Declining Religion in America? There’s an App for That

Image: Hugh McLeod –

This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.

Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.

Technology and the Secularization Thesis

To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.

And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”

The One Perk No Googler Wants

I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.

As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?

I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.

The gods in Our Pocket

Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.

At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?

Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.

Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?

Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.

Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.

A Technology Fast from Everything *Except* the Internet

A few months ago, I moved my family from hot and sunny North Texas to cold and rainy northern England so I could start a PhD on digital Bible use. I hoped to learn a lot about technology, but I what I didn’t expect on was how much the move itself would teach me.

Technology Fasts and Sabbaths

Almost anytime Christians discuss the internet or mobile phones, someone suggests that it is important to take a break from technology from time to time in the form of a short-term fast or a regular Sabbath. If you feel yourself checking your phone a little too often or feel overwhelmed by our modern, always-on world, pulling the plug can help you reconnect with God, people, and even creation.

As helpful as this advice is, there is something a bit peculiar about it.

When we recommend a “Technology Fast,” we are using the word “technology” to refer only to relatively recent things like phones and social media. No one seems to feel a compulsion to “unplug” from air conditioners or heaters. No one takes Sunday as a time to free themselves from the tyranny of toilets or dishwashers. And I’m pretty sure no one has said, “I bet if I hang my wet laundry outside, I’ll sense the rhythms of God’s creation more clearly.”

Well, I’m writing this post because this kind of “Sabbath” is exactly what my family and I are doing right now. If you’ve ever felt like it’s hard to go more than a few minutes without checking your phone, imagine the challenge of giving up a dryer and a car for the summer!

Moving to a 1920s Mining Town

Framwellgate Moor bus stop

In April, my family and I moved to set of terraced houses about two miles from the Durham city center. The houses were built around 150 years ago for miners, and at that time they were one-story dwellings with approximately 250 sq.ft. of living space. Since then, a second story with two small bedrooms has been added, along with electrical lighting and an extension on the back for indoor plumbing and a bathroom. The stove and chimney that kept several generations of families warm is still there, but it has been superseded by a gas powered heater that connects to several radiators in the house. The oven has also been electrified (until it broke mid-summer), and the landlords have added two important modern appliances – a four-foot tall refrigerator (small by American standards) and a washing machine (that worked pretty well until it also broke a few weeks ago).

What this means is that we’re now living in a place that was largely the same as it would have been a century ago except for the refrigerator and on-again-off-again washing machine. I’d love to say that this has been nothing but a fun adventure for my family and me, but we’ve actually found it pretty challenging, and the experience has shown me just how much we take for granted common appliances that I don’t even think of as “technology.”

Let’s start with the easy one – there is no coffee maker. Instead, we’ve found that the British kettle and the French press make a pretty great combination.

But then it gets a little harder.

I ask you in advance for forgiveness of my recitation of what are decidedly #firstworldproblems – but that’s sort of the point!

My wife is a master meal planner, and part of that involves making larger meals and eating leftovers the next day. However, we found this is quite a bit harder when you have a tiny refrigerator and no microwave. There is an urban legend that microwaves remove nutrients from food, but that’s just bad science. Microwaves are great, and we miss ours. But we’ve learned to live without it.

We’ve also managed to adjust to not having a dishwasher. We spend more time in the kitchen doing dishes, but we’ve adapted by reusing plates and cups more often being creative when we have friends over for dinner.

The most challenging of the missing 1950s appliances has been the clothing dryer. We’ve become very adept at hanging clothes on just about any kind of hook, hanger, or notch we can find. When it’s sunny (1 or 2 days a week), we try hanging them outside, but even then a light drizzle sends us dashing outside to pull everything off the line. When the washing machine started acting up, we really felt like we had gone back to pre-war England!

The One Thing Americans Can’t Live Without…

As much as I hate to say it, the hardest adjustment has been the lack of a car. I personally enjoy my 30 minute walk into school much more than my 30 minute commute in Dallas, but for my family. While I have a place to go and study, they are left without a way to get to a kid-friendly place without walking at least a mile. But more challenging is doing daily tasks like getting groceries (my wife is strong, but she can only carry so much with children in tow). Thankfully, there is a small grocer down the street alongside a butcher and a baker (sadly, no candlestick maker!). However, these shops tend to be more expensive than larger stores that are further away. We could hop a few buses to get there, but the fare would be higher than the difference in cost for the local items.

To top it all off, the exchange rate from the US dollars to the British pound is about as bad as it gets, so we can’t simply buy our problems away. Before moving, I had romantic notions of strolling down the street, picking up a baguette, a roll of salami, and some beverages, and taking my family out for a picnic. But when it turns out an unfavorable exchange rate makes that $30.00, you’re in the middle of what your neighbors refer to as a “semi-slum,” it’s cold and rainy outside, none of your clothes are dry, and the path to the grocery store is littered with cigarettes and lottery tickets … one’s outlook begins to shift.

How many times I’ve wished I could just put on some fresh clothes from the dryer, drive my family to Chili’s, and present the waiter with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon I printed from the Internet!

The Joys of the Big Red Button

Of course, that last paragraph or two is a little over the top. But in our first few weeks in Durham, I really considered sending my family home since we were having such a hard time. The city is beautiful, my studies are great, and the people have very kind, but we just found it really hard to live without some of the machines that seem to fade into the background at home.

One day, when we were finally starting to get settled, my 5-year-old said something that started to put things into perspective for us. After an outing to see some amazing castles and cathedrals, I asked him what his favorite part of England was so far. Without hesitation, he answered, “Pressing the big red button on the bus to make it stop!”

My wife and I shared a knowing glance and a laugh, delighted by the window into our child’s universe, but also because of what this statement represented to us as a couple. We had been focusing on the challenges, but those very challenges were what led to the thing that delighted him most. And once we learned to adapt to a few of these challenges, we’ve begun to really love our simplified life together. Making things even better have been our lovely neighbors and fellow PhD students (like Andy Byers, whose books you need to buy right now!)

Learning from Our Low-Tech Experiment

So what does our visit to the turn-of-the-previous-century mining flat tell us about technology and culture today? Or put a different way, why was it so much more challenging for us to give up our dryer than it is to give up checking our phones?

1. Digital Technology Blinds Us from Other Dependencies

First, I think our experience demonstrates the way we use the word “technology” renders important aspects of our lives invisible to us. Alan Kay famously quipped that most of us think of “technology” as “Anything invented after we were born.” Slightly older machines like vacuums, radios, cars, and running water are just “stuff,” no more advanced or noteworthy than chairs, doors, or tables. So when we take a “Technology Fast” we are using the word “technology” in a very limited sense to mean “Internet stuff.”

One of the troubles with this narrow understanding of technology is that it can blind us to our dependence on older technologies that were magical in their own time and, more importantly, which still powerfully shape the structure and pace of our lives today. In Durham, we ran head first into this when we found ourselves in possession of some amazing modern technology (laptops and high speed Internet), but almost went home for lack of a car and dryer. If the practice of fasting is intended to show us our dependence on good things (like food) above God, our unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” has shown us that we live our lives in such a way that we need a car more than we need God or the Internet.

2. The Pull of Digital Technology Is Unique

Second, the fact that the “Technology Fasts” are limited to “Internet stuff” might indicate just how uniquely powerful that Internet stuff really is. Since the advent of industrialization and urbanization, there have been calls to return to nature, to leave the hustle and bustle of city life and surround ourselves with nature. But so far I haven’t seen any evidence that people called this sort of thing a “Tech Sabbath” or that anyone recommended turning off steam-powered machines or electrical devices as a spiritual practice.

I think this means that there is something distinct about “Internet stuff” and the pull that it seems to have upon us. The studies that show how each retweet, like, and comment triggers an addictive dopamine release suggests smartphones are more physiologically and psychologically powerful than, say, a dishwasher. And the fact that we give them up as a spiritual practice suggests that they may have a kind of spiritual powerful as well, at least in the sense of their capacity for idolatry.

3. Technology and Economic Power Go Hand in Phone

Third, my family and I have seen firsthand the deep relationship between technology and economic power. Because the US dollar is so weak in the UK, and because we are not rich people to begin with, we had to “do England on the cheap,” renting the least expensive place we could find and using public transportation to get around. This meant that every so often we experienced the look that people of means sometimes give (often unintentionally) to those economically below them.

In our suburb in the US, the haves and have-nots are separated by the size of house, the brand of car, and the style of clothing. But I am now more aware that in many parts of the world, the haves and have-nots are separated by actually “not having” the economic power that would grant access to technology that would in turn free up resources to gain more social status and power.

4. Technology “Fasting” Might be a Misnomer

Finally, it is worth considering if the Christian concepts of “Fasting” and “Sabbath” really do map as well to technology as I and others have argued.

When I mentioned our family’s unintentional “Low-Tech Fast” to some friends, several of them commented on how disconnected they felt from friends who, for example, give up Facebook for Lent. Apparently when someone chooses to temporarily forgo a social communications technology, their “fast” then becomes a public form of anti-social behavior. Although it’s unintentional, this public declaration seems to me to be at odds with Jesus’s admonition not to draw attention to our fasts. In the modern world, then, how can we enact this practice when the very thing from which we are fasting sends social messages? I don’t think we can easily shift toward fasting from technologies that don’t send social message like dryers or coffee makers. But we could refrain from using the term “fast” to describe our attempts to curtail internet usage and instead categorize it under “discipline” or “self-control.”

What about the concept of “Sabbath” and “rest”? While fasting seems to be for the individual’s spiritual maturity, the Jewish Sabbath was and is very much a social activity. A Sabbath rest declares that the world can go on without me, but that I am still valuable to my community as a human being. The Sabbath is something the entire community does together, and the lack of work creates space for alternate social practices that deepen community and relational bonds. But when we use the word “Tech Sabbath” to refer to something we do exclusively as individuals for our own benefit, it doesn’t seem to really fit the biblical concept quite as well. Certainly, rest can be experienced on an individual level, but for ideally a “Tech Sabbath” should be something shared within a group, a family structure, or a living arrangement. Our family found that experiencing a technological change together was difficult, but also a rewarding and binding experience. The stories of companies with email-free-Fridays or families that put all their devices away for a few hours each night seem to offer a richer Life Together like experience of rest than what happens when we go it alone.

As for my family and I, I hope that when we return to the US, we are able to appreciate our unintentional Tech Fast/Sabbath and take what it taught us back in to what is for us the “real world.”

I asked my son again recently what his favorite part of England was.

His answer, “The Cathedral! … and football!”

Family by the Cathedral

The Texture of Screens Amidst Communities of Faith: 3 Outstanding Issues with Smartphones in Church

My Hebrew is a little rusty.

Devices in the Pews

As more people make the move from regular cell phones to smart phones and tablets, many want to use the “smart” features during worship services to access the Scriptures, take notes, and even interact with the pastor. This has led to an ongoing, though fairly quiet debate about the proper place of such devices in church.

Some churches have responded by creating fun videos asking people to turn off their phones during the service while others have tried encouraging the use of participatory texting during certian special services. Regarding twitter in church, back in 2009 Josh Harris discouraged it, and the same discussion is still going on today.

Christian tech companies are also driving the discussion by creating new ways to for churches to employ mobile devices during the services. YouVersion, for example, has been pioneering various group-based applications for several years (see YouVersion Live). Logos, known for its Bible software, recently release Proclaim a cloud-based presentation application that lets users with the Logos app on their mobile devices sync up to the Bible passage on screen.

Non-Biblical Smartphone Usage on the Rise?

When I first started seeing phones used at my church, I guessed that even though there were all these great Bible apps, most people would probably be surfing the web or texting. To my surprise, however, these early adopters were almost always reading the Bible.

That was a few years ago. Over time, as such devices have become more common and perhaps even accepted, I’ve started noticing more of the “non-Biblical” (ha!) uses of smart phones that I had initially expected.

As a tech lover, part of me wants to write this off as just the same sort of thing that I did as a kid in the balcony of my church. Sure, phones have games and web browsers, but give my twelve-year-old self a prayer card and a pencil, and I could spend the entire service making a perfect scale model of an F-15 fighter jet.

Personally, I like using my phone as a Bible because it means I have one less thing to bring to church, and I can check multiple versions. And yet, as I’ve watched my fellow churchmates over the past few years, I’ve noticed three things that I think make mobile devices stand out as a new and different kind of distraction.

Three Ways Phones Are Different

1. Distractions from Without

Yes, I made this amazing image myself

As a kid, my distractions came from an unfocused mind and willing friends sitting next to me. But in the age of mobile phones, our distractions come not from the daydreams of our own minds, but from outside sources through the conduits created by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

Most of us have gotten pretty good at setting our phones to vibrate so that a ring doesn’t distract others. And yet, by doing so, we are still saying, “As I worship the God of the universe, I want to allow things outside this building to get my attention.” Even if we’ve made a commitment not to play games or setup that appointment during the service, once we feel a vibration in our pockets, it requires considerable discipline not to at least glance down and see who or what caused it.

Perhaps then we need to repurpose the Airplane mode in church so that Bible apps are still available (at least the ones that work offline), but text message and Twitter alerts (which I get constantly, since I’m so huge there) can’t come through.

2. Alien Light Sources

Desaturated a bit for effect

I’ve often heard people say they find it distracting when someone else uses their phone or tablet during a church services. I used to think this was just that people were annoyed with new things or that they were jealous or judgmental of people who had money to spend on iPads.

But after watching closely, I think the main reason why devices seem so intrusive to many is that light from the screen is unlike everything else around it. As your eye scans about during a church service (or the photo above), you see all kinds of familiar textures and colors: skin, hair, clothing, wood, plastic, metal, and so on. But among those relatively flat and natural objects, a screen stands out like a lightsaber.

The saturation and brightness levels between screens and everything else are so different, your eye can’t help but notice the screen even among the vestments and trappings of the Roman leaders. Screens also casts light upward from themselves onto the hands and face of their users, making them stand out even more than if they had a Jimmy Carter Study Bible. Even when the screen is in “night-mode” (black background with white text), the backlight from the screen still casts light upwards onto its user.

3. Non-Charismatic Hand Motions

Use the Force, Luke.

The human mind is amazingly adept at filtering inputs and figuring out which ones are just background noise and which are so different that we should pay attention to them. Because o this, our minds don’t alert us when someone crosses their legs, takes a sip of coffee, or turns the page of a Bible.

But when someone starts tapping, swiping, and pinching at a device, our just can’t ignore it because they are not yet trained to do so. The entire computer industry knows that touch devices are radically different than anything that has come before and even the most cutting edge companies are still trying to figure out the best way for humans to use them. So it shouldn’t surprise us that these new gestures so readily capture our attention, standing out from all other human activities.

What To Do!?

So can these issues be overcome? Are phone doomed to destroy worship or can we gradually figure out how to use safely incorporate them?

The first issue (outside notifications) can be solved fairly easily. It just requires individual discipline and a community willing to talk through what’s acceptable within its culture. The easy recommendation is that in addition to setting the phone to vibrate, you should also turn off all notifications. It’s just 75 minutes, you can do it!

The second issue (screen lights), however, will likely only be solved by different technology. The early e-ink style Kindle’s were much less distracting since the lack of a backlight made them texturally similar to books, clothing, and other “normal” things. Perhaps one day, there will be fast, color e-ink like displays that don’t require a backlight, but for now their glow will continue to catch our eyes.

The third issue (gestures), will probably work itself out over time. Today, when a cell phone rings church, we certainly notice but its become so common that we are able to filter out it much more quickly than we did ten years ago. Eventually these gestures will probably become so common that we won’t consider them so distracting.

Until then, I have two simple recommendations. First, if you’re a tech lover like me, let’s be as vigilant as possible in self-evaluating our own tech usage especially around others. It’s all too easy for us to dismiss those who question our technology as backward, but we must acknowledge that we live and worship alongside others. Second, if you like me also find yourself suspicious of those who pull out their phones in church, let’s remember to be as gracious as possible. Let’s not immediately assume they are playing Angry Birds, but instead hope for the best and then if we have a relationship with the person, then talk openly about it, asking for mutual encouragement and accountability. Only when we approach one another with grace and truth will we be able to handle the changes that are coming.


Someone on the Internet Is Wrong: The 10 Stages of a Christian Internet Controversy

Has it really been almost a year since Rob Bell’s Love Wins trailer?

When the social media backlash began, I noticed that the responses to Bell were nearly identical to what John Piper received the year before when he made his tornado comments. Now, a year later, the tables have turned again and Piper’s comments that Christianity has a “masculine feel” have prompted his detractors to follow the same script right down to the call to stop giving Piper attention.

So before the next controversy hits, I’ve attempted to catalog a step-by-step (and tongue-in-cheek) account of what happens when a popular Christian leader says or does something deemed important by his or her frenemies.

1. The Instigation

It turns out that this is the only real variable in the process. The question is: who will it be? Who will say, write, or blog something that catches the attention of the Internet masses? It might be a traditionalist like Piper who restates a familiar doctrine a new way that non-followers find particularly offensive. Or it could be a progressive type like Bell who “asks questions” in a way that catches the ire of the old guard.

2. The Reporting

The second step is the key to the whole process. An important blogger or speaker must detect the problem and alert the masses to the fact that “Someone on the Internet is wrong!”

3. Social Media Echo Chamber

Now, the chain reaction begins. RSS feeds light up. Tweets are rewteeted. Like buttons are pressed (although what we really want is a “dislike” button, amiright?). The word is really getting out now, and people are “becoming aware” of the issues and sides.

4. Contextual Reminders and Supportive Defense

Almost immediately, those who support the instigator begin to clarify, restate, give context to, and defend the statement(s) under attack. Did you listen to the entire video, they ask? Did you read the entire book? Do you understand the social-rhetorical context and redemptive-historical milieu in which the background of the event and statements may have occurred? Obviously, if you did and you were reasonable, you’d get it.

5. Social Media Echo Echo Chamber

As soon as the defenses are up, the supporters of the instigator being tweeting and liking in kind. And, just to be sure, they go to the ends of the Internet (i.e. Google+ and MySpace) to ensure everyone knows their guy was right all along.

6. Minor Leaguers Step up to the Plate

This is where Christian blog stars are born. Minor league Christian bloggers (like myself), armed with a dream and a few dozen hits a day, begin to offer “second looks” at the issue, “rethinking the controversy” for us, and occasionally attempt to “find common ground.”

7. Comment Wars!

In the first few steps, most of what happens stays within the supporting or detracting networks. The instigator’s team defends themselves, and the other side congratulates itself for opposing something so clearly wrong. But it doesn’t take long before commenters begin fights on other side’s blogs, showing why nested comments were invented.

45 Minutes Later…

All the people who have been working or spending time with loved ones during the previous 45 minutes begin to sense they are missing out on something huge. They begin to check in and see just how wrong (or right) their guy (or gal) was about the thing.

8. Accusations of Mean Spirited Debate

Once the sides are fully entrenched in their views, the supporters of the instigator stop defending the initial issue and begin accusing their frenemies of not conducting their attacks with love, not talking in person with the instigator, and generally being un-Jesus-ish. Also, BibleGateway and YouVersion see a spike in searches for Matt 18:15-20.

9. Affirmations of Standing Up for Truth

After the reporting side has been accused of mean-spirited, they bring out the tried and true “standing up for truth” defense. After all, Jesus called the Pharisees names, and Paul did his fair share of heresy hunting. We are not unloving, they say, because it is the height of love to point someone to truth.

10. Social Media Gets Blamed

Exasperated, the accusing side realizes they are convincing very few people and may in fact be bringing more attention to the other side’s wrong view than they intended. People like me write op-eds about social media and Christianity (like this very blog post), and then everything gets really meta and confusing.

So we wait for the next big thing.

11. Something Changes

July 21, 2012 Update

In the last few days, the “next big thing” happened in a back and forth between Jared Wilson, Rachel Held Evans, and Douglas Wilson (and lots and lots of others) over some very mature and sensitive subject matter. As I scanned the seemingly endless posts, I found myself growing very cynical, thinking to myself that it seemed as if the entire Christian blog world had agreed ahead of time to follow the 10 steps above as closely as possible.

But then something happened that surprised my saddened, but dismissive attitude. This time, Jared Wilson broke the cycle and apologized for hurting people with words.

In the coming weeks, I’m sure there will be plenty of painstaking analysis of the entire debacle (Step 12?), so it’s probably not worth pointing out things like how inattentive we are to way the Internet’s speed and anonymity effectively control and guide these kinds of battles. At this point, I’m just happy to see that every once in a while Christians on the Internet behave differently and, hopefully, our good God is glorified in some small way.

Spring 2014 Update

In the Spring of 2014, there have been at least to major changes or reversals due, at least in part, to social media. First, there was Mark Driscoll’s desire to downplay his role as a celebrity pastor in favor of more focus on his role as a local pastor, part of which involves him stepping away from social media. Second, World Vision decided to reverse its decision on employees in same-sex marriage.

All of these cases are interesting because they show that the playfully pessimistic view I portrayed in the original post is perhaps too pessimistic. The body of Christ is not perfect and many of us still disagree with the decisions (and/or their reversals), but we are not merely an echo chamber. Somewhere lurking in the bits and bytes is a God who is omnipresent and omniscient. May we ever be aware of his presence and activity.

PhoneStack: Next Time We Meet, Let’s Do This

Tech history professor David Stearns pointed out a post on Kempt magazine about a new idea for social gatherings called PhoneStack.

It works like this: as you arrive, each person places their phone facedown in the center of the table. As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Whoever picks up their phone is footing the bill.

As Dr. Stearns points out, there are at least two reasons to love this idea. First, “Instead of pretending that mobile phones are not really a distraction, it puts them front and center, acknowledging their potential for disruption.” Everyone who stacks their phone is saying that, for a few short moments, the people around them are the most important things in the world and that they have their full attention.

Second, ideas like this show us something about the way individuals and groups react to new technology. “When social groups adopt a new device, they often create rules or games like these to govern the use of that device when gathered together.”

Of course, this might not work for every gathering (Kempt got a boatload of negative responses and exceptions), but I do love the intentionality of a group of people acknowledging the challenges of smartphones and choosing to do something together to enrich their time.

Best app of 2012?

[HT: David Stearns]

Why You and I Could Not Write the Book of Revelation

Dictation vs. Inspiration

Have you ever wondered if God could use you to write Scripture? Sure, we might say, God can do anything and use anyone. It didn’t have to be Haggai or Paul or John of Patmos; that’s just who God chose.


Now, I certainly concede that God could in fact use anyone to do anything. But I also believe that God didn’t dictate the books of the Bible to Zechariah, Moses, and the rest. Instead, as Peter puts it, those men “were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20) to write using their own language, style, personal history, and location the words that God has for his people. In formal theological terms we call this inspiration.

550 vs. 400

So why would I say that God couldn’t use you to write the book of Revelation?

Here’s the reason: The book of revelation has about 400 verses, and scholars say those verses contain around 550 allusions to Old Testament passages.

But here’s the thing, John doesn’t include a single quotation of the Old Testament. He only uses allusions. This means that his writing, his thoughts, his spirituality literally bleeds with an deep, abiding knowledge of the Scriptures.

John didn’t just look up passages that supported his point. And he didn’t memorize a few powerful proof texts to argue and impress. He knew the Scriptures. He lived the Scriptures. The words of God were a part of him that couldn’t help but flow from his pen. The Spirit of God used that embedded knowledge and wisdom to enable John to write a book that contains more illusions than verses.

Access vs. Process

But what about us? You and I have access to dozens of English translations of the Bible, and we have the most powerful search capacities the Church has ever known – right in our pocket computers.

And yet, I would wager that we know much less of the Scriptures than any generation of believers. We have access to the Bible, but we do not know the Bible.

Accessible knowledge can be searched, analyzed, and mashedup, but it cannot transform the heart, mind, and soul. The accessible Bible is merely information. That information can only become knowledge and wisdom when it has been memorized, internalized, mediated upon, and lived.

And until we do that, we’ll never be able to write as John wrote.

How Technology Changed the Book of Common Prayer

The first chapter of Brad J. Kallenberg’s excellent book God and Gadgets opens with the following passage from the 1790 version of the Book of Common Prayer. He tells the reader to “watch for a surprise,” so please, watch for it.

Almighty and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being; we, Thy needy creatures, render Thee our humble praises, for Thy preservation of us from the beginning of our lives to this day, and especially for having delivered us from the dangers of the past night. For these Thy mercies we bless and magnify Thy glorious Name, humbly beseeching Thee to accept this our morning sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for His sake who lay down in the grave and rose again for us, Thy Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. (577)

Did you find it? Does anything in this prayer seem out of place?

Kallenberg writes,

Look again: “…especially for having delivered us from the dangers of the past night.” This phrase sounds childish even, as if the pray-er is still afraid of the dark. What’s going on here? … I have a hunch–but you’re probably not going to like it. The single most important difference between their lives and ours, between their prayers and ours, between their Christianity and ours, lies in the fact that we have electric lights. The Book of Common Prayer eventually dropped the line about dangers of the night. (2)

Interesting, right? If you think about your own life, is there anything you no longer pray for because of technology… or anything new that you pray for now only because of technology?

This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

Beyond Facts

Take a look at these two sentences

Those two people are married.


I now pronounce you man and wife.

Think for a minute – what’s the difference between the two?

The first is simply a statement about the way things are. But the second one is something more than a statement – it’s an action. When a minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he’s not telling us they are married, he’s actually joining the two people together. Continue reading This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

I Marginalize My Father Through Technology

I have not sent an email to my dad in more than 6 years.

We’re not facebook friends, he doesn’t follow me on twitter, and he doesn’t get updates about our kids.

This is not because I don’t love him or because I never see him or because never talk to him. No, the reason is as simple as it is tragic – my dad is not legally allowed to use the Internet (for reasons I will not discuss here).

Practically, this meant that when our children were born, I could not immediately share a photo of them with him. Just hours after they were born, our friends saw photos of our kids through facebook and email. But it wasn’t until several weeks later when the craziness slowed down, that I took the time to print the photos, put them in an envelope, take them to the post office, and put them in the mail drop.

It took forever.

Likewise, when I write articles that I’m proud of, I have to make physical copies of the pages, … put them in an envelope, … take them to the post office … and so on.

Sometimes I never get around to it.

As I said, we talk on the phone, and he comes to visit every now and again, but sadly my dad is disconnected from the daily events of my life that I share online with so many others so easily. I am a citizen of the Internet, and that is where and how I share much of my thoughts, ideas, and work. But my father – the one whom I am commanded to honor – cannot enter into that world and is not permitted to speak its language.

What Would You Do?

Imagine for a moment about what it would be like to have one of your most important relationships severed technologically. How would you relate to a person that cannot use the mediums with which you are most familiar? How do you love someone that cannot communicate in your language?

Would it be worth the effort to reach back in technological time to connect with them?

While the technological “disconnect” most people experience is probably not as literal as what has happened between my dad and me, I think it’s also possible to create a gradual separation just by using mediums that those close to us do not. My guess is that over time many of our relationships become severed not by design or intention, but simply because of “medium drift.” Even my own wife, a vastly more intelligent and lovely person than myself, sometimes resorts to checking my various social media outlets to see what I’ve been up to and find out things I have neglected to share in person.

In such cases, I’ve let my fascination with new technological mediums determine the order of my loves. When I run to the latest tools and pour too much of myself into them, I leave others behind. Instead of actively and intentionally deciding which of my relationships matter the most, and then acting out of that priority, I allow my tools to dictate who knows what about me.

So my recommendation would be to take a few moments and make a list of the relationships that are most important to you. Then consider how you communicate and spend time with those people and see if that is out of sync with how much time you spend communicating online to people you barely know through mediums you personally enjoy.

Speaking of which, I’ve just spent 20 minutes writing this post to a lot of people I don’t know personally which reminds me – I need to go call my dad.

1st Law of Internet Communications

A few days ago I was doing some research on creating and parsing CSV files, and I came across something called the “1st Law of Internet Communications” which was coined by Jon Postel, an early pioneer of the technology behind today’s web. It reads

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.

What it means for programmers

This phrase has a very specific meaning in the programming world. It means that when you attempt to produce data in a certain file type, you should be as accurate as possible even if you can cut corners, but when you’re reading files you should account for all kinds of problems the file might have and still accept it.

For example, in HTML you can write either <table id=”mystuff”> or <table ID=mystuff>, but Postel’s law says that you should produce the most narrow, accurate, conservative version which is <table id=”mystuff”>. However, when you’re making a program that reads HTML, you should be willing to accept both <table id=”mystuff”> and <table id=mystuff> and even totally wrong things like <table mystuff>. A narrow program would thrown an exception in that case and stop everything, but a good program should be able to overlook problems and inconsistencies and still get the job done.

What it means for everyone else

Postel’s law shouldn’t just apply to coding, however. It’s also a great guideline for human to human communication. We should seek to be as clear and accurate as possible in what we say, but when we are listening, we should not expect the same from others.

Sometimes people have a hard time communicating whether it’s in person or via electronic media. Rather than throwing an “exception” and stopping everything when someone’s data doesn’t meet our specs, we should work really hard to be able to accept and understand as much as possible of what a person is saying.

Be liberal in whom you accept, be conservative in what you believe.