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Can wisdom come in 140 characters or less? Ask Solomon

Nathan Bierma

A core principle of the backlash against the social messaging service Twitter—or are we up to the backlash against the anti-backlash now?—is that shorter messages are dumber messages. Twitter constrains messages to a mere 140 characters, and critics say it just puts another dent in our insect-like attention spans, and our ability to think and communicate complex thought. Shorter, shallower, dumber—it's the trajectory of Western civilization.

As a writer, though, I believe in a different principle, the one that says: "If you need the long version, I'll have it to you tomorrow. If you need the short version, it won't be finished until next week." Shorter can be—though certainly not necessarily—harder, crisper, smarter, more effective, more meaningful. (Perhaps I can convince you, by counterexample, as you read further in this post, that shorter is better.)

It struck me recently that this is the governing principle of the biblical book of Proverbs, and that Proverbs might be the best ancient analogue to Twitter. I wanted to test this theory by seeing how the book of Proverbs worked as a Twitter feed, but then I realized that somebody already had, at www.twitter.com/proverbsfeed. See? Perfect. (And in fact, since Hebrew is a much more concise language than English, Proverbs was originally written in even fewer characters, 100 or less per proverb.)

Individual proverbs didn't make it into Proverbs—which, even more than other OT books, was presumably compiled over time, orally preserved and transmitted long before it was ever written down—unless they were salient, brief, well-crafted, and widely resonant with experience. Long-winded and overly theoretical proverbs just didn't have the same kind of staying power.

Jesus knew this well, and excelled in the pithy one-liner. Ben Witherington's excellent book Jesus the Sage shows this well. An entire book on Christian political engagement can fail to measure up to the wisdom of "Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God's." (The apostle Paul was less convinced; he left us elaborate intricate arguments that don't have quite the same spice.)

I'm not saying that Twittering is Christ-like, nor even that Twittering is typically witty and wise. Most of it is detritus. But I am saying that rather than being automatic proof of civilization's decline, Twitter might be validating a centuries-old principle of human communication, which is that brevity can characterize some of the most enduring, resonant, and even sacred communication in human communities—and that we know this better than most, based on our experience with Proverbs and the sayings of Christ in the history of God's people.

The problem is that proverbs and sound bites can be easily misunderstood, misapplied, and misrepresented. Somebody apparently realized this could be a problem with the book of Proverbs, and (most commentators believe) added chapters 1-9 as an introduction , a beautiful full-length theological prologue to the core of the book with its nuggets of wisdom. That part of Proverbs would be harder to pull off on Twitter, and it reminds us that we cannot subsist on nuggets alone; we need a diet that includes both nuggets of wisdom and five-course meals.

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