How is Facebook and Twitter, and our online habits, changing us? This continues to be an unresolved question that presses for clarity. And it’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh. Bruce is a historian and the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. In my research on the life and theology of John Newton I depended on his groundbreaking research, which was published in his landmark book John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition.
Bruce joins us now over the phone. Bruce, you’re a historian, focused on the spiritual life, and you are willing to address how technology influences the Christian life today. And for the next three days I want to focus on this and bring your very unique perspective to it all. So we, of course, live in an age of technological advance, with all its glory, and its conveniences, and its consequences. Digital communication technology — email, texting, and social media like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook — all of it is relentless it seems. So how do you think this culture of digital technology harms or hinders the spiritual life of the Christian today?
Yeah, that is a really, really important question. In many ways it’s an important discipleship question of our time, and I wish there was more writing being done and more thinking being done about this. My colleague Craig Gay is working on a book on this subject and I am really looking forward to what he is going to say about it.
But I think one of the things we have to do, first of all, is pay attention to form as well as content. And there is a lot of good, intelligent books about this kind of thing, about how the medium is part of the message, and that the medium is not neutral. It is not just an envelope, and you can just throw the same content in any old envelope and it is the same thing. So I think part of that is reframing how we are thinking so we can think well about discipleship. And the benefits are obvious, and you mentioned some of them: the conveniences, the accessibility, the flexibility, the unbelievable resourcefulness, the instant nature of the communication, and the resources that are available.
Because those are so obvious, I would rather sound the note of some of the dangers and to the spiritual life of screen communication and communicating through screens and through the digital envelope. People will be all too familiar with these, and some of these are widely known, but the first one is distraction. Our spiritual condition is one of having spiritual ADD. And we’re all easily distracted from the important issues of our lives, moment by moment.
But the nature of digital communication is that we are endlessly distracted. And if that was true prior to the advent of social media — there is enough in the digital world to be distracting us already— then it’s all the more true in terms of notices and updates. The Apple Watch has just been released, so on your very wrist you can have all of your notifications and so on. So one risk to think about is distraction — having a disbursed consciousness. I remember one of my teachers saying there are some things in the spiritual life you need to be reminded of every six minutes and to be “recollected” is the old word for this — to be recollected that we are in the presence of God, to be living intentionally, living out of a calm center spiritually. I think that is heart.
Another one is trivialization of communication. And I think that there is a lot of communication that is atomized and is trivial. And it is not that there aren’t very serious things done. But if we think, it is hard to imagine the Oxford book of emails or the Oxford book of text messages. There is just something about the media that does allow a trivialization. I think we need to be aware of that. And it is not that profound things can’t be written in the digital age.
I think there is an atomization of knowledge where in the digital world things are literally, like at the level of a code, are broken up into atoms. And it means it is harder and harder to see how things are connected to wholes, how things are integrated, how this particular insight is a part of God’s world and is connected to a whole way of seeing the world instead of just its fragments. We experience the world as fragments. And we don’t understand how this has to do with everything else.
There is a loss of hierarchies of knowledge. There are many ways today that hierarchy seems like a bad word, but it used to be that, if I wanted to publish something — just the expense of publishing — means that my proposal goes through a peer-review process. It goes through rigorous scrutiny, and there are many people who are examining what I have to say prior to it being released.
There are all sorts of good things about being able to directly get one’s message out. But the loss of hierarchies is potentially a loss of filtering. It is a loss of wisdom. It means that knowledge is not a part of a system of apprenticeship where there is an apprenticeship, there is a learning from those who have experience in wisdom, who have been entrusted and authorized. And so there is a way that we have lost that ability to see things in terms of how they relate to trusted authorities.
There is a danger of posturing and image posturing in the digital world. Everybody is happy on Facebook. And everybody seems to have a better life than I do. And a long, long time ago, at the beginning of the modern period, there was a fellow named Jürgen Habermas who just wrote about how — even with the beginnings of periodical press, periodical literature, and the expansion of print media — there was a new kind of way of understanding one’s self. He says that we have an audience-oriented sense of self.
We understand ourselves as communicating to an audience. And anybody who has been on Facebook understands that, all of a sudden, you are just constantly thinking about communicating to an audience. And there is something about that that can be very damaging to realism.
Then there’s thin rather than thick communication. It is like you are communicating through a pipeline. The worst kind of committee meeting that I have been a part of is the meeting by conference call. You have thin communication. You don’t get the feedback — the three-dimensional feedback — and all the richness of communication of being face to face, all the nuances and so on.
And most important — you can forget all the rest of those as if that wasn’t a large enough list — is the disembodied relationships, the disembodiment. And I think that is the most significant thing. This is a lonely world we are in. For all of the friends we have on Facebook, this is a lonely world. I can’t raise my children by Skype. Bodies — being present bodily to each other — is so important. Bodies are not what define the limits of my autonomy. My body defines the extent of my availability. It is my body that allows me to be present to give and receive love. And having a body is what makes me available to others and makes them available to me. And this digital world of not now, not you, and not here is disembodied.
And so I think that one of the most radical things we can do as Christians right now in this world is face-to-face communication — preferably around a dinner table, around a meal. There’s such a richness in that. It is no accident, I think, that Christ left us with a meal in the upper room. But meeting face to face around a meal is actually a radical context for discipleship, I think. I think those are formal dangers. The dangers I am most concerned about are formal.
Wisdom for a Digital World
The dangers in terms of content, I think, the principle danger — and there are many — is pornography. It is an unprecedented pornographic world. And the combination of pornography and privacy and no cost is so dangerous. We have yet to see the impact of that factor on a whole generation worldwide.
So I think there is a certain kind of ebullience for many evangelicals, a certain kind of optimism and gung ho. We always want to use the latest tools to communicate the gospel, and that is fantastic. And that has been true from earliest days. But I think we have to be very intelligent and thoughtful about discipleship in this environment and what it means for people to be formed in this environment.
And I think these are early days. As a historian, I have to say these are really early days, and I am optimistic that through the wisdom of the church — the wisdom of Christian people — we will find ways to live. This is God’s world. And nothing about the Internet surprised God. God is present in the digital world, and he will redeem this world, and people will be able to act redemptively in this context. I think these are early days for discovering what wisdom looks like.