This is my third installment in reflecting on our cultural moment and how we can begin responding as the church. In the first part I talked about secularism, and in the second part, I talked about what it means to be a post-Christian. Today, I want to talk about the third profound shift we’ve seen in the last 50 years: the rise of digital devices.
Over the last 150 years, we have moved from an agrarian society (most people were farmers) to an industrial society (people worked in factories and made stuff) to now a technological/informational society (people largely sit behind computers and use their minds). Accelerating such a shift has been the miniaturization of computers into smartphones and the ability to do work and communicate anytime, anywhere.
So how has the rise of digital communications affected us as human beings? For that, we need a little philosophy. There are two main schools of thought concerning technology: determinism and instrumentalism. Technology determinism argues that our technologies shape us (or determines our existence) in profound ways outside our control. Think about email for a minute. Who decided that email would take over as a primary way that workers communicate? No one. Instead, email was unleashed on us and it influenced us, so much so that this email is one of the best ways I can get my ideas out to you! Technological determinists would say, “See! Look! We’re being influenced by the mere presence of the technology in ways we didn’t anticipate.” (More on that in a minute).
Technological instrumentalism, on the other hand, argues that technology is just an instrument, or tool, that we use. Technology, in this view, is largely neutral. Human beings are the ones who can create and then bend technology to its will. For example, an instrumentalist might argue social media doesn’t cause teenagers to be anxious. Social media is neutral. It’s neither “good or bad,” how could an inanimate thing have a moral value? Instead, it’s the misuse of social media by teenagers that could make them anxious.
So who’s right? I think there’s a bit of truth in both. Technological determinism cannot be totally right because it is God, not technology, who determines the course of human existence. Yet, the insight of technological determinism—that technology shapes us in profound ways outside of our control—is surely right. From the printing press to the smartphone technology has altered human culture.
Instrumentalists are probably right in thinking that the tool in itself is largely neutral. Yet, I think the fatal flaw in the instrumentalist argument is its anti-Christian anthropology. It assumes that human beings by nature are “good.” But Scripture says otherwise. We certainly made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27) but we are also existentially estranged from God, condemned in our sins, and bent towards selfishness. So sure, while we are able to do amazing things with technology because we’re made in God’s image, we are also capable of doing horrific things as well. And it could definitely be the case that future technologies are developed which will only heighten human cruelty.
The point of all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo is to drive home the point: As Christians, we should not just blindly accept any and all technological progress. We need to be thoughtful and intentional about our use of technology. We have largely become a “cyborg nation” where digital technology is becoming a ubiquitous extension of our human personhood. But with the rise of cyborgism (did I just coin a term?!?) there are some serious things we need to think through. It’s overly naive to say, “Look, it’s just a tool!” No, it’s not. The tool (whatever it is) is going to have an influence on us (and our brains!) and our children. This is why I hope that the use of smartphones gets stigmatized like smoking. So what are my main concerns with the rise of digital technologies?
1. They pull our attention away from what matters.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion” says poet Mary Oliver. What we focus on is what we worship. Or as the author of Hebrews says, “Fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb 12:2). “Fixing our eyes” is a metaphor for concentrating on and thinking about Jesus. Are you? My concern is that digital devices have largely captured our attention and our sucking it into all manner of things besides God. I can’t find it right now, but I remember John Piper saying one time that we should be so enthralled with the Bible that we read it constantly on our phones rather than using Facebook. I believe Piper has moderated his stance since then, pointing out the danger of these devices. The problem with such a mindset (just read the Bible on your phone rather than Facebook) is that we’re weak and sinful creatures and these devices and apps are designed to hijack our attention.
2. They overload our minds with information causing anxiety and confusion
When you’re constantly surfing the internet, you’re taking in WAYYYY too much information for your brain to handle. And I think we see the information overload show up in anxiety, depression, and irritability. I’m just not sure that we’re supposed to ingest piles and piles of news about tragedies halfway around the world, which we can do nothing about. Of course, we’ll feel helpless and overwhelmed!
But let’s take it in a spiritual direction. Why do we have more Christian resources than ever, but rising biblical illiteracy? The problem is NOT that we need more resources (books, article, curriculums). The problem is that we’re flooded even with good choices and don’t know what to sort through. We can also have our anxiety over our faith and church rise when we read too many Christian websites, all touting that this thing (lack of prayer, lack of spiritual gifts, lack of political engagement, lack of discipleship, lack of love, lack of theological precision, lack of tradition and history, lack of leadership, ad nauseum) is the problem besetting the church. Well, which is it? Of course, we’re going to feel anxious about our faith.
3. They are pushing us towards a cyborg existence and away from real embodied relationships
Social media is to relationships what pornography is to sex. But God made us both body and soul. We exist as one being. He made us as one in the beginning, breathing in us the breath of life. And we will one day be redeemed as one being. The great Christian hope is NOT the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body! Scripture goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was raised in his body, not just “spiritually.”
Reclaiming a theology of human embodiment is essential for us as a church moving forward. We need to fight against the disembodiment of our faith, especially of our worship gatherings. My maternal grandmother used to watch a short church service every Sunday morning on TV, but she never actually attended church. And she never exemplified the kind of practices during the week that would give me any indication that she had real saving faith. It is not healthy to have one’s connection to church solely through the TV (or YouTube).
“What about the homebound and immunocompromised?” That’s the most common pushback to what I just said. And yes, I am glad that we can stream our services to them! Those are exceptional cases, however. And in this case, the exception proves the rule. Christians are supposed to gather together in their bodies for worship. And when that can’t happen, it’s a tough thing. But it’s a totally different situation with someone who is homebound but belongs to a particular local body and is also receiving visits from church members, than from someone who’s able bodied and just like, “Nah, I don’t need to go to church; Imma just watch online.” I hope that we can all agree that a little nuance in the discussion goes a long way.
Of course, the balancing truth of everything I’ve written is that no one actually wants to return to pre-internet days. I certainly don’t. I hate shopping in stores. But just because we have the technology doesn’t mind that blind acceptance and incorporation is the way to go either. Maybe Jesus’ words apply to more than just money: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).