What can you say that is worth saying in 140 characters?
I’ve always thought: not very much. With so few characters, what is tweeting good for except shouting our bumper-sticker ideologies and political slogans? Or the proliferation of empty soundbites by our ‘report first, facts later’ news media? Or exhibitionist avowals of our passing feelings and opinions? Or smug and ironic dismissals of the idiocy of others?
Contemporary Christians too often act as if God’s truth can easily be expressed in tweetable propositions. This is true of liberals who wish the Bible said only ‘be loving and tolerant of everyone, just like Jesus,’ just as much as conservatives who think the Bible says only ‘Accept Jesus as your personal savior, and you can enjoy a relationship with him.’
I know that Twitter has legitimate and important uses too. Still, I thought Twitter’s ethos could hardly be more opposed to my own labors as a scholar of Scripture, whose task is to lovingly and carefully attend to every word of Scripture, the lovely as well as the prickly, the wonderful as well as the horrible, and to share these riches with the world.
But slowly, an important fact has been dawning on me: much of the profound wisdom of the ancient world, including much of the wisdom of Scripture, was expressed in sentences less than 140 characters long. Ancient Greek sages like Heraclitus proved their wisdom by their ability to compress profound ideas into short epigrams: ‘Nature loves to hide herself.’ ‘Everything flows.’ Solomon was renowned for his proverbs. Jesus also uttered short cryptic sayings that made the rounds in the early church and were recorded in the gospels: ‘The first shall be last.’ ‘To him who has much, more will be given.’ ‘It is better to give than to receive.’
These can be treated, I suppose, as bumper-sticker slogans, but they were not so in the ancient world. They were short so they could be memorized, meditated on, and discussed. They presumed a context where most teaching was oral, where learning was as much about reflection and formation as accumulating information. Though brief, the words of the sages were not superficial — their words were compact like poetry, compressing profound truths in formulations that would give rise to new questions and insights, and provoke wise action. ‘The words of the wise are like goads’ (Ecclesiastes 12:11).
When these sages took up the task of interpreting Scripture, they often gave their insights a similar form: short, compressed comments about particular details of the text. This is particularly true of the rabbinic sages and classic Jewish commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, and Seforno, whose comments are sometimes as short as a word or two. But Christians have long done the same, as with Origen‘s scholia or the medieval tradition of collecting comments of great Christian exegetes into a running verse by verse commentary.
Like pithy proverbs, terse commentary has its home in a largely oral culture: each comment would not so much definitively settle the meaning of the text as it would open up possibilities for reflection or for preaching (Brevity was also a gift to the scribes who would have to copy them letter by letter).
Ours is an age with little time for reflection or for wisdom. And this brings us back to Twitter. For if wisdom was expressed in a very few words long before the information age, why can’t the 140 characters of a tweet also be used in pursuit of wisdom?
I propose to undertake an experiment in social media that I call ‘interpretweeting’ (though if you come up with a better name, I’m all ears!). You can follow me on Twitter @interpretweeter.
An interpretweet is a comment on Scripture that is 140 characters or less. It is not a link to a blog or online commentary, but a complete observation or thought expressed in 140 characters. An interpretweet is, however, implicitly ‘linked’ to its readers, who I hope will take the time to open up their Bibles and reflect on each comment or discuss it with friends. The point is to recover an eye for the riches God has hidden in Scripture’s details. Attention to detail is not far from wisdom, or from love.
For the moment, I am working through a number of Jewish and Christian commentators on Exodus 16, and so I will begin by selecting and paraphrasing their insights, perhaps being bold enough to add a few thoughts of my own from time to time.
I also invite others to join me in this quixotic experiment:
First, you can post your own interpretweets on texts of your own tradition, drawing from commentaries or from your own insights. Or you can respond directly to my interpretweets with your own.
Second, I hope that interpretweets can be a resource for deepening the study of Scripture and forming religious people in the wisdom that our age sorely needs. I invite laypeople, clergy, and scholars to read along and meditate with me and with other interpretweeters; I hope you will find something edifying.
“O the depths of the riches and wisdom of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33).