Audio transcript

Welcome back to a new week of episodes on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Last Friday, in episode 577, we talked about the dangers inherent with digital communications technology. I think we all sense this topic is important, and yet we really don’t know and understand all the dangers at this stage. Technology of course is wrapped up into all of our lives. We are using it right now.

I’m on the phone again with Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh, a historian and the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bruce, most of us simply cannot disconnect and become digital monks. So we need to master the art of technology fasting. What are some practical helps for doing this well?

I think that is really good and I want to talk a little bit about the fasting, because I think that is the right kind of way to begin to think and reframe this. I think the first thing we need to do in our churches and in our discipleship context is to do what you have just done, which is to name it — to name the task and to acknowledge it, because it can become invisible. It is the environment you live in. We need to acknowledge that we are going to do experiments with disciplines, with practices that help us live in this world and see what helps.

I would actually like to make a call for some people to be digital monks and some people to be digital hermits — to preserve and report back what it is like to live another way. It won’t be long, says the historian, until we have no one left who will be able to remember what it was like to live before computers or to live before the Internet. We will have no one left who has been formed in their mind and heart and their habits by another reality. Just as it is good to have some astronauts who can report back what it is like to live in another reality, there may be some people who actually are called to be digital hermits to see how far they can unplug and live that way. Not everyone, but some people.

And then what is not required for all people at all times should still be relevant to all Christians at some times and that is like fasting. I think that is a great model saying no to something good to say yes to something better, checking that we have not become addicted and enslaved and making space for God. Here is where realistic practices that limit the dangers of the technology and seeing what is going to be helpful in their own discipleship will help. Once we recognize the need for it, I think there is lots of room for experimenting. I have a friend who is a college professor. He doesn’t check his email until 4:00 p.m. That is his rule of life. He doesn’t check his email until 4:00 p.m. And one day a week he works in a coffee shop type environment so he can meet face-to-face with students and they know he is available. They don’t have to just email him.

I have another friend, a senior scholar, whose rule of life is that he checks his email twice a day, but no more. I put away my smart phone and shut down my email on Sundays to have one day a week when I fast a little bit digitally. Some people will need to put their smart phone in another room than their bedroom so it is not the first thing they look at in the morning. They can begin with prayer and Bible reading and have a space for that rather than immediately jumping on digital media.

I think it is also important to say no to some things in order to say yes to something else, to have what has been called focal practices. So maybe while one gives up email, one chooses to write a letter to somebody with pen and ink and paper. It is a wonderful way to try to say something that has a different kind of impact. Garrison Keillor called this handmade writing. But there are other focal practices that put us in touch with creation and with our bodies and with other people, walking outdoors with loved ones, gardening, reading a book, slow food, taking time to make a meal over a long period of time, focal practices that actually reground our lives and do a lot of good things.

I think we can use technology to limit technology. Use reminders to shut off the phone and pray. I think probably everyone should have filtering and accountability software of some kind on their computers and their phones and their devices. I think it is also important to note that our digital world is not by default secular. So we need ways of acknowledging that, in my world of email and texting and Facebook, it is not simply a secular world. God is there. Scripture and prayer and Christian fellowship — all the things that constitute the Christian life — are present in my digital world. I don’t just leave that as an alien world to God. He is there.

One of the most important focal practices that Christians could do along with some element of saying no while fasting, at least from time to time, is to recommit ourselves. We need to reinvigorate the practice of eating, of sitting down at a meal together with those that you love and opening the table to friends and neighbors. I just heard a lecture yesterday on a fellow talking about Christianity and Islam and the conclusion to his lecture was: Invite somebody, invite a Muslim into your home for a meal. As a long time missionary to the Muslim world, he thought that the most radical thing you could do is show hospitality, listening to somebody’s story face-to-face. He said, “I guarantee by the end of the conversation they will ask you about your religion and ask you about your faith. I have seen it time and time again.”

I was concerned when our kids were at the junior high and high school age that we hadn’t established a practice that I had experienced in my own family growing up of actually reading the Bible and praying together as a family. Life is so busy and everybody is pulled every direction. So my wife and I committed ourselves to getting up early in the morning before our kids and making a really big hot breakfast. And it was going to be bacon and eggs or it was going to be pancakes or it was going to be homemade scones — but making a really nice big breakfast for the kids. And in the context of gathering around this meal in the morning, we read the Scripture and pray together.

I am so grateful that our children, who are adults now, will have some memory that we did this tradition. And I wish we had done it longer and done it more. So I think we need to give attention to the ways in which it is not just saying no to some of the things, but it is actually reinvigorating other things that are very life-giving and that reground our discipleship.

is the James M. Houston professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver.