Perhaps it may look suspicious for a blogger, the ultimate purveyor of virtual life and literature, to write about our worldwide digital dilemma. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do today.
There was a time in early 2021, a year into the Covid pandemic here, when I wondered, “Am I the only person left in Chile who misses doing church in person? Or even remembers what it was like?” I’m sure I couldn’t have been, of course, but the little video tiles of our “Thumbnail Fellowship Church” definitely seemed more riveting than real people to some.
At one point during our two-and-a-half years of restrictions, I was sorely tempted to rebel with a Zoom strike or a YouTube fast. Little by little, rules were modified and eventually dropped (for the most part). Still, now that it’s basically over, the digital dilemma continues.
The power of electronic technology and social media has invaded our private world and in many cases dominates our lives. We have become occupied territory. Digital drones and clones spy on, sabotage, and otherwise manipulate our relationships, time and attention, and self-image.
Not a Friend in the World
Don’t tune me out! I’m really not a hopeless holdout from the last century. I’ve done most of my correspondence via email since before the turn of the millennium. I have a 15-year-old Facebook account with 679 “friends” from around the world (as of today). And I even dabble on Instagram, a considerable accomplishment for someone my age. (Excuse me while I answer a text message.)
So, the digital dilemma I speak of here is my own. No way I’m ranting about the youth. The challenge affects us all. When I’m tempted to whine about “these shallow, mediocre people,” more often than not I’m bemoaning my own lack of depth too.
See, despite the hundreds of Facebook contacts, sometimes I feel like I haven’t many real friends.
And you know what’s even worse to admit? Some days I don’t even care.
“We are so used to spiritually mediocre days—lived in irritation, fear, self-occupation and frenzy.” –John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of
That’s kind of scary to realize. In 2010 Zadie Smith’s essay Generation Why? discussed the (then) budding Facebook culture and predicted our present digital distortion of life experience and personal connections. The disease is full-blown now, the monster full-grown.
The digital dilemma represents our diminished interest in real life, real people, real friends. Or even real education and real spiritual food, since many of us have come to prefer the perfectly choreographed classes and sermons online.
Doing church in the Zoom generation has distorted our concept of Christian life and fellowship as well. My church surely strays from the average, but once, attendance was counted in the number of silhouette icons on the screen. Failure to respond to a WhatsApp message becomes a much greater ministry crisis than the lack of physical or even mental presence. We show concern with praying hands and other stickers.
On the other hand, I can participate in everything at my leisure. Relationships don’t inconvenience me. In this virtual reality, I both see and show only what I allow. While that does provide a measure of protection from the daily invasions, it also erects barriers between us.
“Being underattached doesn’t allow the intimacy necessary for healthy discussions or growth-promoting conflict. If we are too distant from commitment or church, or if we only rely on virtual connections, the depth and breadth of our faith are at risk.” –Liz Ditty, God’s Many Voices
A Chilean friend surprised me when she said she didn’t believe living on our phones was healthy. Huh. Ya think? But that’s a revolutionary idea for some.
For a blip of (pre-Facebook) time in the mid-2000’s, a Chilean site called Fotolog existed where you could post one photo a day. One measly photo, but we actually looked at and enjoyed our friends’ pictures in those days. Then suddenly everyone was down on poor Fotolog and up with Facebook.
Even further back, we used to call our friends and talk for hours if we hadn’t seen each other for a while. And I suppose some even remember writing (paper!) letters and sending cards for special occasions. All that takes too much effort these days, apparently.
“The biggest deception of our digital age may be the lie that says we can be omni-competent, omni-informed, and omni-present… We must choose our absence, our inability, and our ignorance—and choose wisely.” –Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy
The real time and concentration suckers are today’s media (phones, Netflix, Internet, FB, and other websites). John Mark Comer facetiously misquotes Psalm 16:8 as “I have set the phone [instead of the Lord] always before me…” He says the current generation touches their phones an average of 2,617 times a day. In Level Up!, Rochelle Melander cites phone usage at 16 minutes of every 60.
Here’s a digital dilemma:
What could you do with all that time if you cut social media or TV by just half?
Or a better question, what couldn’t you do? Ouch.
“…It is difficult not just to think about God or to pray, but simply to have any interior depth whatsoever… We are more busy than bad, more distracted than nonspiritual, and more interested in the movie theater, the sports stadium, and the shopping mall and the fantasy life they produce in us than we are in church.” –Ronald Rolheiser
In 1½ hours a day (little more than half what we spend on phone/net surfing), we could read around 200 books a year, depending on reading speed and book length. It sounds astounding.
Instead of a daily 20 minutes of Candy Crush or Sudoku, we could pray for everyone in our congregation. In half an hour less of Netflix a night, we could read through the entire Bible this year.
And what about this challenge? In the 10,000 hours the average video gamer spends by age 21, you’d have enough time to learn almost any skill, even earn a master’s degree in something.
Droplet Gift #46: I want to focus on the important and worthwhile rather than the clamor, and go deeper with Jesus.
In all the distractions and demands on our awareness, I think on the bottom line we’re…
Looking for Love
Or “likes” will do. We have an almost insatiable need for attention and approval. Some of my digital dilemma is part of the old high-school popularity competition, I’m sure.
During our pandemic Zoom get-togethers in Chile, we learned to recognize our friends without makeup. Sometimes the camera accidentally captured shots of warts or bellies! Occasionally we heard disembodied voices and glimpsed faceless backgrounds. Or stared back at our own faces.
“For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.” –John Ortberg
Maybe that lack of pretense let in a breath of fresh air from our constant attempts to impress. But more than authencity, I think we had fallen so out of touch with each other that the connections didn’t feel quite real.
And they definitely weren’t enough.
The other day I read how the Pharisees of Jesus’ time “…love greetings in the marketplace…” (Luke 11:43, ESV) In the marketplace! I couldn’t help but be reminded of thumbs up and five stars and Amazon algorithms.
I don’t know about you, but how I crave to be appreciated, validated, patted on the back. This same hunger drives us to pursue the unhealthy comforts of food, alcohol, shopping, technology, and even dysfunctional relationships. These distractions keep us busy but satisfy only a little.
Dear God, reassure our hearts with Your voice, Your presence.
The theme of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is better than angels, priests, sacrifices, etc. Know what? Jesus is also better than spouses and children, houses and lands, or cars or vacations or new outfits.
Jesus outshines FB likes or shares or comments or book reviews or sales. His words of approval outweigh everybody else’s. If only we could get that.
Scrambling to catch up on fellowship with others, standing on our heads trying to get noticed in an oblivious world, we’ve missed meeting with and hearing from God. The digital dilemma—Which reality do we connect with?
Lord, don’t take me home… until I’ve loosed my grip on everything but You.