A Modest Proposal for a Digital World
A few years ago, a group of cognitive and behavioral psychologists took five hundred college students, split them into three groups, and gave them two tests. The groups were alike in every way except one: the placement of their phones. The first group had their phones screen-down on the table; the second had their phones in their pockets; the third didn’t have their phones at all. You probably can see where this is going.
Though the phones of all three groups were on silent, and though few students said they felt distracted by their phones, the test scores followed an inverse relationship to the nearness of the device. On average, the closer the phone, the lower the grade. Nicholas Carr, who discusses this study in the 2020 afterword to his book The Shallows, summarizes the psychologists’ troubling conclusion:
Smartphones have become so tied up in our lives that, even when we’re not peering or pawing at them, they tug at our attention, diverting precious cognitive resources. Just suppressing the desire to check a phone, which we do routinely and subconsciously throughout the day, can debilitate our thinking. (230)
The finding — corroborated by similar studies — gives clear expression to the vague sense many feel: our phones shape us not only, perhaps not even mainly, by the content they deliver to us, but also by the mere presence of something so pleasing, so undemanding, so endlessly interesting. Smartphones, though small, exert a (subconscious) gravitational pull on our attention, drawing our thoughts and feelings into their orbit, even when their screens are dark.
“Smartphones, though small, exert a gravitational pull on our attention, even when their screens are dark.”
Which means, if Christians are going to heed the summons of Romans 12:2 in a smartphone age — “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” — we will need to do more than resist the false content on our phones. We will need to resist the false gravitational presence our phones so subtly exert upon us.
And to that end, we might find help from an ancient practice: Sabbath.
Our Intimate Companion
Before considering what the Sabbath might mean for our screens, take fresh stock of where we are. The smartphone entered the world in 2007; by 2011, most of us had one. Now, just over a decade later, most of us have a hard time remembering life without one. Screens have become ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable — digital Alexanders who conquered our consciousness overnight.
For many, our phones are the first face we see in the morning, the last at night, and by far the most frequent in between. We have become a sea of bent heads and sore thumbs, adept at navigating sidewalks and store aisles with our peripheral vision. Phones have become so thoroughly embedded with mind and body that many feel phantom vibrations and find their hand repeatedly twitching, unbidden, toward the pocket. As of two years ago, the average American spends at least half his waking hours on a screen (The Shallows, 227).
Where shall we go from this digital spirit? Or where shall we flee from its presence? If we ascend to heaven, airplanes offer WiFi. If we make our bed in darkness, something buzzes on the nightstand. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there 5G coverage will keep us within reach.
The stupendous prevalence of our phones may not be a problem if we knew a screen-saturated existence improved our quality of life and helped us follow Jesus more faithfully. Unfortunately, we have many reasons to think it doesn’t.
The irony has not escaped me that I am currently staring at a screen, and so (most likely) are you. Lest I saw off the branch I’m sitting on, let it be said: Our phones and other screens are gifts to thank God for. So much good can be done by them and through them. The need of the hour is not to shoot these wild stallions dead, but to tame them and harness their power.
But oh how they need taming. Jean Twenge, in her carefully researched book iGen, includes a graph that shows how much certain screen activities (like gaming, texting, and social networking) and certain nonscreen activities (like exercising, reading, and spending time with friends) contribute to teens’ happiness. She writes,
The results could not be clearer: teens who spend more time on screen activities . . . are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities . . . are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. (77–78)
And as with happiness, so with other categories of mental health: “More screen time causes more anxiety, depression, loneliness, and less emotional connection” (112).
“Though phones may serve our discipleship to Jesus in some ways, they can do so at great cost.”
As Christians, can we not testify to a similar correlation between screens and the spiritual life? Though phones may serve our discipleship to Jesus in some ways (such as by giving us easy access to Scripture and Bible-study tools), they can do so at great cost. Rather than help us meditate, they often interrupt, draw our attention elsewhere, and cultivate habits of cursory reading. Rather than help us pray, they often fill the blank spaces of our days. Rather than help us evangelize, they often cast our gaze downward as we walk past our neighbors.
Those with a robust biblical anthropology look on unsurprised at our phones’ detrimental effects. Are we not social creatures, made for a fellowship that goes deeper than pen and ink, screen and key (2 John 12)? Are we not embodied creatures, made to feast upon God’s world with all five senses (Genesis 2:7; Psalm 104)? Are we not intellectual creatures, made to think deeply and not just on the surface of things (2 Timothy 2:7)? And are we not, first and foremost, Godward creatures, made to live coram Deo (Colossians 3:17) and not coram smartphone?
Perhaps, in such a digital world as ours, some Christians can protect and grow their social, embodied, intellectual, Godward nature apart from taking some extreme countermeasures. To me, that effort feels like trying to sleep with the lights on: possible, but harder than it needs to be.
Enter the Sabbath. From the exodus onward, Israel’s Sabbath served as a weekly reminder of Reality. And not just a reminder of Reality (as if the Sabbath were merely a mental exercise), but a felt sense of it. God revealed himself as Israel’s restful Creator (Exodus 20:11) and rest-giving Redeemer (Deuteronomy 5:15). But given how deeply they had been shaped by work-obsessed Egypt, and given the bent of their own hearts toward restlessness, they needed a practice that would work their confession down into the nerves and sinews of the soul.
And so, God gave them the Sabbath, a day that shifted the gravitational center away from Egypt with its restless Pharaoh and toward Reality with its restful God, trading a seven-day workweek for God’s own six-and-one pattern (Genesis 2:1–3). As such, the Sabbath takes its place alongside Israel’s festivals and feasts, the psalmist’s day-and-night meditation (Psalm 1:1–2), Daniel’s kneeling prayer (Daniel 6:10), and Jesus’s morning solitude (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16) as a practice of disciplined resistance against the atmospheric influence of the world.
Now, how might we apply the Sabbath principle to our screen-addled, digitally saturated selves? The proposal is neither complicated nor novel: in order to resist the tug of your digital devices and live as a more present follower of Jesus, take a break from screens one day a week. Whether for a full 24 hours or for some other protected time, turn off the phone, close the computer, and plunge yourself into God’s created world, embodied and attentive to the people and places nearby. Call it a screen Sabbath.
The idea may sound extreme or impractical in a world where screens mediate so much of life. (No texts, emails, directions, podcasts, or camera?) Consider, however, not simply what you might lose on such a day, but also all you might gain.
Life off the Grid
What might happen if, for one day a week, you silenced the hum and darkened the glow of every device? If you knew you would hear no ding and feel no vibration? If every impulse to text, check, or divert were thwarted by an empty pocket? What might happen on such a day?
You might pull aside the curtains to a different glow, watching as the sun begins his morning run (Psalm 19:5). You might hear again voices so often drowned in the digital buzz: a cardinal singing from fencepost to branch, a hidden chorus of crickets, the meow of a neighbor’s stretching cat. Instead of drifting bodiless through the digital ether, you might dig your hands into the dirt or pound the paths of your allotted dwelling place (Acts 17:26).
Or maybe you would see your gruff neighbor, or the impatient parent at the park, as more than a two-dimensional stick figure, and instead begin to imagine the hopes and fears beating in their breast. Maybe such seeing would lead to speaking, and speaking to befriending, and befriending to praying and witnessing. Later, you might sit across the table from spouse, friend, or child and find the kind of undistracted inner quiet that plays host to quick hearing, slow speech (James 1:19).
Or you might discover new patience for Bible reading and prayer. Instead of glancing over the surface of a passage, maybe you would carefully turn over some of its stones, meditating like the blessed man and finding yourself blessed (Psalm 1:1–3). You might slow down as you respond to God’s words, perhaps for the first time in a long time laying your cares before him one by one (1 Peter 5:6–7). You might feel an exhale of the soul.
And when the time comes to turn the phone back on, you might find that you have carried some of this seventh-day rest with you.
Spirit of the Seventh Day
We should be wary of idealism, of course. A day without screens is still a day in a fallen world, a day when our flesh refuses to rest and we sometimes find, to our dismay, our attention scattered and our devotion to God shallow. Surely in ancient Israel the godly sometimes left the Sabbath day still restless. Over time, however, the weekly Sabbath did something to those who received it by faith: it slowly recalibrated them toward God-centered Reality, sending the restful spirit of the seventh day into the following six.
And so might a screen Sabbath. Taking disciplined time away from screens may not be the only way to live in the digital world without being conformed to it, but it is one good way. Over time, the gravitational pull of our phones may grow weaker, and we may find ourselves drawn into a different, far better orbit: the bright, life-giving sun of God himself.