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Lauren F. Winner

Sleep Therapy

In search of a counterculture for the common good.

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If there is one thing that has defined evangelical Christians, it is their volatile relationship to the cultures where they have sojourned. In America, evangelicals have at various times enjoyed everything from near hegemony to internal exile. They have abjured political power and sold pearls of great price to obtain it—often in the same lifetime. They have censored, critiqued, consumed, and copied the fruits of mass culture—sometimes all at once. They have harbored some of the most enduringly radical American voices on social responsibility and racial justice, yet in recent years their most innovative and influential leaders have been found in exurban locales of homogeneous wealth. They have produced notable scholars of history and enthusiastic popularizers of the end of the world.

It would be more honest, though, to say "we" instead of "they." As a publication of Christianity Today International, Books & Culture is very much part of the ongoing, unpredictable, sometimes combustible evangelical engagement with culture. Over the next three years we will join our sister magazines Christianity Today and Leadership Journal in the Christian Vision Project, an effort to ask three "big questions" that define critical territory in the Christian relationship to culture, mission, and the gospel. In the first year, with the generous assistance of the Pew Charitable Trusts, we focus on the question, How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? This piquant phrase, which we have borrowed from the Rev. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, juxtaposes two neglected themes. We hope the contributions in these pages, on the website ChristianVisionProject.com that will launch in February, and in a series of DVD documentaries will spark much fruitful conversation and action.

We have asked six people to respond to this question in Books & Culture in 2006. All of them are serious and creative Christian thinkers—though not all are evangelical Protestants—and many will be familiar to longtime readers. Perhaps none will be more familiar than our first contributor, Lauren F. Winner, who at 29 is completing a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University while both teaching and studying at Duke Divinity School, and travels widely speaking to audiences in the wake of her book Real Sex. With all this on her plate, perhaps the subject of her answer to our "big question" is natural—but that doesn't make it any less important.

My subject is the theology of sleep. It is an unusual subject, but I make no apology for it. I think we hear too few sermons about sleep. After all, we spend a very large share of our lives sleeping. I suppose that on an average I've slept for eight hours out of twenty-four during the whole of my life, and that means that I've slept for well over twenty years. What an old Rip van Winkle I am! But then, what Rip van Winkles you all are, or will one day become! Don't you agree then that the Christian gospel should have something to say about the sleeping third of our lives as well as about the waking two-thirds of it?
—John Baillie, "The Theology of Sleep," in Christian Devotion (1962)

Last night, I pulled one of my very few all-nighters. These were not uncommon in my college years, but my capacity to stay up all night and be anything approximating coherent the next morning has declined as I've marched through my twenties. So now I stay up all night very rarely, once every two years or so, and only when I am truly desperate.

But the storied all-nighters are just the most extreme example of something many of us do quite a lot: chip away at sleep in order to do something else. Usually that something else is work.

A simple glance at my email inbox tells me that I am not alone in sacrificing sleep in order to squeeze in a few more hours of work. Last Tuesday alone, I received 23 work-related emails that had been sent between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 A.M. This creeped me out. The next night, in fact, I had some trouble falling asleep. I lay in bed worrying about the correspondence that was accumulating in my email account, the possibly pressing matters I would need to address in the morning, and the number of hours the next morning that I would have to devote not to preparing to teach my afternoon class, but to replying to email. Eventually I rolled over and set my alarm back from 6:30 to 5:00, resolved to use the extra 90 minutes of wakefulness for email.

Wakefulness, actually, may not be the right word. For though I "gained" 90 minutes in which I was awake, I actually lost wakefulness. Sleep specialists are virtually unanimous on this: With some notable exceptions who seem wired to operate on a different schedule (Thomas Edison is a famous example), we human beings cannot lose sleep without decreasing our attention span, our response time, our acuity. I may have been awake for 90 extra minutes, but I was less wakeful all day long.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult sleeps six hours and 58 minutes per night during the work week. One hundred years ago—before Mr. Edison's marvelous invention—people slept about nine hours a night. They were right in line with the eight to ten hours of sleep specialists say we need. Now we are a nation of the chronically sleep-deprived.

Adults' zeal for cutting back on sleep has consequences for children, too—and not just that parents and teachers are crabbier because they're not well-rested. Children need even more sleep than adults, yet parents now keep them up later and later, possibly because working moms and dads want to "spend quality time" with their children (a phrase laden with many revealing contradictions and falsehoods, but that's for another day), something that's just not possible if you arrive home from work at six o'clock and Junior's in bed by 7:15. Last year the Washington Post reported that naptime is increasingly "a luxury that 4-year-olds no longer can afford." Many Washington-area schools are eliminating naps from the kindergarten curriculum, so that 45 more minutes can be devoted to instruction. Administrators seem unconcerned that their charges would learn better if they were well-rested, but that may not be the point. In trading nap time for more time spent studying the alphabet, these tots are really learning to value productivity, or at least activity, above all else.

The irony is that although many of us trade sleep for productivity, we would actually be more productive if we slept more. When we don't get enough sleep, we accumulate "sleep debt" which has to be paid back. (It's no coincidence that we describe this state with a metaphor drawn from banking, one William Wordsworth nicely turned on its head when he asked, in his poem "To Sleep," "Without Thee what is all the morning's wealth?") We concentrate better and are less easily distracted when well-rested. A study from the University of Minnesota recently showed that when high schools started the day 85 minutes later, at 8:40 A.M. instead of 7:15 A.M., students got more sleep at night, fell asleep in class less often, and got better grades. When we've gotten good sleep, we are also happier, nicer, and healthier. Michael Irwin, director of the Cousins Center of Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, says, "Even a modest disturbance of sleep produces a reduction of natural immune responses and [production of] T-cell[s]," the cells that combat the effects of viruses and other pathogens on our bodies.

Indeed, sleep deprivation carries great costs, both in dollars and in human life. Tragedies related to sleep deprivation—car wrecks, accidents at the workplace, and so forth—cost Americans more than $50 billion a year, and result in at least 20,000 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says sleep deprivation causes 100,000 traffic accidents a year. (The slower response time of people who've not gotten enough sleep accounts in part for the spike in wrecks on the day after the spring shift to Daylight Savings Timely, when people often lose an hour of sleep.) Psychologist and sleep specialist Stanley Coren has suggested that the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island both occurred in part because sleepy employees, dragged down by sleep debt, were "not working at top efficiency and were not motivated to check details closely." According to Coren, sleep deprivation was also a factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. To save money, Exxon had been cutting back on staff, which required the remaining employees to put in longer hours. The oil spill would not have happened had not an exhausted third mate fallen asleep on the job.

When folks from my local church gather for an evening meal or adult education class, we usually close with Compline, the nighttime service from the Book of Common Prayer. This service—in which we pray for a peaceful night and a perfect end, repeating the nunc dimittis (originally uttered by Simeon in a somewhat different context, asking God to let his servant depart in peace)—is helping me to understand sleep as part of faithfulness. For it is sheer hypocrisy to pray with my community for a peaceful night and a perfect end if I know I am going home to put in three or four more hours answering email.

Sleep more: this may seem a curious answer to the question of what Christians can do for the common good. Surely one could come up with something more other-directed, more sacrificial, less self-serving. Or more overtly political—refusing to serve in the current war. Or more communitarian, making a commitment to street and neighborhood that overrides new job offers.

And let's be honest. Had I instead written a rousing essay calling all Christians to hold vigils against the death penalty next week, the very improbability that anyone would heed my call would let us all off the hook. One of the reasons you may be wishing I hadn't suggested we Christians sleep more is that sleeping more is something you can choose to do, or not do, this very night.

It was one of the reasons I was tempted to write about protesting capital punishment instead, for I will have a chance this very night to practice what I'm preaching, and it will be much harder than sending a check to Virginians Against the Death Penalty.

All of those things—protesting capital punishment, working with our neighborhood association, and so on—would be good things for us Christians to undertake as well. But for the moment I am sticking with the small, if challenging, task of becoming better rested. Not only does sleep have evident social consequences, not only would sleeping more make us better neighbors and friends and family members and citizens. Sleeping well may also be part of Christian discipleship, at least in our time and place.

It's not just that a countercultural embrace of sleep bears witness to values higher than "the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things." A night of good sleep—a week, or month, or year of good sleep—also testifies to the basic Christian story of Creation. We are creatures, with bodies that are finite and contingent. For much of Western history, the poets celebrated sleep as a welcome memento mori, a reminder that one day we will die: hence Keats's ode to the "sweet embalmer" sleep, and Donne's observation, "Natural men have conceived a twofold use of sleep; that it is a refreshing of the body in this life; that it is a preparing of the soul for the next." Is it any surprise that in a society where we try to deny our mortality in countless ways, we also deny our need to sleep?

The unarguable demands that our bodies make for sleep are a good reminder that we are mere creatures, not the Creator. For it is God and God alone who "neither slumbers nor sleeps." Of course, the Creator has slept, another startling reminder of the radical humility he embraced in becoming incarnate. He took on a body that, like ours, was finite and contingent and needed sleep. To push ourselves to go without sleep is, in some sense, to deny our embodiment, to deny our fragile incarnations—and perhaps to deny the magnanimous poverty and self-emptying that went into his Incarnation.

French poet Charles Peguy makes the point well:

I don't like the man who doesn't sleep,
says God.
Sleep is the friend of man,
Sleep is the friend of God.
Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing
I have created.
And I myself rested on the seventh day. …
But they tell me that there are men
Who work well and sleep badly.
Who don't sleep. What a lack of
confidence in me.

Peguy's words have perhaps never been more fitting: to sleep, long and soundly, is to place our trust not in our own strength and hard work, but in him without whom we labor in vain.

More CVP articles from our sister publications are available on ChristianVisionProject.com. Also check out the Christian Vision Project's new video documentary, Intersect|Culture. The videos take you into the stories of ordinary believers who, by faith, changed their communities. The set includes a DVD with 6 videos and coordinating group curriculum.

Lauren F. Winner is the author most recently of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).

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