A Soft Iconoclasm

June 2016

A study released last fall by the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, confirmed the obvious: The Internet is taking over our lives. The study, titled “The State of Books and Reading in a Digital World” (Oct. 22, 2015), cites some impressive statistics from the World Wide Web: Two million blog posts are written, eight hundred and sixty-four thousand hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube, and five billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook — all in a single day.

One effect of the tremendous growth of the “new media” is the eclipse of traditional forms of communication. Print publications, whether books, magazines, or newspapers, are edging toward extinction. It’s not uncommon to hear our culture described as post-literate.

Though the indicators point in that direction, thanks in large part to the cumulative effect of the Internet phenomenon, we haven’t reached that final destination. “People still like to read,” Barna editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone said in an interview with Baptist News Global (Dec. 8, 2015). But we’re doing the bulk of our reading online, where there’s a seemingly infinite amount of new “content” only a quick click or finger swipe away. This has had an adverse effect on our ability to concentrate on one topic for an extended period of time. “In general we have shorter attention spans,” says Stone, “and we are jumping from article to article.” As a result, news reports and feature articles and even blog posts are getting shorter and shorter. Who has the patience to slog through a twenty-five-hundred-word article anymore?

What does this mean for the spiritual life? “That real quick-hit culture does shape our spirituality,” says Stone. People who’ve grown accustomed to reading shorter articles, and to jumping from one brief take to another, become less patient with lengthier, more in-depth texts — texts that don’t offer simplistic analyses in a tidy format. People are even becoming less patient with texts like the Bible, Stone says.

The ramifications for the Catholic Church could be disastrous. Catholicism is a rich, complex, and endlessly fascinating religion. It’s not for the simple-minded or the easily distracted. The Catholic religion is the perfect marriage of faith and reason. It’s a religion that requires effort: regular assistance at Mass, deepening one’s prayer life, works of mercy, and — yes — reading and reflection. Even deep reading and deep reflection. Catholic monks in the early Middle Ages preserved ancient Greek philosophical texts from the iconoclasts of their time, and ever since, Catholics have applied themselves to the furtherance of philosophy, the handmaid of theology, in order to bring mankind to a fuller understanding of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. One wonders whether the soft iconoclasm of the Internet age will jettison that great project within a single generation.

Of course, it would be rank foolishness for any organization to ignore the Internet, or to presume that it can survive without having some sort of online presence. As we detailed in our editorials “Going Mobile” (Apr. 2015) and “Going Social” (Oct. 2015), we’ve dipped our toes into that raging sea by establishing Facebook and Twitter pages and unveiling a mobile version of the NOR — an exact digital replica of the print publication that has been customized for readability on tablets, smartphones, and the like. In fact, last year marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of our fully operational website. But nobody need worry that we’ll abandon the print publication and pursue the illusory promises of an online-only existence. Our first love has always been, and will always remain, print — it’s tangible, substantial, material, and real.

When conventional wisdom tells you to do one thing, it’s usually best to do the opposite. And so you might have noticed that, in recent issues, we have published articles that are greater in length than those of previous issues. This isn’t by accident. True to the NOR’s contrarian tradition, we reject the very premise of shorter, simpler written works that present trends demand.

As Scott P. Richert, editor of About.com’s “Catholicism” page, has said, the NOR “is for readers, not browsers.” How true. And we want readers with attention spans robust enough to allow them to read from the beginning of an article to its end. We want to increase the overall IQ of Catholics, not contribute to their dumbing down. We realize that our stubbornness in clinging to this antiquated approach might merely accelerate our seemingly inevitable date with oblivion. But if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down while staying true to our mission. What is our mission? It is to explore ideas related to faith and culture from a viewpoint informed by the timeless teachings of the Church — in other words, to preserve the Catholic intellectual tradition.

We believe that the Church is served not by increasing the number of simpletons in her ranks but by encouraging men and women to reason effectively and think through issues that concern them and their Church. Being able to reason implies a mind that can grasp an argument and work through its implications; it requires a mind that is stout yet limber and not prone to reaction or fatigue. We publish the NOR for the types of people who possess these qualities.

What’s worrisome is that, in our experience, these types of readers are a dying breed. (If you’ve gotten this far into this editorial, be happy that you can count yourself among this remnant!) How do we know this? We know it because we’ve watched our subscriber base slowly shrink over the past dozen years. In every fiscal year since 2004 (save two) we’ve suffered a decline in readership. This can only mean one of two things: Our witness is no longer valuable to the Church (the Body of Christ), or the Church (the People of God) no longer values our witness.

We tend to think it’s the latter, because if our witness were no longer valuable, we wouldn’t be able to attract the brilliant writers we regularly publish. If our situation were unique, if we were the only publication suffering a protracted contraction, we’d accept that it was the former. But we’re not the only publication struggling under current circumstances — almost everybody in this business is struggling along with us. And print periodicals aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch. The Barna study reveals that a majority of the general American population reads five or fewer books each year, and one-quarter of all American adults don’t read any books at all. Millennials read the least of all generations: one-third reports reading zero books in the past year. We’ve become a people who abhor the printed word.

Rather than succumb to this overwhelming cultural and spiritual malaise, we’ve been expanding our advertising efforts to try to attract real readers to the NOR, one of the few intellectually robust Catholic publications still in existence in America (by the grace of God). You might have seen our display ads in other periodicals or received one of our direct-mail appeals. If you haven’t, it’s because we have to be selective. Such endeavors are costlier than ever before while they become, ironically, less and less effective. There are only so many fish in the sea: The pool of potential readers is shrinking in every direction. But we’ll keep casting out the old net because, in all honesty, we have no other choice. We need readers.

What can you do about it? Three things. First, recommend the NOR to your family members, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and fellow parishioners. And we’ve got a great way to get copies of the NOR into their hands. We are currently offering a discounted bulk-subscription rate, otherwise known as our “Summer Special.” For the low price of $75, we’ll send you five copies of each issue for one whole year — that’s more than forty percent off the regular rate, and sixty-five percent off the cover price. That’s one copy for you, and one each for four potential new subscribers. There’s no better recommendation than one that comes from word of mouth. See the back cover of this issue for further details.

Second, help us reach our current fundraising goal. To have a chance to find readers, we need money to advertise. For that reason, since April 2015, we’ve been trying to raise $213,000. To date we’ve brought in $154,185, all thanks to the generosity of our readers. This means that we’re $58,815 short of our goal.

The only chance we have to reach our fundraising goal is to appeal once more to you, our steadfast supporters. We have nowhere and no one else to turn to for help. The NOR receives no institutional support. We have no endowment, and we’ve never received a single penny from the Catholic Church. That’s the price we must pay to stay true to our mission. If, like us, you think it’s a mission that still serves the Church, please help us reach our fundraising goal by sending your donation today to:
New Oxford Review
1069 Kains Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94706
Checks and money orders may be made payable to: New Oxford Review. We also accept VISA, MasterCard, and Discover credit-card donations at our website (click here) as well as by U.S. mail (at the above address) and telephone (510-526-5374, ext. 0). The NOR is a nonprofit religious organization and has 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are, therefore, tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Third, remember the NOR in your prayers. The Lord never fails to respond to a sincere petition. Please pray for the survival of our apostolate and for its faithfulness to Christ and His Church. We pray daily for the people who make the NOR possible — our writers, readers, editors, donors, printers, advertisers, and office staff. The grace of God sustains us. None of what we do is possible without Him, and nothing is impossible with Him. We commend our work to Him, for it is for His glory that we try to carry on the intellectual tradition of His Catholic Church. If we don’t do it, who will?

We thank you for your support and for your prayers. We hope that, with your help, we will be with you for many years to come.

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