Why Are Relationships Thin in the Digital Age?
This week we are joined on the Ask Pastor John podcast by Dr. Richard Lints, the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Main Campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, just a short drive north of Boston. Dr. Lints is also the author of a book that releases this winter titled Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion, which is published in Don Carson’s silver series, New Studies in Biblical Theology.
And, Dr. Lints, as you mentioned earlier, connecting with others in community is essential for us to understand who we are. By definition, our identity must be found outside of us. We talked about this on Monday in episode 674. So what do our digital communities offer — or not offer — us to this end of discovering who we are?
I think we are a little early in the revolution to know for sure. There are surely enough hints to tell us that relationships that are simply digital relationships online are pretty thin and not substantive. Now that is not always the case. And I want to be careful that we don’t overgeneralize here.
Yearning for More
Broadly speaking, the sheer number of relationships that we are given and granted access to by virtue of living in the digital age means that none of them can be very thick. None of them can be very rich. The result of this is that we live on the surface of each other’s lives. And so there was a season, I want to say five to seven years ago, where we thought Facebook would eventually be replaced. Those that had grown up with Facebook were beginning to recognize that it was all about image and impression and very thin slices of other people’s lives.
The strange thing is that it actually hasn’t gone away. It actually has mutated and migrated. People at different ends of the age spectrum, the grandparent stage as well as the teenager stage, are even more addicted to it, the statistics suggest. So what we recognize is that living on the surface of our lives can be very attractive because it appears not to be very costly. We don’t really have to wrestle with the deep things. But it is also deeply unsatisfying.
So we are always expecting something more, and like an idol that doesn’t deliver on its promises, instead of abandoning the idol, we actually keep going back to it, hoping that it will give us more. And so there is this critical exchange that takes place between ourselves and the world around us. We keep yearning for it to deliver something it can’t deliver, and so rather than returning to the living God as the source of our safety and our security, we keep going back and asking it to do more for us.
And so, again, I want to be cautious of saying Facebook is somehow evil, that our smartphones are fundamentally destructive. It is the dynamic that we allow them to play that is more nearly my concern.
So much of life online is crafting and preserving a reputation of ourselves. We offer our online world an edited version of ourselves. How does this relate to idolatry and identity?
What a great question. How do we create identities? Most of us are aware of this dynamic of creating an impression, a reputation. We are acutely aware in our cultural context of what other people think of us. We compare ourselves to others. I think that has always been true. But the speed with which that takes place in our lives is enormously faster than it once was.
So we are aware how fragile our identity is if we are constantly comparing ourselves to a changing world, to changing relationships — to not simply a finite set of friends, but to a virtually infinite set of acquaintances online. And there is always somebody that is going to do something better than what you can do; I don’t care what it is, there is always somebody. Therefore, if that is the comparison, you are always going to have some sense of insecurity.
And the question is: How do you deal with those insecurities? How do you deal with that sense of safety? And I think it is not a dilemma here — let me sound as pessimistic as I can — that we are ever going to solve on this side of eternity. It is part of a fallen world. But the optimism here and kind of heading toward the gospel now is that grace actually turns that dynamic upside down to its original yet better form. And so the challenge of living in an online age is just the sheer rapidity, the overwhelming number of people that we can compare ourselves to and the number of impressions.
Struggle to the End
And so we are as guilty of this, as all the contemporary sociologists remind us, in the evangelical world. We are, in fact, really good in the evangelical world of creating celebrities, creating impressions, creating images that are crafted and which undermine our senses of significance and security. So we want to be very careful. Those of us who are oriented to the gospel, oriented to see God as the living God, we are also prone to our own forms of idolatry.
Not uncommon, if you read the Scriptures, is that it is God’s people that often come under the sharpest indictment of idolatry. And so we need to be careful as well that somehow the impression we give to people is that if you come to Jesus, if you reckon with your own brokenness, that will, therefore, end this dynamic of idolatry. It doesn’t. It surely reminds us that our Savior is not ourselves. It does lie outside of us.