Religion & Liberty Online

Put Down the Phone and Pick up the Psalms

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The disembodied, unreal reality of our digital age threatens to rob us of an authentic existence. A new book offers solutions short of throwing our iPhones in the trash.

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Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age makes a compelling argument. Its author, Samuel James, asks readers to consider how long it’s been since they’ve checked a phone for notifications, or whether they’re in the habit of checking email while talking with people in person—or checking texts while driving. The technology we depend on, James argues, is predetermined to orient us toward the “disembodied habitat” of the internet, and moving in that direction causes us to withdraw from the embodied creation God has given us. The internet itself, James argues, is shaped to demand our continual engagement while delivering less and less satisfaction. The more we engage such technology without contemplation, the further we move away from the incarnate lives that God has given us. The task is one of discernment: How do we live well in a technologized, interconnected world?

Digital Liturgies is not a complex book; it’s written for the non-academic reader, and perhaps even for the lay (non-pastoral) reader. This is not always a good thing. The author occasionally oversimplifies to the point of hyperbole: “The center of gravity in the online world is your profile, in which you are granted a near-godlike ability to craft an identity” or “The web is, in a very real sense, a credential-erasing environment. When everything and everyone is disembodied, these structural distinctions between expert and nonexpert tend to mean very little.” This tendency toward exaggeration, however, does not detract from the power of James’ overall argument—that we should note the ways in which contemporary technologies shape us and how digital habits remove us from reality. James wants to prick readers’ imaginations to become conscious of their digital engagement. “Digital technology has recalibrated our worldviews and reshaped our consciences not to see the good givenness of our bodies. This isn’t merely a problem of content; it’s a problem of form.” Without an awareness of the form of social technology, we cannot engage in digital habitats well.

James cites Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message” to argue that technology has a form that evangelicals, for example, have largely neglected: “Evangelicals have often focused exclusively on the content that our TVs, computers, and smartphones deliver to us rather than the form by which that content is delivered.” The form matters and shapes the course of human living. James illustrates this idea by considering the way central heating and air changed the shape of the average home:

Technology literally decentralized homelife, laying the technical foundation for the everyone-has-their-own-bedroom layout of a home that we assume. This architectural transformation has brought with it a philosophical transformation: an emphasis, for example, on granting children “privacy” and “respecting their space” that has significant implications for parenting and the governance of the home.

The form of smart technology shapes our perceptions of possibility, and in so doing shapes us. James’ most perceptive chapter explores the idea that “the internet is pornographically shaped.” He builds upon Alan Noble’s insights in You Are Not Your Own suggesting that “the power to find anything you want to see, the access to a never-ending supply of new consumables, and the limitless freedom to make fantasy become reality—these are not just characteristics of online porn but of the online world in general.” James notes that “the digital liturgies of endless novelty, constant consumption, and limitless power make pornography more plausible to our hearts and our habits. Within the web’s spiritual habitat, looking at pornography makes sense and feels natural.” These realities mean that “online pornography won’t stay in its box because the box is designed for its escape.” The endless programs designed to limit access to pornography are not working against sinful desires only but also against the very shape of digital technology.

James’ argument echoes an idea introduced by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Lewis notes that the “aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive” all function as technologies enabling man’s “conquest of nature,” but at the same time they give control to some external group. Purchasing a ticket to fly to France or making an international call enables the conquering of distance, but no one gains the actual ability to fly or to communicate audibly across thousands of miles; in as much as we use these technologies, we give control over ourselves to those who own (or create) the technological devices. Social media, the internet, and the smartphone promise a seemingly infinite expansion of human connectivity and collaboration, but users cede power to companies that control the technology.

This reminder—that technology is not neutral but controlled and controlling—is James’ main contribution to the discussion of the effect of the digital age on human consciousness. The answer, of course, is not to throw away our smartphones. Instead, James advocates cultivating liturgies. A liturgy is a ritual, a regular practice that shapes the soul. Habits and practices, James argues, “are spiritually significant because they shape us into particular kinds of people.” The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is filled with liturgies that are to remind the people of God how precisely they should live:

And these words which I command you shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” [Deut.6:6-9, NKJV]

The command is clear—teach. The liturgies describe how, when, and where adults should teach their children the ways of God: when you rise, as you walk, by literally wearing Scripture as “frontlets between your eyes.” Liturgies provide habits that shape our loves.

James K.A. Smith took the evangelical reading world by storm in his Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, making the argument (derived from Augustine) that habits use embodiment to shape the soul. Digital Liturgies picks up Smith’s concept and suggests habits that readers can cultivate to resist technological formation. James encourages readers to “ask yourself some hard questions. When was the last time you read a book, listened to music, or had a conversation for more than an hour without checking your phone?” Such habits cultivate attention, pushing back against the short-form content dominating feeds.

Meeting in person, for example, is a way of rediscovering the embodied nature of human existence: “To actively resist the dehumanization of much digital technology, we have to do something simple yet often difficult: we must gather.” James notes that

the most important gathering we can seek out as Christians is the gathering of our local church. … To resist digital liturgies, we need regular immersion into the embodied community of God. We need to sing to one another, to exhort one another, to encourage one another, to forgive one another, and to laugh and cry with one another. … We can’t fast-forward through a convicting message we are sitting in. We must allow the word to cut us open so it can put us back together again. Church is gospel givenness.

As another kind of liturgy, James advises becoming steeped in the wisdom literature of Scripture. The book of Proverbs teaches discernment, and as such pushes against the absolutizing echo chambers James describes permeating social media. The Christian should always seek to steward wisely digital engagement in light of the gospel and scriptural wisdom.

There is no turning back to a pre-smartphone, pre–social media era. James reminds his readers that their digital actions, like their physical ones, become a question of Christian discipleship: “There is no straight line from Christian wisdom to rejection of technology” because “the dynamics we’ve looked at in this book … were first manufactured in the human heart.” Replacing bad digital liturgies with better habits begins with asking new questions: How do we place our technological usage under the lordship of Christ? What does it mean to rightly steward internet usage, content creation, and relationships under the covenant love of God? James is right to suggest that we need deep reflection on the questions themselves, and on our habits as creatures whose loves can quickly become disordered.

Josh Herring

Josh Herring is professor of classical education at Thales College, working to develop a new model of teacher preparation, specifically with attention to shaping future teachers intending to join the classical renewal movement. He and his wife live in Wendell, NC. Josh is a voracious reader and a regular writer with the Acton Institute, Liberty Fund, and The Federalist. He hosts The Optimistic Curmudgeon podcast and tweets @theoptimisticC3.