The Change We Don't See

When I moved to New York City to go to seminary, I learned to use the subway. In those days the fare was sixty cents, paid for by a token bought from a clerk. The cars were dirty and graffiti-encased. The announcements were unintelligible. You could be standing on the platform for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen, even more, and not know whether your train was coming or not. The lack of information was immense.

A couple of decades later, returning to the city, the fare was two bucks, paid for by a card you bought from a machine. The cars were clean, usually, and the announcements were clear and intelligible, usually. Electronic signs were in the process of being installed; these signs would tell when the next train was coming, which train it was, and how long it would be. Information and technology, fueled by increasing wealth in the city, had turned a Dantesque picture of the Inferno into something useful and, well, somewhat pleasant.

The subway was also, in those halcyon days, a refuge from the new smartphones. Phones did not work underground: the cell towers could not be reached through the metal, stone, dirt, water lines, and everything else that lay below the ground but above the trains. This has now changed. I did nothing to my phone on a recent visit to New York, but nonetheless it was able to pick up email and load webpages during most of my underground trips. 

And of course, I looked at it.


It is so easy to do, to pick up one’s phone and see if you have any messages, to check the latest news, to do all the things we do now to fill in the times that used to be empty of activity. What did I do in the old days of waiting for a train, or riding one? I read something: a magazine perhaps, a newspaper (people were adept at folding the paper to make it readable while sitting in a narrow seat), a novel. I remember once reading a Hemingway novel through to the end on a particularly lengthy subway afternoon (as I recall, I had many rides that day).

The change in the subway is a figure that reveals much about the change that has happened to us. Go back, and we’ll see difficulties in the life without technology. Move towards our present day, we’ll see its benefits. Look squarely at where we are, we see lots of problems. People aren’t reading through longer things, nor are they thinking through larger matters. Reactions are quick and shallow. We are always picking up the pocket thing, the smart device that makes us dumb.

Two lines come to mind. First is from T. S. Eliot, who describes us as “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Second is from an older book: “Be still then, and know that I am God.”


Readers Write. Last week’s blog about theology on the diamond brought some interesting replies. One person sent me a layout of the field from the viewpoint of a little league coach: the toughest kid, for instance, is catcher, and the best kid is shortstop. Another worked out a theology that ended up leaving earthly baseball behind: Jesus is the umpire you plow over on an unsuccessful attempt to steal home; despite his bleeding, he still makes the call in your favor—despite your undeserving character! In this (eschatological?) baseball everything turns out to be stacked in your favor, and all you need to do is accept it.


On the Web. My latest blog post for the Human Life Review is “Against Usefulness”:


Out & About. This Sunday, June 18, I am preaching at St. James’ Church in Dallas at 8 and 10 a.m., and at 9 a.m. I am teaching a class on grief and loss. 

Sunday, June 25, I am preaching at St. Matthew’s Cathedral at 9 and 11:15 a.m.

Please note the date (and start enjoying the book): The “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will have its first fall meeting at St. Matthew’s (a new location) on Sunday, September 10, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The book is The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, the most recent novel from the remarkable Christopher Beha. There is a thread here, in that apparently one of baseball's many statistics is known as the index of self-destructive acts.


The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: