“The Ten Commandments” and Our Pathetic Attention Span

December 28, 2021

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I like to watch old movies. Over the past several months, I’ve watched (or re-visited) a number of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, some screwball comedies from the thirties and forties, and a couple of film-noir classics. Last week, over the course of three evenings, I managed to get through the three hours and forty minutes (yes, you read that correctly) of the Charlton Heston version of the Ten Commandments from 1956. With delight, I took in the still marvelous technicolor, the over-the-top costumes, the wonderfully corny faux-Shakespearean dialogue, and the hammy acting that is, one might say, so bad that it’s good. But what especially struck me was the sheer length of the film. Knowing that it required a rather extraordinary act of attention on the part of its audience, it is astonishing to remember that it was wildly popular, easily the most successful movie of its time. It is estimated that, adjusted for inflation, it earned a box office of roughly two billion dollars. Would moviegoers today, I wondered, ever be able to muster the patience required to make a film like the Ten Commandments equally popular today? I think the question answers itself.

Bishop Barron Easter
Donate Monthly

The coming together of daunting length and popularity then put me in mind of a number of other examples of this combination from cultural history. In the nineteenth-century, the novels of Charles Dickens were so sought after that ordinary Londoners waited in long lines for chapters as they were published in serial form. And let’s face it: not a lot happens in Dickens novels, by which I mean very few things blow up; there are no alien invasions; no snappy one-liners uttered by the heroes before they blow away the bad guys. For the most part, they consist of lengthy conversations among fascinating and quirky characters. Much the same can be said of the novels and stories of Dostoevsky. Though there is indeed a murder and a police investigation at the heart of the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, for the vast majority of that famous novel, Dostoevsky arranges various characters in drawing rooms for pages and pages and pages of dialogue on matters political, cultural, and religious. During that same period, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates on the vexed issue of slavery in America. They spoke for hours at a time—and in an intellectually elevated manner. If you doubt me, look up the texts online. Their audiences were not cultural elites or students of political philosophy, but rather ordinary Illinois farmers, who stood in the mud, gave their full attention, and strained to hear the orators’ unamplified voices. Could you even begin to imagine an American crowd today willing to stand for a comparable length of time and listen to complex presentations on public policy—and for that matter, could you imagine any American politician willing or able to speak at Lincolnian length and depth? Once again, the questions answer themselves.

Why this look back at modes and styles of communication from another age? Because by contrast ours seem so impoverished! I certainly understand the value of social media and I readily use them in my evangelical work, but at the same time, I am acutely aware of how they have lessened our attention span and capacity for sophisticated conversation and real advance toward the truth. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and especially Twitter specialize in flashy headlines, misleading titles, simplistic characterizations of an opponent’s position, sound bites in place of arguments, and mean-spirited rhetoric. Just dip into the comment boxes on any of these sites, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. A favorite technique on social media is to take a phrase or even a single word of a person’s argument, wrench it out of context, give it the worst possible interpretation, and then splash one’s outrage all over the internet. Everything has to be fast, easily digested, simple to understand, black and white—because we have to get clicks on our site, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. What worries me is that an entire generation has come of age conditioned by this mode of communication and hence is largely incapable of summoning the patience and attention required for intelligent engagement of complex issues. I noticed this, by the way, in my nearly twenty years of teaching in the seminary. Over those two decades, it became increasingly difficult to get my students to read, say, a hundred pages of St. Augustine’s Confessions or of Plato’s Republic. Especially in more recent years, they would say, “Father, I just can’t concentrate that long.” Well, the auditors of the Lincoln-Douglas debates could, and so could the readers of Dickens, and so even could those who sat through The Ten Commandments sixty-some years ago. 

Bishop Barron Easter
Donate Monthly

So as not to end on a down note, permit me to draw your attention to what I consider a real sign of hope. In just the last couple of years, there has been a trend in the direction of long-form podcasts that are attracting huge audiences of young people. Joe Rogan, who hosts one of the most popular shows in the country, speaks to his guests for upwards of three hours, and he gets millions of views. In the past year, I have appeared on two podcasts with Jordan Peterson, each one in excess of two hours and featuring pretty high-level discourse. The first one has reached just shy of one million views, and the second, published three weeks ago, has already surpassed five hundred thousand views. 

Perhaps we’re turning a corner. Perhaps young people have tired of vituperative sound bites and superficial pseudo-intellectualism. To encourage this trend, I would like to invite all of you to use much less social media—and maybe pick up The Brothers Karamazov

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