This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The sound of time passing

Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faith

One day in June, as I walked to work, I saw a young mother pushing a stroller with one child, another child beside her and a dog following behind. Meanwhile, she was talking on a cell phone. Three days later, I saw a similar sight in my neighborhood, a mother, stroller, two children and a cell phone.

I’m not attacking mothers, who have enough to do. As I walk, I often see cell phone users, many of them talking on the phone while driving their cars. I understand that the phones are useful, but their ubiquity and the seeming addiction to their use lead me to ask, Where are we heading?

This question came to me again as I read Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf), particularly her final chapter, which she titles “Pure Language.”
There she imagines a future in which young people have no tattoos or piercings, no ethics, no swearing. One character, Lulu, is a “handset employee: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent.” Most communication happens through texting, which, Lulu says, is “pure—no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgments.” One woman studies “word casings,” which are “words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks.” These include “friend” and “real” and “story” and “change.”

Egan is an experimental writer who plays with cultural trends, but her storytelling skills keep one reading and caring for each character. She paints realistic scenes that also draw on philosophical questions.

The novel consistently plays with the theme of seeking the real amid the artificial and having to deal with the effects of the passage of time.

One character’s “slightly autistic” 12-year-old son is obsessed with rock songs that have pauses in them. One chapter, which consists of PowerPoint slides, has one character say this: “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”

The title reflects this theme. A goon is a ruffian hired by racketeers, according to one definition. One character says to another, “Time’s a goon” and, “The goon won.”

In that final chapter, set in the future, a man tries to recall an afternoon he spent with a woman years before. He listens to the sounds around him in a New York City neighborhood. Behind them is a hum, which he calls “the sound of time passing.”

The novel traces that sound in a multitude of enlightening and moving ways and helps us listen for it behind the cacophony of our lives.

The book and what I see while walking raise these questions:
Do we listen to the pauses, to the sound of time passing? Are there spaces in our lives for contemplation? Is that a mere luxury for busy people?

Further, is our obsession with cell phones—or any of a dozen other technologies—hindering our connection with what is real? And what is that?

One character in Egan’s novel reflects: “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

Our surrounding mediaculture takes us in many directions, providing many diversions, many questions and answers. As we go about our daily lives, seeking to be faithful to the resurrection life Jesus calls us to, how do we navigate that cacophonous culture?
Is time a goon? Or is it merely the arena in which we live? Perhaps that hum is not time passing but the Spirit’s voice.

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