Of the many sins of this digital age, I lament the cheapening of literature perhaps most of all.
This cheapening is having a far more devastating effect than perhaps we have yet fully acknowledged. It is not news that publishing has seen radical changes in the past few years, but those changes are beginning to affect not only publishers, but also authors, and in fact literature itself. To state it simply, as paid authors become a rarity there will be a necessary reduction in the quality of authorship. Hire a cheap contractor and you will get cheap contracting. Film a movie on a B-grade budget and you will get a B-movie. The cost we are willing to pay for a service is commensurate with the value we get out of that service. There are, of course, exceptions—some B-grade budget movies turn out excellent, and some A-grade movies are terrible. But on the whole, you get what you pay for, and the reduction in monetary value of books is going to result in the loss of quality in literature. I lament the loss of the Golden Age because it is a loss that affects literature itself.
And yet, I don’t actually wish that I lived 60, or 90, or 200 years ago. Sometimes (like I’m sure many others do as well) I find myself wishing I lived in a different age, assuming that the problems of that age were somehow simpler and more manageable than those of my own age. This is, of course, a lie. In each age the problems presented were difficult and all-consuming. In each age Christians at the forefront were driven to re-defend the Christian faith in new and novel ways (or, rather, to re-state old truths in modern dialects). I think the reason we sometimes wish we could live in those other ages is precisely the fact that today we have a comprehensive grasp of their problems. If we were to live in those ages, knowing what we know now and thinking as we do at the moment, we’d be able to sail through those troubles with ease. But our easy sailing would be like cheating on the test. It was easy because we knew all the answers.
Not knowing the answers is part of the human experience. The sense of confusion we experience is the same sense of confusion which our progenitors also endured. Their greatness—the very fact that they created a “Golden Age” for us to envy—was in their faithfulness to what was true in the midst of those very difficulties. If we would be great in our own age, then we must strive to be similarly faithful.
For my part, when I consider the issues of this present world, I actually find myself eager to face them: the issues of authority, of relativism, of secularization, and of Christian anthropology have effectively re-set the world mindset. As I see things, we are once again in the midst of idolatrous Rome, striving to carve out a vision of genuine faith that will strengthen the Church and lend energy to mission. Our very crises are profound opportunities to advance the cause of the Gospel, and for this work I am eager.
But, alas, here we come to the second reason why Yancey’s essay left me glum, because in order for the Church to accomplish this revitalization of faith, she will be required to think. And in order to think, the Church will need to read quality literature—books, essays, journalism, and yes, perhaps even blog posts. And yet, I suspect that the greatest enemy to the bolstering of faith is the quick-fix attitude Christians take toward their spirituality. A three minute YouTube video may give you a rush, an inspirational quote may uplift you for a moment, a worship service or sermon may exalt you for an hour, but real, proven, valuable faith must grow through the effective cultivation of the Christian mind and heart. This will require attention, sustained thought, and perseverance. In particular, it will require us to read good books.
This brings me back to, well, me. I am eager to address what I perceive are the problems of this present age, but I am distressed by the difficulty of effectively advancing Christian thinking. How does one get people to think in an age of quick fixes? When the drug of choice is the high of video—and by proxy of the digital image—how do you cultivate a taste for the slower and more satisfying pleasure of reading? For people who have learned to skim for the sentences in bold, how do you teach them to read carefully with a pencil in hand, making notes in the margins? I don’t have the answers. For my part, I suppose the only thing I can do is to attempt to write well. That, and take my own advice: be faithful in the midst of these challenges.