Of course, it’s not quite as simple as the headline makes it seem.
But new data suggests that while the often heard complaint, “Kids these days spend all their time online rather than face-to-face,” may be true, it’s not true for the reasons we think. No, today’s under-18 crowd is not made up of degenerates who don’t like human contact. Rather, they want face-to-face time as much as we did, it’s just that their parents won’t let them have it.
Parents Controlled by Fear
In her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, dana boyd interviews teens about their social media usage versus time in person. In almost all cases she found that the students said they would much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them.
Two major cultural shifts seem to be at the root of this. The first is that many of today’s youth are over-scheduled with sports, school activities, community service, and so on, all in an effort to be visible in an increasingly competitive college admissions process. This means they have very little down time to rest or be with friends.
When teens do have a little precious free time, the second cultural shift takes over. Today’s parents are much less likely to let their kids roam free, exploring the outdoors, riding bikes, going over to the friend’s house down the street, or engage in other unstructured activities. Ben Wiseman of Wired suggest that this parental tightening began when, “over the [past] three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids.”
In other words, 24-hour news coverage of kidnappings made it seem like American neighborhoods are less safe when, statistically speaking, there are fewer kidnappings than when today’s parents were kids. But today’s parents (the same ones who get all their parenting advice from online sources) scared by the unstoppable torrent of violent images and stories, respond by keeping their kids sequestered at home.
What Kids Really Want
danah’s data and conclusions shouldn’t surprise thinking Christians. Our understanding of humanity teaches us that every man, woman, child, and teen was created in the image of a deeply relational Truine God. Certainly some of that “image” is our longing for contact, community, and presence.
But left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, today’s kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, but the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week. As boyd puts it, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They are addicted to each other.”
So the next time you see a checked out kid on her phone, remember that there might be more going on that what you see outwardly. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn kids into victims or excuse every negative, narcissistic behavior. What it does mean is that saying “Turn off your phone” doesn’t address the very real social and culture issues at the root, nor does it offer a compelling alternative.
To an over-scheduled teen under constant parental surveillance “Turn off your phone” basically means “Go to your room and be alone.” That’s no good either. Without real, unstructured time with friends, kids can’t develop the healthy social interactions today’s adults long for them to have.
[Note: I say all this as a parent of preschoolers, so my time is coming!]
In the first act of The Social Network, the movie depicting the origin Facebook, we are introduced to a fictionalized version Mark Zuckerburg who, after being spurred by his girlfriend and overlooked by Harvard’s elite final clubs, begins creating facemash.com, a site that lets visitors vote on which of their classmates is better looking.
After a night of beer chugging and code writing, Zuckerburg unleashes his creation on the Harvard campus which both delights and disgusts his classmates. Director Aaron Sorkin then juxtaposing scenes of students gathered around laptops ogling pictures of female coeds on facemash.com with students gathered around tables watching scantily clad women dance at the final club parties.
In this sequence, Sorkin seems to be asking us, “What is the relationship between these two worlds – the ogling women online and the ogling women in person, that of flesh and blood and that of bits and pixels?” Sorkin never ventures an answer, and ten years after the launch of what was then called “thefacebook,” it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.
Online vs. Offline is Dead
When Facebook started, there was still a raging debate that pitted the “real world” against the “virtual world.” In the ensuing years, confidence in this simple dualism has eroded, with researchers, pundits, and bloggers alike recognizing that the relationship between the two is more fluid and dynamic.
Online and offline interact with one another, influence each other, and augment one another, but they never exist in isolation. Even those that choose not to use Facebook still communicate and relate to others through forms of media (phones, letters, and so on), and one must look at the ecosystem of media as a whole rather than isolate one strand and pin various social ills or benefits on upon it.
This is part of the Sorkin’s genius depiction of Facebook’s birth. He shows that the two worlds are so inextricably intertwined that they are really one world. He doesn’t say it’s the one world that God made, but I think that’s the conclusion to which Christians should come.
Rather than see “online” and “virtual” as two magically distinct spheres, one fully incarnate and the other its discarnate doppelganger, Christians especially must affirm that the entire created order, including all that humans create (yes all that “virtual” stuff) is part of one continuous spectrum of creation over which God have complete dominion and control and through which God’s Spirit is actively working.
The Interactions Are More Complex Than We Acknowledge
While we are breaking down the online vs. offline dualism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the interactions between the technology and culture are more complex than initially imagined. One still doesn’t have to look far to find one person offering effusive praise of the new world of social networking and another offering outright condemnation of all things Internet. But happily it also doesn’t take a terribly long view or much data to see that both of these extremes miss the complexity of what’s really happening. Take for example the idea that “Kids spend all their time online rather than face-to-face.” Statistically speaking teens may in fact be spending less together face-to-face, but to link this effect exclusively to the cause of Facebook is both wrong and unhelpful.
In her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, Dana Boyd interviews teens who say they’d much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them. It turns out that today’s kids are overscheduled (bowing to extreme pressure for college admissions) and today’s parents are overly fearful (while kidnapping and crime is down in America, 24 hour coverage of gruesome crimes contributes to a general state of fear among parents). Left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, and the only parentally-allowed way to image the Truine God is to go online.
So the problem of “less face-to-face” time isn’t simply caused by social media and neither is social media merely a symptom of some deeper boogey man whose secrets are only available in a book or special conference. Instead there is always complex ecosystem of cultural forces.
Even when Facebook itself is making terrible commercials encouraging narcissism and self-focus (see below), we must also take into account the spiritual forces at work, the “powers and principalities” of which Paul writes and about which Wormwood’s uncle encourages us to forget. Christians have a vocabulary of spirit and flesh and of word and spirit that can add richness, power, and depth to the comparatively anemic ideas of narcissism, privacy, and identity.
The Questions Change as Both We and Facebook Age
And yet, for all this talk of complexity, over its 10-year existence Facebook has made an undeniable impact on society and individuals. Ten years may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to see that Facebook has come to have different meanings at different stages in our lives, and that these meanings shift as we age.
Early adopters of Facebook, who were then scruffy college kids, are now approaching the threshold of untrustworthiness, the age of 30. Where they once used Facebook to update their “relationship status” and Poke one another, they moved on to sharing wedding photos, and eventually parenting advice, and now Vitamix coupons. The then bewildered 40 and 50-somethings who didn’t “get it” when Facebook launched are now grandparents who have gone from joining Facebook to see baby pictures (which are no longer mailed to them) to using Facebook independently to share the thoughts that didn’t have an outlet in their earlier lives. And then there are today’s teens who were never given the chance to know a world without the word “selfie,” and whose use of social media will, too, evolve as they enter college and the workforce.
Many of these same people have now deleted their account in disgust with the entire social media enterprise only to rejoin again in order to reconnect with loved ones who no longer call or write. Some are on their third of fourth account, and many of us maintain multiple accounts on different networks that we use for different purposes. We often complain about the system, but we also recognize that it is a new and constant part of our reality.
The Continuum of Home, Work, and Play
So in this new reality what role should social media play in our lives and in the lives of our communities? How has our conception of identity and relationship shifted? Can we just unplug and things will get back to normal?
Long ago, it was expected that the way one interacted with professionally with co-workers was different from the intimacy afforded in marriage and different yet again from one’s orientation to one’s children or one’s parents, and different still from a relationship with a long-time friend or pal at the gym.
But by today’s standards, acting differently in these scenarios might be considered “inauthentic.” To be “genuine” today, one must be the same in every sphere of life. Interestingly, this is just what most social networks require – a single, flat identity equally discoverable by anyone. A teacher cannot have a different Facebook relationship (in its current iteration) with her students than she has with her mother, and a student’s relationship to parents, teachers, and friends must be the same as well.
As we’ve previously mentioned, such shifts are multi-variant; we cannot blame them soley on Facebook. In the same 10 years, the physical distinction between one’s job, one’s home, one’s leisure, and one’s school have been blurred by economic and technological forces, each playing on one another.
The cumulative effect of these forces has allowed (or forced) many Christians to re-examine fairly basic concepts like discipleship, preaching, and Sabbath. To take just one of these areas – Sabbath – we know taking a break from “work” is a biblical idea, but when our work machines are also our leisure machines and our social machines, where can we go to truly rest? We can unplug the laptop to stop working during out Sabbath, but what if we need it to socially connect through Facebook? If stopping the use of media is important for true rest, what other technologies might we also give up?
Such questions bring us back to Sorkin’s original question: What is the relationship between the offline and online, the physical and the digital world? It seems that simplistic, binary answers don’t offer us much hope. We must proceed carefully and with perhaps more discipline than previously thought.
A Mirror and a Window
What I hope is emerging from these questions is a sense that looking deeply into Facebook and its impact is not altogether different from looking closely at humanity itself. This is not to say that Facebook is humanity or that Facebook is inert. To the contrary, our global culture has undergone some big changes in the past decade, and Facebook is one of the forces behind that change.
What I mean to say is that the benefits and problems we attribute to Facebook are in many ways a reflection of the two sides of our humanity as the Scriptures portray it. Every thoughtful post, every beautiful image, every impactful campaign is rooted in the stamp of God’s image embedded on every Facebook account’s human. And every case of bullying, every self-focused rant, and every single game of Candy Crush betrays our brokenness and need for Christ to finish his work of redemption in us.
Facebook can be a convenient punching bag for all kinds of social ills, but it can also offer us a window into the struggles and beauties of a human race that still bears God’s image and which is in need of a complete resurrection.
I think our understanding of technology is clearest when we can carefully take into account its downsides while also seeing its benefits as pointers and foretastes of the resurrection. To that end, I’ll leave you with this commercial from Microsoft. It of course places too much hope in technology itself, but if you can see past the technology and see the time and place to which it points, it is indeed encouraging.
You might have noticed that it’s been a little quite here in the past few months.
In the background, I’ve been working on an application for a PhD in theology and religion at the University of Durham. My hope is to study how people understand Scripture and they activities they do with it as they transition from print media to digital media. My basic premise is that the shift from oral to print has introduced new emphases with regard to Scripture and new ways of navigating and understanding it, and we are in the midst of new shifts with digital media that will likely take some time to fully realize.
After months of preparation, I’m happy to say that I was accepted to the program and will begin studying in April. My employer, Dallas Theological Seminary, has generously offered a 4-month sabbatical for my family and I to move to Durham to begin studies and I will finish the remainder back in Dallas.
I’d like to thank a few people for making this possible including Tim Hutchins (who has already done much work in this area), Heidi Campbell (who has been a constant encourager and amazingly prolific writer over recent years), Andrew Byers (who treated me so well on my visit to Durham and continues to offer assistance in our transition), Pete Phillips (who runs the amazing CODEC group at Durham and allowed me to visit his office), and Matthew Guest (the advisor who agreed to take me on in the project). There are many others here at home who’ve been most helpful as well.
Hopefully, I’ll continue to use this blog as an outlet for research as it comes and for additional thoughts unrelated to digital Bibles.
Today, churches all over the country cancelled services because of dangerous, icy road conditions. Many resorted to online only streaming services and pre-recorded events from years past.
Thankfully technology is coming that will ensure churches never again have to close their doors during a storm.
1. Powerless lighting
Technological advances may one day create a kind of lighting system capable of running even when electricity is unavailable. It sounds like science fiction, but it may one day make worship possible around the clock.
2. Unamplified Instruments
Even “pagans” want this one – instruments capable of generating sound without the use of amplifiers. Now we just need vocalists who can sing without monitors – perhaps an entire group of them signing together would work!
3. Genetically Modified Transportation Animals
As a genetics major, I’m really excited about this one. It’s possible that during our lifetime animals may be created that can traverse even the iciest fields. I’m told they also have built in navigation systems capable of avoiding other drivers.
4. Pastoral Housing
As churches grow larger, it is likely that they will soon be able to include rooms for pastors to live in, ensuring the flock will never be without its shepherd.
5. Local Messaging Systems
To find out what was happening at my church, I first checked the website and then was directed to Facebook. In the future, some churches may opt to put large metal objects on top of their buildings that, when struck by another metal object, could carry audio messages to the surrounding community.
Depending on your background, the term “inerrancy” might be a vaguely familiar idea that means something like “authority” or “trustworthiness” or, conversely, it might refer to an idea invented by fundamentalists that is at best unhelpful.
But whatever your background with the idea, you’ll likely be hearing more about it soon on the heals of Zondervan’s new book Five Views on Inerrancy and events surrounding its publication such as the Evangelical Theological Society’s recent debate (live blog) by the authors of the book.
We’ll touch on the meaning of inerrancy below, but first the point of this post is to propose that the development of the idea of inerrancy came about in part because of the printing press and the attitudes and expectations created by printed books.
What is Inerrancy?
For scholars, the term “inerrancy” comes with many technical definitions. Wayne Grudem defined inerrancy saying, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Systematic Theology, 91) and more recently Al Mohler writes, “The Bible is ‘free from all falsehood or mistake’.” (c.f. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy).
On the surface this doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult concept, but as Mohler says the devil is in the details. When a perfect God works through a fallen person, what exactly would it mean for Scripture to have a “mistake” or something that is “contrary to fact”?
For example, today we use the term “four corners of the earth” as an expression, but when the author of Revelation used the phrase (Rev. 7:1) did he think there really were four corners of the earth? If so, is that “mistake”? Or is it God working through the language and customs of the time? Or something else?
What about the ages of men in Genesis (any over 900 years)? Are those to be taken as scientifically accurate dates that are either chronologically right or wrong? Or was the author doing what many people did in the Ancient Near East which was to use “age” not as an index of time, but as an index of importance? If so, again, is this “contrary to fact” or God working through the language and expectations of the original culture of readers? Or is the Bible just wrong on many factual matters but still correct when it comes to spiritual issues?
The examples could go on and on, but it is worth pointing out that in the last major “Battle for the Bible” which took place in the 1970s and ‘80s, some evangelical theologians took the position that they could still affirm biblical authority and infallibility, but not the technical idea of inerrancy. As Marsden tells the story in Reforming Fundamentalism many theologians essentially had the same basic view of Scripture, but struggled with the term “inerrancy” itself and all that it connotes. Today the debate is bubbling up again because of new concerns about what exactly constitutes an “error” and what can be considered the conventions of the literary genre.
While this is very interesting and will likely continue to be an important issue among evangelicals, its important to note that underneath the issue of “error” is an idea about “error” that can be traced, in part, from the move from hand-written texts to printed texts.
Gutenberg, Luther, and Erasmus
Gutenberg’s first printing press came online in 1450. When we talk about the printing press and Christianity, we often point out that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door in 1517 and then later used the printing press to great effect when distributing his German translation of the Bible.
But what we don’t normally mention is that Erasmus published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament the year before in 1516. (A critical text is one that compares several hand-written copies of the Bible and notes where there are differences. For example, the ending of Mark is not in many early manuscripts, and Erasmus’ critical text noted all such known variations.)
An interesting question is: why was Erasmus’ generation the first to think of creating such comparative editions of the Bible?
The Value System of Print
Before the age of print, a book was something decidedly human. Each copy and every letter therein could be traced to living, breathing, fallible human being. Books were written by humans, copied by humans, ready aloud by humans, and listened to by humans.
But in the print age, a book was a product manufactured by a machine capable of precision and perfection. Every letter was an exact replica of the one before it and every page in one book matched the same page in the same edition of the same text.
Erasmus was part of the first generation raised with this new technology and its value system founded on the idea that texts should not vary from copy to copy. So when Erasmus encountered differences among hand-copied Bibles, he looked at them differently than previous generations of Christians who never expected books to be perfect replicas of one another. That’s not to say previous generations of Christians were unaware of such changes – Origen, Augustine, Aquinas and others commented on textual variations – but Erasmus and the generations that followed him devoted much more attention to textual criticism, and this study was both influenced and supported by the printing press.
Most of the changes he and others found were minor, but they were enough to create an entire field of study (biblical criticism) that didn’t exist before. More importantly, these differences among copies of the Bible started causing some people to doubt the trustworthiness of the Scriptures themselves.
As the story goes, seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers began to question the historicity of certain parts of the Bible, especially anything miraculous. Modern, scientific man need not and could not believe in things like parting the Red Sea and resurrection from the dead. And though many of these critiques were over the content of the Bible, it was also subtly about biblical media – silly, hand-copied legends could never compete with rigorous scientific data hot off the printing press.
Up to this point, all Christians had affirmed the authority, trustworthiness, and truthfulness of the Bible. The scribes who copied it did their best to copy every letter and every word with precision and care. And yet minor mistakes and human variations in copying were just a part of their reality and part of what made a Bible beautiful.
It seems clear that the reason people like Erasmus started taking more note of the differences is that using the technology of print inculcated the expectation of perfect texts. This is important because the inerrancy debate is primarily concerned with the perfection of the biblical texts. The Scriptures teach us that God himself is perfect, but it is the technology of print that teach us us to expect a kind of perfection from our texts.
Fighting Fire with Fire
It was in this context of biblical criticism that inerrancy emerged as a new way of re-establishing biblical authority in scientific and technological terms. Conservative theologians felt they couldn’t simply restate the historical view that the Bible is authoritative – they needed to do so through the lenses new media (print) provided.
Notice how Grudem’s definition is specifically concerned not merely with the content itself but with contentrespect to media. Instead of just saying that the Bible has no factual errors, his definition qualifies the lack of errors by saying there were none “in the originalmanuscripts.”
Grudem is arguing that some of the “errors” people find the Bible are really just mistakes in copying and if we had the original manuscripts, it would clear up what appears to be contradictions.
But notice that at its core this statement contrasts two forms of media: handwritten copies of the Bible and printed replicas of the Bible. What this means is that to understand, debate, affirm, or deny the concept of “inerrancy,” one must be familiar with print and its value system.
Put another way, inerrancy is a post-print doctrinal orientation.
Affirm, Deny, or Ignore?
Those who reject inerrancy often claim that it is a 19th century invention foreign to the early church. Conversely, inerrantists often claim inerrancy is the historical position of the church. I hope to have argued that neither position is truly accurate.
I am neither criticizing nor defending inerrancy (disclosure: inerrancy is one the seven doctrines students must affirm at the institution where I work), but pointing out that whether you affirm inerrancy, reject it, or simply find it unhelpful or unnecessary, these are postures only those familiar with printed books and the value system of the Print Age can take.
Again, this is evident in the way many definitions of inerrancy hinge upon the new realities created by print media and the kinds of things people today consider to be “mistakes” or “errors.”
The development of the concept of inerrancy doesn’t make it true or false, it simply means that answering the question of authority in this way was not required of pre-print Christians. And yet, whether we like it or not, it is a question we must to wrestle with today.
For those of us deeply concerned with fully affirming that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful …” (2 Tim 3:16), we must articulate what that means within our own cultural setting, even as that setting is again shifting media: this time from print to digital.
A few weeks ago, the Microsoft Office blog posted an infographic showing how the new Office 365 products allow workers to get more done since the tools are now available everywhere – in every room of the house, at the kids’ soccer games, in bed, and so on.
I know they are trying to show how good the Office 365 products are, but when you look at the infographic below it really looks like something made by someone with a darkly sarcastic sense of humor, mocking our inability to disconnect.
It seems like it would be better marketing to show that you can get your work done faster so you don’t have to work during happy hour, in bed, at the game, or on the toilet.
Update: the great folks at 37Signals seems to have felt the same about Microsoft’s promotion and countered with their own #WorkCanWait campaign.
Check out their tongue-in-cheeck update below and then go to their website to create your own:
In a long-awaited announcement, the FAA will stop requiring passengers to turn off phones and computers during take-off and landing. Under the old rules you had to keep them off (“that’s fully off and powered down, not airplane mode, not hidden in your pocket” as some flight attendants used to say) until the airplane rose above 10,000, but that ceiling has now been removed.
You still can’t actually talk on the phone, but you can keep reading, playing games, or writing emails as long as you like. Apparently, while the FAA used to say that phone signals could interfere with the plane, they now that’s not usually the case although carriers must demonstrate that their planes can withstand the interference. Here’s the statement:
Passengers will eventually be able to read e-books, play games, and watch videos on their devices during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions. Electronic items, books and magazines, must be held or put in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing roll. Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled – i.e., no signal bars displayed—and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones. If your air carrier provides Wi-Fi service during flight, you may use those services. You can also continue to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards.
So What Does it Mean?
Airline takeoff and landing was probably one of the final places in modern life where phones were absolutely not tolerated. It stood out as the place where you couldn’t readily turn away from an awkward (or interesting) conversation. Now that this ban is gone, it seems a whole line of stand-up and sitcom humor will almost be completely forgotten.
I don’t of course think this is the downfall of society or a major breakdown in face-to-face reality. I personally love working on a plane where I don’t have all the distractions of my office or home, but I have read reports that people today have much less eye-contact with other human beings than they once did and this contributes to depression and other problems. So I do lament what the represents even if, like most of us, I’m glad for the change and what it means for my personal productivity.
I have a friend who manually unplugs the family Wi-Fi every night at 10:00pm.
Dad and mom have to be done with work and kids need to be done with homework and socializing because the Internets are dead after 10pm. It seems like a lot of work to go plug and unplug the Wi-Fi, but he does it because he cares about his family and wants to be intentional about their time, relationships, and physical health.
What if you could have that level of control, but not have to physically unplug the network every day? Enter a new Kickstarter project called Circle. The team sent me a link this week, and I thought it is something worth mentioning.
From their website
Circle helps families balance their lives in our screen-driven world. These days, we’re always connected. Circle is a device, managed by an iOS app, that enables you to choose how you and your family spend time online by using advanced filtering, time management systems and informing to answer the where, when, why, and how of your network’s Internet activity.
My own children are too small to have their own devices, but I know that day is coming. We desperately want to protect their little minds as long as we can, but also progressively give them more and more responsibility as they grow, so that when they leave our home they will have the mental and spiritual tools to discipline their own lives. But right now, we withhold devices not only because they are too young, but also because I can’t find a way to adequately control them.
That’s why I hope Circle succeeds. I don’t think it will work as a “Set-and-forget” parenting device, but it hopefully will enable parents to give their kids access to devices but in a manner that’s as safe as possible.
So what do you think? Would this be helpful to your family? Is it tech controlling tech controlling tech controlling us? Does it invite kids to try to break the fence or does it help protect them? I’d love to hear what you think.
If you’re interested in the subject of media and technology there are several books toward which I’d like to point you.
First up, I just heard the news that my friend Andy Byers‘s new book entitled, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age has just be made available for pre-order from the publisher. What I love about Andy’s work is that it’s not another “how to” book, another set of predictions, or another complainer’s rant. Instead Andy submerges readers deeply into the theological implications of media itself. He reminds us that it was God who created media and who used various media (which Andy gives the name “TheoMedia”) throughout the Biblical stories. He then urges us to think not about how to avoid media, but how to be constantly saturated in the media of God.
His argument kind of turns the typical discussion on its head – in a really, really good way. As a bonus, Andy is a truly gifted writer, a burgeoning New Testament scholar, and just an all around fantastic human being. I had the chance to meet he and his family recently in Durham, England, and they are simply some of the best people around.
Second, I’d like to point you to a great little book called Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology by Derek Shuurman, a computer science professor at Redeemer University College in Canada.
Rather than trying to tackle the entire subject of “technology,” Dr. Shuurman narrows his focus to computer technology, and raises some great questions about how Christians should think through them. He comes from a Reformed background so you’ll notice the influence of thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, but not so much that it isn’t applicable to a broad range of Christians interested in technology. I had the chance to meet Dr. Shuurman at the Christian Engineering Conference a few months ago, and he’s a great guy that I really wish could move a bit further south :).
Finally, there’s an old, but a goody that I was reminded of at a recent trip to Gordon-Conwell for a conference. The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age by Gregory Reynolds is a giant tome whose title describes it perfectly. I didn’t get to spend much time with Gregory, but I could tell he deeply cares about Christian preaching and its direction and use in the digital age. His book will doubtless be a huge help to those researching approaches to media and culture in the church.
If any of you have read or come across great new books (or classics) on media and technology, be sure to note them in the comments.
“When I first saw Google Glass, I knew it would offer us a chance to radically reconceive spiritual development.”
That’s what Jace Enders, founder of Second Creation Media in Austin, Texas, told me when describing the app he and his team are creating for Google’s upcoming product called “Glass.” For the uninitiated, Google Glass is one of the first consumer ready “wearable computing” products that, when worn like traditional glasses, lays a small computer screen over one’s field of view offering notifications such as directions, weather, and text messages. It also features a camera for taking audio and video without the need to hold a camera.
But according to Enders, taking photos and getting updates are the least interesting features of Glass. “I want to use wearable computing to help Christians monitor their spiritual development. Like a digital Holy Spirit, our GodFilter app is always there providing guidance, warnings, and encouragement.”
The GodFilter App: Turn Right at the Next Sin
So just what does a digital Holy Spirit actually “look like”? First, what you need to know is that Enders’ app GodFilter is not so much about what you see as much as it is what it sees about you. It’s constantly monitoring what you do on a variety of levels, and then it performs actions based on triggers you set up.
“Let’s say you pull into a parking lot of an adult-oriented establishment,” explains Enders. “GodFilter will cross check with Google Maps, and then either try to dissuade you personally or send a text to your spouse or pastor warning them about what’s going on.”
This, of course, could probably be performed with existing phone technology, but what Enders told me next is a huge leap ahead. “The voice recognition on Glass is astounding. Since it’s always on, we can monitor not just what you say, but how you say it.” This let’s GodFilter detect your mood such as if you’re particularly happy or, more importantly, if you start getting angry.
“When GodFilter hears you raise the volume or pitch of your voice, it guesses that you might be getting frustrated at a situation or person. At a certain level, it will warn you that this isn’t a good time to send emails or texts. We can even remotely shut down your laptop if you allow it.” Though undeniably creepy, for those of us who’ve ever sent an email we later regretted or a text before properly cooling down from a session in Battle School, this sounds like a helpful concept.
The Future Will Be Prude, Or Not
It turns out this is just the beginning. Glass hasn’t even been released to the public yet, but Jace’s team wants to add even more powerful features. For example, they plan to add a visual filter that can make a provocatively dressed person appear more modest.
“You can’t always predict what people will wear these days and rather than worrying about it, Glass lets us paint a jersey on guys playing shirtless basketball or a dress on a woman in a short skirt.”
Though Jace is shy about mentioning this, he is receiving funding from Muslim groups exited about this the possibility of making all women appear to be dressed in traditional Hijab or Burqa clothing that covers all but a woman’s eyes and hands.
“I hate to bring this up, but we’re going to see people creating apps that do the opposite, too. If someone is going to make everyone appear less-clothed, we want to be there with an alternative from day one.” Enders is wiggin’ me out!
The Future of Spirituality is Gamification
To top it all off, Jace’s team is trying to package all this together into a continuously updated rating system. “What if we could give you some kind of indicator that would help you track your spiritual progress? A clear number, like a test score, that’s objective, and that you can share online and compare with others.”
Perhaps detecting my skepticism, Jace compares GodFilter it to existing software like calorie counters or exercise trackers. “Some people really don’t know how much they eat until they start tracking it honestly. GodFilter helps us to the same with sin and holiness. It gives us a perspective of what God sees every day.”
At this point, I can’t help but ask Jace what his score is. “Well, we don’t have the algorithm quite right yet, so I’m not really quite sure.”
But I persist in playing Enders’ game, asking him what little problems areas GodFilter might have uncovered in his life. He brushes me off, “Ha! That’s between me and my accountability partners who have access to my progress indicators. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s discouraging. But at least I don’t have anything to hide now.”
Is This Really So Far-Fetched?
By now, the discerning reader will have detected my ruse. Of course, there is no Jace Enders and no GodFilter app. Yet.
But while this may seem unimaginable or outlandish today, consider that many Christians are already using digital technologies to help manage spiritual disciples and sinful behaviors. It didn’t take long for Christian groups to create Internet filters to help block unsuspecting eyes (or very intentional ones) from reaching illicit content. Today, those filters evolved into social tools like Covenant Eyes that don’t block violent or pornographic sites, but rather report them to accountability partners.
What about YouVersion, the almost ubiquitous Bible app? It started with the idea of people sharing notes and later transformed into a universal Bible reader. But what is more intriguing than putting Bibles into mobile form is YouVersion’s daily Bible-reading schedules. They don’t just track your progress, they actively remind you on a daily basis to read the next section. Is that not a kind of digitally-based spiritual discipline? If so, in what direction are we heading?
Offloading Spiritual Progress
Like most of us, I’ve offloaded significant amounts of my memory to technology. I no longer know dozens of phone numbers – my phone and desktop contacts are all synced to the cloud. I don’t know who I’m having lunch with tomorrow, but my calendar does. And so on.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this mental/digital data dump. Now that my mind no longer has to store useless telephone numbers, I’m free to think about other things.
But what happens when we offload our moral and spiritual progress to a device? Certainly, in the case of daily Bible reading alerts, it seems quite helpful, but is there a point at which we lose something essential to our formation into the image of the Son of God? What about those Bible verses I don’t remember any more, but still know how to find through searching?
At the same, time calorie exercise tracking apps do seem to help people monitor and eventually change their behavior. Couldn’t an app do the same for spiritual progress?
What Is Holiness Anyway?
Believe it or not, my point in all of this is not really to discuss technology or fictional apps. What I’m really trying to do is surface questions about what it truly means to grow spiritually.
I have found that when a new technology comes along, it offers us a new way of doing things and in so doing, it challenges our unexamined assumptions about how things actually work. No doubt, new devices like Google Glass and the inevitable Christian apps developed for it, will require us to confront our thinking about what it means to be conformed into the image of Christ.
If an app can help us do more good things (read our Bible, pray, and so on) and avoid bad things (ogling the body of another, speaking angrily), is that spiritual progress in a truly Christian sense? Would shielding our eyes from unclean things out there make us any cleaner on the inside?
We Christians believe that when we enter into the life of faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. “ask Jesus into our heart,” “become a Christ-follower,” “join the church,” or some other catchphrase), we begin a process of transformation that will not end until we die. From the moment we first believe, we are adopted into the family of God, considered as righteous as God’s own Son, and promised resurrection and restoration. And yet, frustratingly, the fullness of these promises won’t be realized until our Savior returns for his Bride.
In the mean time, however, God has promised, by the Spirit of Christ, to conform us into the likeness of his Son. In Biblical language, this process is called “sanctification,” and it is far deeper than simply sinning less or checking spiritual discipline boxes.
So what then is the secret? How might we move beyond sin management techniques and get to some kind of true change?
If the title of Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is any indication, it will take a few more steps beyond installing an app. That said, Christians throughout the ages have found that regularly engaging in the spiritual disciples like prayer, silence, meditation, Scripture memory, and fasting can be used by the Spirit of God to mold us over time, and if an app helps remind us to do that, I’m pretty sure the Spirit can use that, too.