Review of Viral by Leonard Sweet
Waterbrook Press, Colorado Spring, 2012
June 28, 2012
Pastor/University Professor/Author/Futurist Leonard Sweet identifies a massive paradigm shift in western (and maybe world) culture as humanity moves from the age of printed press to the digital age. An example of Sweet’s labeling and describing of this shift is seen in his accurate depiction of the word ‘text.’ For people of the print age, people he calls Gutenbergers, ‘text’ is a noun. It is something you read. For those in the digital age, the age of the information cloud, ‘text’ is a verb. You, the user, provides content, and you convey the content by texting. This is just one of numerous ways Sweet adroitly illustrates his thesis that times are changing. Furthermore, if you (mostly people over 40) don’t keep up with the change, you’ll be left behind.
Using the acronym TGIF (texting, Google, iPhone, Facebook), Sweet thoroughly shows the way the world has become conformed to information transfers via electronic media. A simple example is the series of revolutions in what history will call the “Arab Spring.” Totalitarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt could not suppress the uprisings as rebels communicated by using cell phones and the internet.
Sweet’s analysis of the TGIF world is good and helpful and inspiring. Reading his work inspired me to read poetry. This is something he strongly commends. Also reading Viral, I felt inspired to begin Tweeting again. I had stopped Tweeting in early 2011. My account had been asleep for 17 months. A sure sign a work is persuasive is when it leads to action. I, the reader, took up two new actions (poetry and Twitter) as Sweet’s suggestion. I am glad for both.
However, I feel Sweet glosses over all that is good about the age of the press (the age of Gutenberg to use his terminology). This is an age that gave the world Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Edwards, Watchman Nee, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King JR, Mother Teresa, and Dietrich Bonheoffer to name just a few. Yet, Sweet, who himself comes from this generation is overly critical of it. It’s quite hard to understand why he can’t make more of an effort to cite the contributions of the Gutenberg age alongside the wonders of the new age (he terms Google or ‘Googlers’).
I don’t find fault with the idea that the world is changing quickly and radically. It is – no question. I don’t resist the change. As I said, per Sweet’s suggestion, I am now Tweeting (along with blogging and Facebooking which I already do daily). I support Sweet’s ideas and am excited by them as he is. But, what I do not like is his suggestion that the current culture is closer to the notions of community and faith as proposed by Jesus than the previous.
He thinks Googlers are far more likely to understand, appreciate, and seek out community as Jesus practiced and taught it than Gutenbergers. Gutenbergers were too rules-oriented, atomistic, and individualistic. Gutenbergers better understand Jesus’ teachings on community and holistic faith. I love Leonard Sweet, but that is complete nonsense. He needs to re-read Bonheoffer’s Life Together or Chuck Colson’s the Body or any of the works of Richard Foster. Like any age, many Gutenbergers were off track when it comes to the Gospel. Some, though, truly understand Jesus and their writings based on the Gospel have enlightened all Christians.
Similarly, many Googlers are truly wise, fresh voices of faith who cast new light on the gospel. But more Googlers are as lost and confused and far from Jesus as any Gutenbergers ever were. It is not that Sweet’s observations are wrong; they’re just much exaggerated. He’s so excited about the theological and spiritual implications of the new age of communication that he goes overboard in praising Googlers and criticizing Gutenbergers. He plays Monday morning armchair quarterback, and he’s way too sophisticated to do that. He knows better than to overgeneralize in that way.
Leonard Sweet is such a compelling writer that I do recommend his book. I think the reader will be informed and entertained. But my recommendation comes with this warning. As interesting and in some places spot on as his observations are, he is guilty of exaggeration and over generalization. Buy and read his book, but read it with that in mind.