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Your smartphone can not save you

February 4, 2020 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

During January and February, I will be using this space to interact with the ideas put forward in David Zahl’s book Seculosity: How career, parenting, technology, food, politics, and romance became our new religion and what to do about it. Chapter 4 is entitled “The seculosity of technology.”

What a difference my smartphone has made for good in my life. It has helped me remember appointments and tasks, stay on track with my personal habits and disciplines, connect quickly with my family and friends, and redeem my down time by giving me quick access to edifying Kindle books, audiobooks and podcasts.

What a difference my smartphone has made for bad in my life. It continually seeks to enslave me to its notifications and interruptions. It has made it so much harder to sustain attention on anything important, from praying to reading to even driving. And it pulls me away from giving my family and friends my undivided love and attention when I am with them.

David Zahl’s book Seculosity is written with the premise that our culture has not become less religious as church attendance has declined; rather, we have transferred our religiosity to the things of this world. We continue to need to know that we are justified, that we are “enough” just as we are. But instead of receiving that identity from the God who gave His only Son for our sins and freely gives us His righteousness (Romans 3:21-24), we instead look to our work, our love life, our children, and yes, even our technology to give us our value. Zahl argues that this happens in two primary ways:

Firstly, our technology affirms our enoughness. As we add apps to our phone, we create a device that exists to serve our needs, to give us greater control over our lives, and to make us more knowledgeable. If we engage in social media, we use our technology to curate a picture of ourselves online designed to get people to see us as beautiful, intelligent, accomplished, or whatever other identity we are trying to project. As we listen to the voices we allow to speak to us (and keep out the others), we are affirmed in our view of the world. Through our technology, our lives become increasingly quantified and measured in likes, shares, views, steps walked, and goals achieved. And in the end, we continue to look to our devices and the input we receive from them to convince us that we are enough, that we matter, that our lives have value.

Secondly, our technology distracts us from our non-enoughness. With its ever-present distractions, our smartphone and other devices keep us from silence, from reflection, and from dealing with our hurt, our pain, and our fears. As David Foster Wallace wrote, “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention.” Many of us have developed a low-level anxiety that comes from not having our smartphones within reach – we stare at them when we are walking outside, sitting at a red light, and even when we are in the bathroom. Why can’t we simply walk – or sit – in silence? Why do we have a need for constant entertainment or distraction? What are we so afraid of encountering in the silence?

One of the tensions of the modern church worship service is that we live in an increasingly technology-addicted culture that expects to be entertained and stimulated at all times. The temptation is to ramp up the church service by adding bright lights and loud noise and flashy videos in order to grab people’s attention and feed our addiction. What the church offers, however, can be so counter-cultural: a time to turn off the devices, to be still, and to be emotionally and spiritually exposed before a holy God. No curating and no distracting; simply the boring, painful, but ultimately transformative experience of bringing our whole selves – our pain, our sadness, our longings, and our fears – in worship and surrender to God. We sit with our brothers and sisters. We listen, we remember, we meditate, and we pray. And as we do this, we come to know Him and be known by Him, and we are reminded of what our technology has failed to deliver to us: that because of Christ’s death on the cross for us, we are indeed justified and made right with God. In His love, we are enough.

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