A Passion for Study

Enthralling the Mind with Good Things

‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—enthrall your mind such things.’        

– From the Bible

I confess to a love of books and study. Books can evoke every kind of emotion from revulsion and fury to elation and delight. Some books inspire us to change the world; others send us to sleep. Some books answer our questions; others question our answers. The practice of study is both a lifelong habit and an everyday discipline. Study is more than an opportunity to increase or refine knowledge; it is the single most important opportunity that we are given to train our minds in healthy patterns of thought that determine our characters. The gift of study, therefore, consists in the opportunity it presents for the inward transformation of the heart and mind.

True study is an art form and a state of mind requiring the serious concentration of all our intellectual and moral powers. The problem is that our contemporary culture militates in every possible way against prolonged concentration on anything. On this point Richard Foster notes that, ‘We live in a culture that does not value concentration. Distraction is the order of the day … Most people find it virtually impossible to go through an entire day focusing on a single thing. We are the lesser for this dissipation of our energies.’

On this point about distraction, has anyone noticed on TV, particularly during a live performance, how often the camera angle changes? I remember watching part of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I soon became disorientated by the way that the view would switch about every three or four seconds. Is this an accommodation to the ever decreasing attention spans of the viewing public?

Psychologists have even developed a term to describe the condition of chronic inattentiveness: ‘Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder’. The ‘condition’ being described by this jargon-laden term (ADHD) seems to be not so much a clinical ailment, but rather a cultural disorder. By restricting this condition to a psychological ailment, we are able to diagnose and prescribe specific clinical measures to treat certain symptoms; but, at the same time, this understanding of the condition of mass distraction prevents us from addressing the deeper root causes of why so many people can’t do anything for more than a few minutes before becoming distracted. Perhaps Blaise Pascal was right when he remarked that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

The culture industry, the advertising business and the mass media serve as continual distractions as they divert our thoughts away from the deep issues of life and towards the superficiality, for example, of soap operas and celebrity gossip. Even more insidious distractions can be found in the film, tabloid and magazine industries in which degraded conceptions of sex and violence and the lust for power are all found to prevail. The constant repetition of these themes on our television screens is harmful in so far our inner minds begin to be subtly conformed to the superficial and vulgar material that becomes embedded in our subconscious. The constant stream of violence, abuse and sexual perversion trains the mind in destructive thought patterns and damages our own lives and our relationships with others.

I have already mentioned my conviction that advertisements, particularly television commercials, are particularly pernicious. This is not only because they attempt to control our minds by sophisticated subliminal techniques of deception, but also because they deliberately inflict targeted wounds on our sense of self-worth. Only then, after the blow has been inflicted, does the commercial promise that these wounds can be ‘healed’ – all we need to do is buy the product being advertised! Advertising is just one aspect of the broader culture of distraction in which we live, albeit a particularly malevolent and pervasive aspect. Our minds are constantly assaulted with loud and glossy diversions – weapons of mass distraction – that can lead us away from the things that really matter in life.

Dallas Willard makes the pertinent observation that, ‘the deepest revelation of our character is what we choose to dwell on in thought, what constantly occupies our mind.’ Many of us are watching depraved and wicked or even crass and stupid films that fill our minds with violence and/or frivolity. Without realising it, we are thereby impoverishing our humanity and our capacity to love and thrive in our relationships. I’m sorry if this sounds rather harsh, judgmental or extreme, but I have known many well-intentioned people who are (perhaps unwittingly) poisoning their minds with this toxic trash. I recall while I was studying at university, I used to spend time with a group of evangelicals from the Christian Union (the so-called ‘CU-clique’). It turned out that many of these well-intentioned Christians, while accusing me of heresy on account of my disavowal of some points of fundamentalist evangelical doctrine (such as premillennial dispensationalism and extreme views on penal substitutionary atonement), were practically addicted to violent computer games and would regularly watch trashy soap operas and even horror films – including on Sunday evening after arriving back from church.

Once I had discovered this, I understood why – notwithstanding all the pretence of ‘sound doctrine’ – these evangelical students seemed to be failing to live according to the high values that they professed. The problem, I suspected, was not a matter of insincerity. I do not doubt that they fully intended to lead the kind of holy and pure lives that their faith encouraged them to attain. The problem was, rather, what these evangelical students were choosing to focus their minds on outside of the various religious events that they organised and attended. My hunch is that our lives would be radically transformed if only we were to discover the gift of study. Serious study is dangerously counter-cultural because is calls us to deep living and to reject the rampant superficiality our times.

The first thing to realise is that our minds are incredibly absorbent. Our brains are like sponges absorbing everything that we sense. This is true even to the extent that we will never forget anything that we have seen or heard. We may not be able to recall something, but that is not the same as forgetting it. All our experience is stored somewhere in our mind. We receive and process information and misinformation at every moment of our waking lives. Given the permeability of our minds, it is an absolute imperative that we ‘guard our hearts’ by being very selective about what we expose our senses to. The problem of the prevailing mind pollution is so serious that unless we have a clear vision and intention to focus on things that are good, true and pure, etc., our culture will always lead us to the default position of dwelling on things that are bad, deceitful, impure, violent and perverse. The only way to remain focused on good things is to enthrall our minds with a vision of the Good. One way in which this can be achieved is by focused, concentrated and prolonged study of quality books. Yet there is more to developing good study habits than becoming proficient in reading good books.

I suspect that watching the dusky silhouette of wild geese flying against the crimson backdrop of a Patagonian sunset would teach me more about the ‘meaning of life’ than even the most diligent study of the latest philosophical treatise of this very subject. We can learn not only from books but by observing how people behave and by studying the natural world. As well as being a transformative activity, study is also a habitual disposition of the mind. We can retain a disciplined attentiveness to the beauty and rhythms of nature by observing carefully and prayerfully the singing of birds or the blossoming of flowers. All of these simple practices are part of what it means to ‘enthrall the mind with good things’.

The person that deliberately chooses to focus all of their thoughts on the kind of things that were listed in the opening quote from Bible (whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy) will be the kind of person who naturally expresses what the Bible calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit’, which are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

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As a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Middlesbrough FC, he has had to learn the theological virtue of keeping hope alive, even in the most hopeless circumstances!

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