Why We Must Digitally Fast

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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.

Modern Aliveness Before the Camera

I’ve been enjoying Akiko Busch’s new book: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. She makes the distinction between disappearing and hiding — the two are quite different, although easily confused in the digital age. Indeed, “it is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding. And time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world” (10).

She’s not addressing the challenges as a Christian, but the book itself is beautiful, and it works as a fine conversation partner into my own thinking in contrasting personal virtue as performance art in the digital age and the virtues of charity, personal prayer, and fasting in their invisible forms (Matthew 6:1–18).

The desire to spiritually perform is even more challenging in the age of Instagram. In part this is because we live in an age in which exposure is increasingly equated with action, and where invisibility is more and more acquainted with passivity.

But something beyond mere performance is happening, as she explains.

Visibility has gone from being passive to active.

In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look at Me, Charlotte, a model struggling to reconstruct her identity after her face has been grossly disfigured by a car accident, explains her choice of profession by saying, “Being observed felt like an action, the central action — the only one worth taking. Anything else I might attempt seemed passive, futile by comparison.”

I agree. Teaching recently, I assumed an afternoon visit to my classroom by a camera crew documenting campus life would be inhibiting to students. I was sure the two young men with video cameras would make the students feel self-conscious and that classroom discussion would become stilted and awkward.

To the contrary, the students were suddenly participating more actively, sitting up a bit straighter, choosing their words more carefully, and citing sources with greater precision. The intensity of their engagement improved under the eye of the camera, and the classroom conversation found new energy. It wasn’t so much about performing for the camera as coming alive before it, engaging and perhaps even conversing with it. Of course, I later thought, these kids were filmed as they emerged from the birth canal, took their first steps, uttered their first words, and stepped onto that first school bus. Of course they find the camera not only a congenial presence but also an affirming one. (8–9)

The Church’s challenge will be to reclaim and recapture the beauty — the activity — of the invisible life in the age of “continuous exposure.”

 

Edwards Against the Technopoly

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Jonathan Edwards championed the idea of authentic Christianity as dis-interested, and he made the argument in one of his profoundest books, The Religious Affections. It took me years to grasp his reasoning, more years to appreciate why he belabored the point, and only recently have I picked up on his implications for the digital age.

The Enlightenment world Edwards inhabited was an age of practical sciences and groundbreaking discoveries. He lived through the early era of a coming technological jackpot. A science-driven pragmatic age was gestating, and Edwards could feel the fetal movements.

This pragmatic age would bring massive changes in how people read the Bible, applied the Bible, and Instagrammed the Bible.

Edwards was concerned that people would read promises like Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” as if those words were “immediately spoken from heaven to them.” The words in the gospels would become “sweet” but only because “they think it is made to them immediately,” and “all the sense they have of any glory in them, is only from self-love, and from their own imagined interest in the words: not that they had any view or sense of the holy and glorious nature of the kingdom of heaven, and the spiritual glory of that God who gives it” (W2:221).

He arrives here by making the argument that no promise of Scripture was made to anyone alive today. We cannot embrace Scripture’s promises too quickly, and certainly not because someone else has said we are an inheritor of the divine promises. Edwards’s experiences in the froth of revival led him to conclude that even Satan can manipulate people to think the Bible is a book of blank banknotes of personal blessings to be grabbed, rendering down the glorious God of the universe into a Pez dispenser of gifts and blessings.

So is there ever a personal application of Scripture to a saint? Yes, Edwards affirms, but not because someone else makes the claim. This conformation is a distinct work of the Spirit, “a spiritual application of the promises of Scripture, for the comfort of the saints, consists in enlightening their minds to see the holy excellency and sweetness of the blessings promised, and also the holy excellency of the promiser, and his faithfulness and sufficiency; thus drawing forth their hearts to embrace the promiser, and thing promised; and by this means, giving the sensible actings of grace, enabling them to see their grace, and so their title to the promise” (W2:224–25).

Where the Spirit is active, the Promiser is always greater than the promise. This was a priority Edwards feared would be lost as preaching and revival moved toward man-centric themes and approaches.

This coming shift in pulpits was riding the wake of the Enlightenment, a social shift that changed how millions defined happiness and pursued it. Once considered in the hands of God and in fate, or a divine reward for obedience, Enlightenment thinkers came in and said no, grab for happiness, change the fate, “change these things — change ourselves — and we could become in practice what all were intended to by nature be” (McMahon, Happiness, 13).

But the foundational work of God in the soul is not discerned in the grab for a gift or even for a rescue, it’s found in a soul that apprehends the beauty of the promise and the glory of the Promiser. Aesthetic appreciation of the King precedes the joy of holding the title to the kingdom. “And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God” (W2:249).

In other words, saints “first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in himself, and then secondarily rejoice in it, that so glorious a God is theirs: they first have their hearts filled with sweetness, from the view of Christ’s excellency, and the excellency of his grace, and the beauty of the way of salvation by him; and then they have a secondary joy, in that so excellent a Savior, and such excellent grace is theirs” (W2:250).

On the other hand, hypocritical professors “take more comfort in their discoveries than in [the] Christ discovered” (W2:252).

The dichotomy is clear for Edwards: “The grace of God may appear lovely two ways; either as bonum utile, a profitable good to me, that which greatly serves my interest, and so suits my self-love; or as bonum formosum, a beautiful good in itself, and part of the moral and spiritual excellency of the divine nature” (W2:262–63).

Self-interested religion, that uses the gospel “to serve a turn,” to serve some felt-need or pragmatic purpose as an end in itself, falters and eventually fails to lead toward a life of self-sacrificing holiness. Self-interested religion contradicts selfless sacrifice, as Paul was aware (Phil. 2:21).

Thus, “what makes men partial in religion is, that they seek themselves, and not God, in their religion, and close with religion, not for its own excellent nature, but only to serve a turn [a purpose and end in itself]. He that closes with religion only to serve a turn, will close with no more of it than he imagines serves that turn: but he that closes with religion for its own excellent and lovely nature closes with all that has that nature: he that embraces religion for its own sake, embraces the whole of religion” (W2:394).

Faith as pragmatic expedience is empty and stunted.

Faith that is aesthetic is whole and embracing.

So what has Edwards to do with technology?

Only recently did I notice the connection here, made by Yale editor John E. Smith (in 1959!).

“As we contemplate the renewal of interest in religion, we must not fail to apply these criteria,” Smith says of this dis-interest, in the introduction to the Edwards volume. “What permanent change is taking place in the depths of the self and with what consistency will it show itself in practice? More likely than not the vast majority of cases will be unable to pass the test. And one of the principal reasons for the failure is to be found in our by now well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history. Edwards had seen this source of corruptions, and he had attacked it through the doctrine of divine love as disinterested. Religion is genuine and has power only when rooted in a love which does not contemplate its own advantage. Religion becomes false at just the point when we attempt to make it into a device for solving problems” (W2:51).

The gospel is not good because it’s useful for fixing life. The gospel is glorious because it reveals the beauty of God. So if I mainly embrace God’s kingdom because it means I get a bigger house in the end, I don’t understand the kingdom, because I’ve missed the beauty of the King.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see Freud coming with a therapeutic model of understanding all things, indeed of validating all things to the standard of immediate personal applicability.

Tell me Edwards didn’t foresee a pragmatic gospel (“Believe because it works!”).

Tell me Edwards didn’t see me-centered worship music coming.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see the prosperity gospel coming.

Tell me Edwards didn’t see lifehacking apps coming.

Edwards (the postmillennial) celebrated social progress, economic development, trade, and he “welcomed technological advances” while also understanding that “selfishness — self-interest, self-promotion, self-centeredness” governs in a fallen world (Edwards Encyclopedia, 85).

Speaking of anything “serving a turn” was the 18th century lingo of lifehackery. In the age of micro-apps and our well-established tendency to view everything as a technique used by the human will to conquer nature and master history, and where we are addicted to shortcuts and technologies of simplicity and expediency that promise to order our lives, we are led to think of everything in life in functional and pragmatic terms.

In every generation you will find doubting Christians, who have a taste for God’s glory but who need pastoral help to embrace the promises of Scripture for themselves. Edwards’s counsel may prove counterproductive for such souls. But he’s on to something really important for us all to note.

We must resist the temptation to transpose spiritual truth down to mere use — techniques, technologies of expediency, shortcuts of self-interest. We must fundamentally pray for an appetite for God in his radiant and holy beauty, for it’s in the aesthetics where the genuine work of God’s Spirit is to be first discerned inside us.

Compressing Spiritual Growth in the Age of Acceleration

Last week I spoke at Texas A&M on smartphone use and abuse. After the event, a young man approached me with a personal concern. Digital media was getting in the way of his schoolwork and responsibilities on campus.

This student’s situation is common, but he wasn’t distracted by Instagram and Snapchat or Fortnite — he was distracted by the many sermons and Christian podcasts he was trying to ingest all week. He’s a well-intentioned young man, and he’s not alone.

I applauded his taste for edifying content. Surely he could harbor a craving for worse things! And then I reminded him that his struggle predates podcasts. More than a century ago, this same impulse led people to church-hop and celebrity-chase the most popular preachers in London. The Puritans tried to tamp down this trend, as did Spurgeon, but the spirit of the hunt lives on in the digital age. Without prayer and meditation, feeding on daily sermons would do little good, said Spurgeon. The spiritual life has an implicit pace of progress, measured not by the speed of exposure but by the speed of internal processing.

In our brief interaction, I reminded this young man that when God wants to warp-speed our sanctification, he has a plethora of tools at his disposal to do so — mostly in the form of personal suffering.

The opinion of this young man, and of our age, is that super-spirituality is most attainable by those who ingest the highest quantity of edifying media. But this impulse, which can drive us toward a mountain of good and helpful content, is also fueled by one of the great dynamics of our age, detailed in German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (2015).

Rosa’s basic argument is that our western experience is a forever-accelerating economic system, reinforced politically and socially. Said another way, acceleration is the desire we feel to collapse life into a series of discrete moments and experiences — email to email, tweet to tweet, text to text, snap to snap, meeting to meeting, image to image, and video clip to video clip. All of life, even real experiences with hard edges, are rendered into moments or incidents. Like LEGO pieces, the moments of our lives are made into discrete bricks, stacked end to end, in order to be compressed into a smaller time-cost.

As we pack more of these moments into our lives, and as we increase the number of experiences per minute, we feel like time is speeding up. We feel as if our lives move at warp-speed, while the clock ticks away at its same old pace.

Acceleration is a much larger story, where the mutually reinforcing changes of media and technology and economics and politics and society and the workplace all converge. But the bottom line is that this promise of ever-compressible experiences tempts us to pack ten lives into one lifetime. In our age, we think that success is the hoarding of digital spectacles, work achievements, and personal experiences before we succumb to the darkness of mortality.

Inside a society of acceleration, says Rosa, we put greater and greater hopes in technologies, like our smartphones, to give us more productivity, more experiences, and also more free time.

Does it all work?

No. Most of us feel like we have less marginal time. In response, we accelerate even faster, we compress moments even tighter, all in search of more margin. But the hunt is elusive. Instead of an abundance of free time, we’re met with a growing sense of burnout.

This is because the smartphone takes more time than it saves. As life seems to speed up, we keep returning to our technologies in order to find productivity and more free time. And as we turn to those technologies, they cost us more time than we save, because those technologies introduce us to new products and ideas and experiences in the world that we didn’t know existed previously.

In other words, let’s say you have a bucket list of ten things to see and experience before your life ends. Then you go out and get a smartphone with Instagram, and your bucket quickly grows from 10 things to 100 things (and likely before you’ve had a chance to cross off one thing on your list). For every single experience you’re offered 100 other equally alluring (or better) experiences.

Inside the acceleration society, how do we approach this expanding bucket list?

We continue to compress each experience into smaller and smaller available time slots. We try to speed everything up through new technologies. We get more apps. We listen to podcasts faster. We move everything faster. We keep spinning the self-reinforcing cycle of hastening.

Rosa says that the whole system continues moving faster and faster until that acceleration is met by one of two things that help reset life — nervous breakdowns or economic recessions. Those resets return balance to life and society. But as these de-celerants are thwarted and postponed through economic and medical intervention, as we “advance,” natural breaks are bypassed and the whole system accelerates ever faster with unlimited gas and no brakes. Rosa says the whole thing eventually flies apart.

I’m more hopeful of our future. But this social dynamic is something of what drives us onward in the quest for more media. We listen to sermons at 2x speed. We no longer read horizontally, we read vertically. We scan articles. We scan everything. Nothing grabs our sustained attention, because the promises of acceleration keep us jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink with the hyper-speed the name implies.

We think that like everything else in our lives, we can attain hyper-sanctification. And within our acceleration society and the wealth of our digital tools, we get easily tempted towards a holy-looking fear of missing out (FOMO). But it’s still a FOMO, and FOMO always carries with it the stench of spent jet fuel of promise inside the acceleration society.

In reality, God’s work in us smells more like rich manure, and moves at the pace of sowing and reaping. Sanctification is the slow and steady horticultural hope for a distant payoff, never measured in terms of the most immediate apparent wins, only recognized in its eventual harvest, the fruit of long patience (Gal. 6:6–10).

Which Is More Isolating: Blindness or Deafness?

Praise God if you can see and hear. Both are miraculous gifts. But if you could only see or hear, which would you choose? It’s the basis of a classroom experiment by W. J. T. Mitchell, English and Art History prof at the University of Chicago. I heard him explain it in a 2006 interview.

A thought experiment I use with my students is asking them: “If you have a choice, you can either be blind or rendered deaf — lose your ears or your eyes — which do you choose?” And then I say, “Don’t think about it, just vote.” Always, 90% vote to be deaf, rather than blind, because they think [sight] is so important.

Then I introduce a discussion to see if the vote changes, and in the course of the discussion they learn quickly, after a moment’s reflection, that the loss of sight is much less a problem than loss of hearing. A loss of hearing means we couldn’t do what we’re doing [a recorded conversation in a studio]. We could be doing this on the telephone. All of our sociability depends on the oral channel. And even though we have this inflated idea about eyesight, actually in terms of our being, as social animals, it’s relatively secondary. Yet we make it into something really important.

At the end of our discussion of course there’s a few holdouts who say, “I still can’t bear the thought of living in darkness.” But they begin to realize that deafness is a much bigger handicap, and of course that leads on to discussions like why are all of the greatest poets blind, not deaf? And why is blindness associated with the insight of “the blind seer”?

There’s no question our lives today are ocularcentric, and we over-prioritize the eyes because we live in a glittered age fully invested in the impulsive power of images to grab our eyes. This is Mitchell’s point, and it opens a vast field of exploration for Christians whose gospel priorities explicitly stress the ear over the eye (Rom 10:14; 2 Cor 5:7).

But this point was also recorded in 2006, prior to the advent of the iPhone and prior to social media as we now know it. In the 12 years since, I’m left to wonder if our new relational structures, heavily patterned after visual/typed realtime conversations of the digital world, now fundamentally tilt this equation? Or is this factor x-ed out by dictation tech?

What do you think?

12 Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak to a room of church leaders on raising teens and tweens in the digital age, a message birthed from things I’ve learned from my wife and through years of personal wins and losses as a dad in my own home.

I landed at an airport, walked outside, got picked up by a 26-year-old Uber driver, Scott. A talkative guy, he asked me what I did. A journalist now researching smartphone habits and addictions, I said. Hardly having left the airport property, he choked back tears and explained that a week ago he broke up with his girlfriend of eight years, in part because of her smartphone addiction. “Me and my girlfriend,” he said, “we kicked our cigarette habit together. But we never could kick our smartphone habit together.” But Scott did. Feeling the urge to prove it, when we reached our destination, he showed me his iPhone and its nearly vacant home screen. He uses the phone only for driving and navigation. For everything else — he held up an old battered flip phone.

I thanked him, got out, checked into my hotel, walked for lunch, and sat inside a restaurant in a booth by a large window to enjoy the sunny cityscape. A few moments later a grimy homeless man walked along the sidewalk, stopped about ten feet from me, outside. Holding an empty Red Bull can smashed flat in the middle, and with the two ends slightly bent down at an angle. With both hands he held the can up in front of his face. With two thumbs he tapped and swiped and pinched and clicked on the flat surface for a full minute before holding it to his ear and walking off in a solo conversation. He’s simply trying to fit in, to look normal, and this is the normalcy he watches all day.

Do you think we have a smartphone problem?

Later that night in Louisville I spoke to a room of key pastors and leaders, parents and grandparents, who share my concerns over how smartphones and social media form and de-form teens and tweens.

Through the kind invitation of Collin Hansen (TGC) and the gift of three research days allotted to me by David Mathis (DG), I was finally able to pull all my thoughts together into one piece. The written form of the address is done, edited, and released a moment ago, under the title: Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age.”