“Insensibly …”

The past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit on reading! James Sire’s little treatise entitled How to Read Slowly: Reading for 12__Reading_young_manComprehension1 is a tasty treat, as is Gene Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature.2 The book I’m reading now is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction3 which I’m finding both charming and challenging!

At one point in his larger case, speaking to the trouble of trying to “read noninstrumental texts in an instrumental way,”4 Jacobs points out how the best features of artful writing—i.e. language that’s “unusually vivid or lovely, or if its presentation of ideas or images is subtle and surprising”—can just be missed by our reading too quickly with the wrong goals in view. And as an example he points to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

A striking feature of this multivolume tome,5 he says, is Gibbon’s penchant for the adverb “insensibly.”6  Then, after providing a few examples, Jacobs writes:

Is it just a verbal quirk? I think not: rather, it embodies a key theme of the whole history, which is that major transformations in the life of the Roman empire happened slowly, gradually, and without anyone noticing them: people were insensible to the changes, and by the time anyone figured out what had happened, it was too late for a reversal of course.7

Wow! Besides recognizing that here is something “vital” and not “trivial” in the story of Rome’s decline and fall, I was soberly reminded that this is something Scripture itself warns us of in every age, and it’s a truth we’re more likely now, in Our Time, to miss than not because of the “hurry” we’re in all the time. We miss the lessons of Scripture and of history in our mad rush from one big thing to another, in our frantic pursuit of the next excitement, in our agitated aversion to slowness, in our restless inability to sit quietly and listen to learn, in our paralyzing addiction to endless distraction. And in the process, we all but consign ourselves, oh so insensibly, to decline and fall at last!

And while I think this is certainly at work in Western civilization at large, it’s also particularly a danger now affecting the church itself in the West.

  • Insensibly, the church as a whole in our culture has largely lost the very concept of Truth (with a capital T).
  • Insensibly, the church has forfeited much of its sense of God’s weightiness in its life.
  • Insensibly, the church has failed to grasp much of the nature of the local church and what it means to be a member in it.
  • Insensibly, the church has lost its ground in the authoritative revelation of Scripture.
  • Insensibly, the church has surrendered its prophetic/moral voice in Our Time.
  • Insensibly, the church has been largely assimilated by the spirit of the age.
  • Insensibly, the church has too often too easily minimized its missional/evangelistic work in the world.

And the consequences for this are dire! Oh, God’s purposes of redemption in the history of the world will go on, yes! “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” says the Lord. “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11). But we are profoundly mistaken if we think that cannot happen without us, however insensibly we live!

We must come to our senses!

The same thing—this insensible decline and fall— can also happen in our individual lives. Right? The Bible vividly captures the trickery and treachery of this numb condition in its sharp warning against drift. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Heb 2:1). The way he puts it all there is so very strong, something like “It’s necessary to, we must (δεῖ), in a greater degree, all the more earnestly, more exceedingly (περισσοτέρως) attend to, give heed to (προσέχειν) holding the course on and securing our anchor in what we’ve heard, i.e. in everything God’s telling us in his word.”

Why? Because there really is this terrible danger at hand of drifting away! Drifting is one of the great sins of Our Time! And it happens insensibly! No resistance to speak of, no notice of departure and movement, no sense of any shift in direction, too busy with the deck chairs to take a reading, the moorings slip and the rudder pivots just so slightly, and—unsuspectingly caught in the strong undertow of this present evil age—off you go … away!

No one actively has to  betray Jesus, or openly reject the faith. All that’s needed is inattention—put your Bible down; stop gathering with other believers, pray less and less, read all kinds of other stuff (novels, magazines, articles, Facebook, etc.) uncritically; just watch TV  (sitcoms, movies, all these “reality” shows, these ruthless competitions, etc.) mindlessly; just drink in the unspoken assumptions of your workplace; become preoccupied with the sights and sounds, the offers and applause, the values and priorities of this present age—in other words, just live insensibly and you will drift, off and out, until you are swept away!

Oh, we must come to our senses!

But How? Look for the next post, The Good Fight!

“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

  1. Shaw Books, 2nd ed., 2000, 192 pp.
  2. Crossway, redesign ed., 2013, 256 pp.
  3. Oxford University Press, 2011, 176 pp.
  4. That is, for example, trying “to read fiction or poetry or history or theology or even what the bookstores call ‘current events’ as quickly as possible and with the goal of accurate transference of data.” Pp. 73-74.
  5. The annotated edition is just shy of 5,000 pages long in six volumes.
  6. This piqued my curiosity. So I downloaded the full text of Gibbon’s work and searched for the word. He uses “insensibly” 419 times along with the adjective “insensible” another 116 times. This is clearly thematic!
  7. P. 75.