It’s always an honor to talk with Dutch journalist Maarten Stolk of Reformatorisch Dagblad. Last month he interviewed me about my most recent book: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Digital Age. The interview was published today in the Netherlands under the title: “Why We Must Digitally Fast.” With his kind permission, here’s the full English interview.
Why did you write Competing Spectacles after 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You?
My work seeks to help Christians think critically and biblically about the changing world of technology. But many of the technologies on my radar are too futuristic or abstract to yet draw popular attention — topics like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, autonomous domestic robots, companion robots, designer babies, social credit scoring, global surveillance, transhumanism, etc. Smartphone habits are immediately relevant to all of us. So my smartphone book serves as a both a practical how-to book and an introduction to a broader discussion of our tech age.
But at the end of that project, I knew that there were more questions to address about the power dynamics of digital media. Some have called Competing Spectacles a prequel to 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. I think that’s accurate. Shiny new technology affects all of us in many ways, but the dominance of digital media, inside what has been coined the “attention market,” is the bigger backstory behind why our smartphones are so addictive.
So this new book asks: What does it mean for Christians to live with eternal purpose inside a digital age filled with viral video clips, live sports, video gaming, on-demand television streaming, virtual reality dreamscapes, loudmouthed political pundits, brash political tweets, the latest blockbuster movies, brand new YouTube videos — enough eye-candy to consume every waking moment of a lifespan?
Why is it important for Christians to have periods of digital detoxes?
Attention is the currency of power. The more plays or “likes,” the more power. A digital detox is a withdrawal from this power-currency system. But a digital detox is a type of fasting. And fasting is how Christians say: ‘Food is not my god. Food is not my comfort. Food is not the basis of my happiness. God is.’ We use food rightly when God is at the center of our lives, not food.
In a consumer-driven age of abundance, you can imagine how fasting becomes even more urgent. Food is a powerful habit, and so are our smartphones. Every day, we habitually turn to our phones, more often than we turn to sugar. Smartphones are a virtual form of candy. So a digital detox is a way of saying, ‘The endless digital media available to me in my phone is not my god. The self-affirmation and acceptance I seek in social media is not the basis of my happiness. God’s acceptance of me, in union with Christ, is.’
Only when our lives are re-centered on God can we learn to use our phones in honorable ways and with eternal purpose. Digital detoxes are essential only because we have been showered with new gifts from God in the form of technology and media. Like all fasting, it’s sanctified gratitude, one way to ensure that our lives center on the gift-Giver, not on his proliferated gifts.
Is an image or a ‘spectacle’ theologically neutral?
Maybe. But every spectacle implicitly makes one of two claims, either: ‘God is the central reality to the universe.’ Or: ‘God is inconsequential to the universe.’ And most of our spectacles present us with a distortion of reality: reality minus God is a false reality, an unreality. Bluntly put, this distortion is demonic, a worldview that shrugs off God. But my concern is not in separating inherently good spectacles from inherently sinful ones.
Where I think the church has failed more commonly is in failing to speak to the dangers of spectacle-saturation in the digital age. Today we are conditioned to binge television shows, plunge into hours of gaming, to live online, and to soak up the lingua franca of our age in advertising, Hollywood movies, the music industry, and large-stadium athletics. We live inside a matrix of media like no other people in world history. Where do we draw healthy limits? That’s the question I’m chasing.
To what extent must the church be ‘countercultural’ in a visual world?
The Church is a counter-cultural resistance movement because our identity is shaped by our hopes and our convictions about unseen realities (2 Cor. 4:18). Particularly in the digital age, the church is countercultural because we set our minds and our hearts are affections and our hopes on unseen realities above, “where Christ is” (Col. 3:1–3).
The world hungers after the latest gadget, the newest thrill, and whatever is projected to them in the digital media that shapes the loves and longings that drive them. But Christians live with one foot in this world and one foot in an unseen world. Which means that our loves and longings are fundamentally shaped by a hidden realm. By faith we can see through the veil of CGI spectacles to behold an “eternal weight of glory,” heavier than a granite mountain, and more luminous than a diamond, and invisible to the eyes of the world today (2 Cor. 4:17).
Why are Christ and the church ‘spectacles’?
Since at least the Exodus, God has delighted to flex his own spectacle-making power for the world to behold (see Ex. 9:16). God is not against spectacles; he’s opposed to the fictional CGI spectacles of our movie age that grab more attention than his glorious Son. God’s people have been central to the celebration and re-proclamation of God’s spectacles.
This is no different today. We proclaim the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Christ. We give testimony of God’s work to the people around us, pointing others to the great Spectacle of the universe, Jesus Christ.
How can Christians speak prophetically to demask spectacles? Can you give an example?
As Herman Bavinck put it, Christians are not, in principle, opposed to culture. We are opposed to worldviews that fail to subordinate this world to the world to come. So we can begin by realizing that the world doesn’t question the glut of digital media. Our world blindly plunges into all the world’s entertainment offerings. A small voice, all throughout Church history, has objected to this cultural plunge. I’m trying to echo that objection in my own way, in my own age, while also realizing that I am, and will remain, a minority voice in the Church.
Quite frankly, most Christians don’t want to hear it. We can fear falling out of step with modern media more than we fear overconsumptions of media. It is time for an awakening to begin inside the household of God. Then perhaps we can make broader inroads in our culture, as people who live with priorities beyond the latest viral video.
How do you know if the spectacles of this world are suffocating your heart?
Jesus Christ died, was buried, and raised to eternal life to purchase our joy now and eternally! There’s nothing more thrilling, no greater Spectacle. So we are commanded to give our most earnest and careful attention to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because even though we have not seen Christ, we can love him with a love that fills our hearts with an inexpressibly glorious joy (1 Pet. 1:8).
Only Christ can be this most brilliant Spectacle for us. But when our attention neglects Christ, we drift away from him (Heb. 2:1–3). And this drift is felt most clearly when we find ourselves always seeking after a new thrill in our media, meanwhile losing interest in the person of Christ, declining interest in the Bible, yawning through Christ-centered sermons, and spiritually snoozing through the Lord’s Table. Christ grows boring compared to the latest digital thrills. So we pump new thrills into our worship services to compete with the volume of digital thrills of our age, but we really only spotlight the decay of our holy affections.
We grow bored with Christ. And to be bored with Christ is to be disconnected from the great thrill of the cosmos, severed from God’s purpose for this creation — a theater to display the worth and beauty of his Son.
There’s no greater catastrophic loss imaginable to a soul than to grow weary of Christ, the Spectacle of all spectacles. And if I’m right, such catastrophe is accelerated in a media age like our own.